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War hero, civil rights hero: New Doris Miller bio widens view of Waco sailor

Between the time he dragged his captain to safety and rescued shipmates from the burning, oil-slick waters of Pearl Harbor, Doris Miller grabbed an anti-aircraft gun and showered Japanese war planes with bullets.

He almost certainly didn’t hit any of those planes on Dec. 7, 1941, the “day of infamy” that lured the U.S. into World War II, a new book on Waco’s hometown World War II hero concludes.

But the authors argue that he accomplished something more momentous. The mess attendant’s heroic action that day served as a warning shot across the bow for African-Americans fed up with the military’s discriminatory policies, they say.

In “Doris Miller, Pearl Harbor and the Birth of the Civil Rights Movement,” historians T. Michael Parrish of Baylor University and Thomas Cutrer of Arizona State University present the first scholarly biography of Doris Miller, placing him in the context of a decades-long racial conflict.

Texas A&M University Press released the book Dec. 7, Pearl Harbor Day, the same day the statue for the Doris Miller Memorial in Waco was unveiled, lending new significance to that effort. Advocates for a posthumous Medal of Honor for Miller said the book could also bolster their case.

Parrish and Cutrer lay out how this quiet sharecropper’s son became a cause célèbre in the struggle to break down the walls of segregation in a Navy that had barred blacks from all but the most menial positions.

“This is the first examination of Doris Miller I’ve seen that treats him as something far more than just an icon, just a symbol of remarkable bravery,” Parrish said in an interview. “That deserves attention and should serve as an example to African-Americans and anyone else. But he was more than just a postage stamp.”

Parrish said that after Miller’s story and identity were revealed in early 1942, he briefly became the most famous African-American in the country, surpassing even fighter Joe Louis. Between that time and his death in action in the Pacific Ocean in December 1943, Miller’s story galvanized black newspapers and civil rights leaders to seek a Medal of Honor for him and wider opportunities for blacks in the military, Parrish and Cutrer show.

“My co-author and I were very surprised at what we found,” Parrish said. “The African-American press and several members of Congress, specifically white North Democrats who relied on support from African-American constituencies, insisted on identifying Doris Miller and having him properly awarded and then brought back to the U.S.”

Congressman Wilkie

Among the champions of Miller was Congressman Wendell Wilkie, who had previously challenged Franklin D. Roosevelt for the presidency. In March 1942, just before Doris Miller was identified as the black messman who dragged Capt. Mervyn Bennion to safety aboard the USS West Virginia, Wilkie cited him in support of desegregating the Navy.

Citing Miller’s “fine act of judgment and self-sacrificing courage,” Wilkie added, “there’s one fact we know positively and exactly: He cannot enlist in the United States Navy, and only for the reason that he was born with black skin.”

Navy Secretary William Franklin Knox, whom the authors characterize as a “blatant racist,” agreed to award Miller recognition only upon the urging of Roosevelt in May 1942. Knox opposed the Medal of Honor for Miller but agreed to the Navy Cross, at the time the third-highest honor in that branch of the military.

Parrish and Cutrer report that the Navy was notorious for its discriminatory policies well before World War II. Blacks had a served with distinction in all of the country’s wars, including the Civil War, when 15 percent of Union Navy sailors were former slaves.

But around the turn of the century, civil rights protections were rolled back for black Americans, and President Woodrow Wilson’s administration ended black enlistment in the Navy. By 1932, only 442 blacks served in the Navy’s ranks of 81,120. FDR reopened the branch to black enlisted men but consigned them to menial jobs. By 1939, only 2,400 black sailors served in the Navy, according to the book.

This was the Navy that Doris Miller joined, hoping to leave behind the hardships of his family’s life as sharecroppers in the Great Depression. But the Navy was no respite from the Jim Crow segregation he had known in Waco.

“It had been a Jim Crow institution for a long time,” Parrish said. “The Navy had a long tradition of undemocratic and abusive policies that it was trying to overcome. Doris Miller, by serving in the Navy, chose the most difficult challenge that an African-American could have in those days. The potential for disrespect, overwork, abuse and low pay was continual.”

