Doris Miller got a hero’s welcome Thursday in his hometown of Waco, exactly 76 years after the Navy mess attendant crossed the color line to defend his ship at Pearl Harbor.
More than 200 people braved chilly winds and snow flurries at Bledsoe-Miller Park for the unveiling of the bronze statue of Miller, the hulking farmer’s son who became the first African-American to win the Navy Cross.
The statue has yet to be positioned at the heart of the Doris Miller Memorial that is now under construction at the riverside park and expected to be dedicated in May.
But the crowd was enthralled with artist Eddie Dixon’s nine-foot representation of Miller, standing at parade rest with a fierce gaze fixed on the horizon and the Navy Cross glittering on his chest.
“This is something that’s going to make Waco proud, make African-Americans proud, make everybody proud no matter your race,” said Alice Pollard, a retired schoolteacher.
Pollard brought a group of young children from a city recreation center to participate in the ceremony.
The audience included Miller’s relatives and aging crew members of the USS Miller, a frigate named for Doris Miller in 1972.
In a keynote speech, former Ambassador Lyndon Olson Jr. said the memorial will help unite the community.
“I think this is one of the most healing things we have done in this town for a long time,” said Olson, a major donor to the project. “It’s an honor for me to be associated with the legacy of Doris Miller.”
Olson recounted how his own family was touched by the kindness of Miller’s family. During the Great Depression, Olson’s grandmother lost her husband and was at a loss of how to work the family cotton farm in Speegleville by herself.
One day, three black men appeared at her door, including Conery Miller, Doris Miller’s father.
“They said, ‘Mrs. McLaughlin, we know you don’t have anything,’ ” Olson said. “ ‘We want you to know the three of us are going to put in your cotton, we’re going to pick your cotton and we’re going to see you through.’ ”
Doris Miller grew up plowing cotton fields, hunting and playing sports, and by the time he joined the Navy he stood 6-foot-3 and weighed 225 pounds. As a black man, he was relegated to the kitchen of the USS West Virginia, but he earned a reputation as the ship’s finest boxer.
In an interview, Dixon, the sculptor, said he tried to capture Miller’s fighting spirit and noble character in bronze.
“When I was thinking about his physique I was thinking that he worked on a farm and played football, so I put some farm muscles on him,” Dixon said. “I thought of what might motivate him to go into the Navy. … I guess growing up that time, if you were black, the best you could do was be a steward in the Navy. He was making his way through the world the best he could.”
Miller was collecting officers’ laundry around 8 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941, when Japanese planes attacked ships at Pearl Harbor, a date President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said “will live in infamy.”
After torpedo and aircraft fire sent the crew into chaos, Miller dragged wounded shipmates, including his captain, out of harm’s way, then took up his position at the machine guns and began firing at enemy aircraft, though he had never been trained to do so.
“As far as being a hero, I don’t think you can think about that,” Dixon said. “Sometimes you get in a situation and wonder, ‘What am I doing here?’ But you do it anyway.”
Dixon was eager to get Miller’s likeness right, and he brought in Miller’s relatives who knew him before he was killed in action in 1943.
“I said, look at this piece, and be as truthful as you can,” he said. “I’m so glad I captured that. You want to put as much expression as you can into the eyes. This was a proud moment for him.”