But with the outbreak of the war, Uncle Sam needed sailors, and drafted them along with whites. Under public pressure, the Navy sent Miller back to the U.S. mainland in fall 1942 to sell war bonds and help recruit African-Americans for the war effort. While home in Waco, he confided to his father that the publicity had made his life “a holy hell” among his shipmates.

Still, he appeared to harbor hopes of continuing the fight for equality.

“I believe that young Negros will struggle for their full rights when this war is over,” he told a black California newspaper. “I know I will.”

Meanwhile, Secretary Knox was making piecemeal efforts to expand opportunities for blacks beyond mess attendant rank, though he would continue to oppose efforts to desegregate the Navy. Miller was promoted to cook, and in fall 1943 was deployed again to the Pacific aboard the escort carrier USS Liscome Bay.

USS Liscome Bay’s sinking

On Nov. 24, 1943, the carrier was cruising near Butaritari Island when a Japanese torpedo hit it. The torpedo detonated 200,000 pounds of bombs and ignited 120,000 gallons of fuel, killing most of the crew and causing the ship to sink rapidly. Miller was never found but was listed as “presumed dead.”

It took the death of Naval Secretary Knox the following year to see a major change in the Navy’s policies on black sailors. Under Secretary James Forrestal, the Navy’s personnel guide was revised to state that “the Navy accepts no theories of racial differences in inborn ability, but expects every man wearing its uniform to be trained and used in accordance with his maximum individual capacity.”

In 1948, under intense pressure from civil rights stalwart Asa Phillips Randolph, President Harry Truman ordered the desegregation of the U.S. military. It was the culmination of years of agitation by black activists, and a prelude to the successful civil rights battles of the 1950s and ‘60s, Parrish said.

Parrish said that in his way, Doris Miller was a hero for civil rights as well as the military, an example of “pressure applied by ordinary people to receive extraordinary results.”

The new book may seem to deflate one aspect of the Doris Miller legend: Despite media claims over the years that Miller might have shot down up to six war planes, Parrish and Cutrer say that there’s no evidence any gunfire from the USS West Virginia brought down aircraft.

“It’s very difficult to hit a moving target,” Parrish said this week. “The fact that he almost certainly did not shoot down any planes doesn’t matter. He was doing his duty as he saw it and displayed extreme bravery and coolness in helping drag his captain to safety.”

And he believes further honor for Miller is warranted, including the Medal of Honor.

“I personally do believe he deserves the Medal of Honor, and I look forward to the day when he finally does receive that great distinction,” he said. “He was engaged in hard combat rising to a level that was really unprecedented.”

Medal of Honor campaigns

National campaigns for such a medal, including efforts by Waco congressional delegates, have failed over the decades because the Navy hasn’t supported it. Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, said she continues to push for the medal as she has for a quarter-century. Johnson, a Waco native, knew Miller when she was a child and was inspired by his example.

“In Waco, Texas, there was overt discrimination, but that didn’t seem to discourage him,” she said. “He had the ability to rise above that as a loyal, committed citizen.”

Johnson said she hopes the new book will provide new insights that would help Naval officials reconsider their position on Doris Miller.

“I won’t give up as long as I’m in office,” she said. “We’re searching for anything new, any areas that have not been explored, something that would expand what we know or add some new approach.”

Parrish said a Medal of Honor would focus attention on Waco and the riverside Doris Miller Memorial, the first phase of which is set to open on Memorial Day 2018. Regardless, the memorial will keep Miller’s legacy alive, he said.

“I look forward to the day when people come from all over the world come to Waco to see it, when busloads of children from all over Texas come to spend a day in Waco to go to the memorial. … I think it will serve as an example to the rest of the country of what happen when communities come together and unify around a project that educates but also challenges.”

Perils abroad, full plate at home, as Trump opens 2nd year

PALM BEACH, Fla. — The glamour of his holiday break behind him, President Donald Trump is returning to Washington to face a hefty legislative to-do list, critical midterm elections and perilous threats abroad.

Trump is starting his second year in office after a lengthy sojourn at his private Palm Beach club, capped by a New Year’s Eve bash. Before his departure, he fired angry tweets at Iran and Pakistan, slamming Islamabad for “lies & deceit” and saying the country had played U.S. leaders for “fools,” a reference to frustrations that Pakistan isn’t doing enough to control militants.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif tweeted that his government was preparing a response that “will let the world know the truth.”

Meantime North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said Monday the United States should be aware that his country’s nuclear forces are now a reality, not a future threat. To that, Trump only said: “We’ll see.”

The president is hoping for more legislative achievements after his pre-Christmas success on taxes. He plans to host Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin at Camp David next weekend to map out the 2018 legislative agenda.

Republicans are eager to make progress before attention shifts to the midterm elections. The GOP wants to hold House and Senate majorities in 2018, but must contend with Trump’s historic unpopularity and some recent Democratic wins.

The president concluded 2017 with his first major legislative achievement — a law to cut taxes, beginning this year, for corporations and individuals at an estimated cost of $1.5 trillion added to the national debt over 10 years. The tax overhaul also will end the requirement, in 2019, that all Americans buy health insurance or pay a fine. That’s a key component of the Obama-era health law that that Republicans have been unable to repeal; other features of the law remain intact.

The White House has said Trump will come forward with his long-awaited infrastructure plan in January. Trump has also said he wants to overhaul welfare and recently predicted Democrats and Republicans will “eventually come together” to develop a new health care plan.

Ryan has talked about overhauling Medicaid and Medicare and other safety-net programs, but McConnell has signaled an unwillingness to go that route unless there’s Democratic support for any changes. Republicans will have just a 51-49 Senate majority — well shy of the 60 votes needed to pass most bills — giving leverage to Democrats.

Congress also has to deal with a backlog from 2017. It must agree on a spending bill by Jan. 19 to avert a partial government shutdown.

Lawmakers also have unfinished business on additional aid to for hurricane victims, lifting the debt ceiling, extending a children’s health insurance program and extending protections for immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children. Trump has said he wants money for a border wall in exchange for protecting those immigrants.

Trump spent his last day in Florida as he spent most other days — visiting his golf course and tweeting.

On Pakistan, he said: “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!”

It was not immediately clear why the president decided to comment on Pakistan. The U.S. has long accused Islamabad of allowing militants to operate relatively freely in Pakistan’s border regions to carry out operations in neighboring Afghanistan. In August, the United States said it would hold up $255 million in military assistance for Pakistan until it cracks down on extremists threatening Afghanistan.

On Iran, Trump kept up his drumbeat in support of widespread anti-government protests there. He tweeted Monday that Iran is “failing at every level” and it is “TIME FOR CHANGE.”

While some Iranians have shared Trump’s tweets, many distrust him as he’s refused to re-certify the nuclear deal that eased sanctions on the country and because his travel bans have blocked Iranians from getting U.S. visas.

2018 starts with record cold in parts of the Midwest

DES MOINES, Iowa — Bone-chilling cold gripped much of the middle of the U.S. as 2018 began Monday, breaking low temperature records, icing some New Year’s celebrations and leading to at least two deaths attributed to exposure to the elements.

The National Weather Service issued wind chill advisories covering a vast area from South Texas to Canada and from Montana and Wyoming through New England to the northern tip of Maine.

Dangerously low temperatures enveloped eight Midwest states including parts of Kansas, Missouri, Illinois and Nebraska along with nearly all of Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota.

The mercury plunged to a record-breaking minus 32 in Aberdeen, South Dakota, where the previous New Year’s Day record had stood for 99 years. In Nebraska, temperatures hit 15 below zero in Omaha before midnight Sunday, breaking a record low dating to 1884.

Omaha’s reading didn’t include the wind chill effect, which could plunge to negative 40 degrees, according to the weather service. Omaha officials cited the forecast in postponing the 18th annual New Year’s Eve Fireworks Spectacular that draws around 30,000 people.

It was even colder in Des Moines, where city officials closed a downtown outdoor ice skating plaza and said it won’t reopen until the city emerges from sub-zero temperatures. The temperature hit 20 below zero early Monday, with the wind chill dipping to negative 31 degrees.

Steam rose up from Lake Superior as a ship moved through a harbor where ice was forming in Duluth, Minnesota, where the wind chill dipped to 36 below zero. In northeast Montana, the wind chill readings dipped as low as minus 58.

Plunging overnight temperatures in Texas brought rare snow flurries as far south as Austin, and accidents racked up on icy roads across the state. In the central Texas city of Abilene, the local police chief said more than three dozen vehicle crashes were reported in 24 hours.

It’s even cold in the Deep South, a region more accustomed to brief bursts of arctic air than night after night below zero. Frozen pipes and dead car batteries were concerns from Louisiana to Georgia as overnight temperatures in the teens were predicted across the region by Monday night.

An Indianapolis woman was in critical condition after she became confused in the snow and ice and turned her vehicle the wrong direction, driving 150 feet on a retention pond before her vehicle fell through the ice, according to WISH TV. She managed to make an emergency call but the phone went dead when the ice cracked.

The Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s office said two bodies found on Sunday showed signs of hypothermia. They included a man in his 50s found on the ground in an alley and a 34-year-old man. Autopsies are being performed on both men.

Milwaukee’s annual Polar Bear Plunge at Bradford Beach on Lake Michigan Monday could be more dangerous than usual, a city official told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. The wind chill was expected to be about 9 below zero by the time of the event at noon.

“You’re going to get hypothermic,” said Milwaukee Fire Battalion Chief Erich Roden. “Everybody wants to do the polar plunge once in their life; it’s a bucket list item. Unfortunately, it’s something that can cause a lot of harm.”

Booted from the Alamo, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas kept treasured library

SAN ANTONIO — When the state fired the Daughters of the Republic of Texas as caretakers of the Alamo in 2015, the women’s group fought — and won — the right to keep a piece of the shrine that they considered sacred: an archive collection of 38,000 photographs, artworks, maps and manuscripts prized by Texas historians.

Now, after keeping the archives in storage for a year, the Daughters have settled their library into a new home just as San Antonio prepares to highlight the city’s history for its 300th anniversary in 2018. The Daughters of the Republic of Texas Library — which now lives at the Presidio Gallery in the Bexar County Archives Building downtown — includes everything from a map of the Austin colony hand-drawn by Stephen F. Austin to family documents and architectural blueprints about San Antonio’s people and buildings.

“It brings San Antonio back to what it used to be, what it used to look like, how it used to feel, almost what it used to smell like, there’s so much personality,” Barbara Stevens, the organization’s president, said. “When you look at the archives, it tells the story of early Texas, which is our mission and goal in life as the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.”

To become a member of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, women must prove they had ancestors in Texas prior to its annexation by the United States in 1845. Since the founding of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas in 1891, it has grown to include 7,000 members and 106 chapters in Texas and across the country.

The state granted the Daughters custodianship of the Alamo in 1905 after they advocated for the rescue of the decaying site, and its members developed the mission into a tourist site. Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, whose agency was given Alamo custodianship in 2011, took away the Daughters’ caretaker role after the state attorney general’s office found in an investigation that the group neglected maintenance at the mission and misused funds. (The Daughters called the report “outrageously inaccurate” and successfully sued the state for ownership rights of the archive.)

Brittany Eck, a spokeswoman for Bush, said she hopes the Alamo museum and the Daughters’ new library could collaborate on future exhibits.

“The new library is almost three times the size that was available to them on the Alamo complex, and I think many people are happy that it’s in a much larger space, particularly because of its magnitude of 38,000 items,” Eck said.

The new space in the Presidio Gallery of the Bexar County Archives Building was secured in a partnership with Bexar County and Texas A&M University-San Antonio. The building already houses county and university archives. The Daughters’ collection — which is managed by a longtime employee of the group, Leslie Stapleton, shares a floor with the county archives and also includes a basement vault.

Stevens said the Daughters hope San Antonio’s tricentennial celebration will bring new interest to the collection, which includes Samuel Maverick’s copy of the signed Texas Declaration of Independence and paintings by Theodore Gentilz. The San Antonio artist is known for capturing the lives of Mexican San Antonians in the 1800s with depictions of their homes and parties. Stevens said the archive’s rare artwork, the letters between family members and lovers, and the architectural papers paint a clear picture of the lives that used to make up San Antonio.

“The collection would have fit in at any of the universities,” Stapleton said. “It needed to stay in San Antonio and not go to Austin because it’s so San Antonio strong.”

Erika Arredondo-Haskins, a historian and member of the Daughters, can trace her family back to Domingo Bustillo, an early San Antonio mayor and a prominent political and military figure toward the end of Spanish rule and through the Republic of Texas.