About 100 people were on hand Monday for the Doris Miller Memorial groundbreaking ceremony at Bledsoe-Miller Park, witnessing the onset of a project honoring the World War II hero that has been four years in the making.
Waco Cultural Arts Fest commissioned the Doris Miller Memorial project in 2011. The memorial will be located on the east bank of the Brazos River.
“This is indeed a very great occasion and a very special day,” said Doreen Ravenscroft, who heads the group that is spearheading the memorial’s fundraising efforts.
Monday marked what would have been Miller’s 96th birthday, she said.
In 1942, Miller became the first black to be awarded the Navy Cross in recognition of several acts of valor during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, when he was stationed aboard the USS West Virginia.
The young mess attendant, barred by U.S. military policy from performing anything but menial labor, was doing laundry when the Japanese planes began to pummel the American ships and planes stationed in the Hawaiian harbor.
Miller rushed above deck and moved injured men to safety, including the ship captain, who later died.
Miller also manned a .50-caliber machine gun, on which he had no prior training, and fired on enemy aircraft with others on deck.
His bravery won him national fame and the Navy Cross, though Miller did not live to see the end of the war and the desegregation of the military.
He died in 1943 when the USS Liscome Bay was torpedoed in the South Pacific.
Ravenscroft has said the design for the $1.35 million memorial will include a bronze sculpture of Miller — which will be 150 percent of a life-size Miller — standing at the head of a stylized hull extending from the bank of the Brazos River.
It also will feature a space to display symbols of both the Navy Cross and the Medal of Honor, should Miller eventually be granted that recognition.
The group at Monday’s event, made up of state and city leaders, stood below a clear sky near the Washington Avenue Bridge.
“I’m here because it’s meaningful. Just to know that what he did is not forgotten,” said the Rev. Frank Montgomery, who said he is a cousin of Doris Miller. “I’m just excited they thought enough of him to let his memory live on. It’s a blessing.”
Montgomery is the senior pastor at Marshall Chapel Baptist Church in Waco.
Waco Mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr. said: “This really is a joyous day in this community. So many people have worked so hard (to make the memorial a reality).”
Officials emphasized that donations still are needed and being accepted to complete the project.
State Reps. Charles “Doc” Anderson, R-Waco, and Kyle Kacal, R-College Station, also were present Monday.
“Hundreds of people have worked on this for many years and they’re finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel,” Anderson said. “What a great gem this will be for this community.”
“Whatever we can do from our office, I’m just glad, honored and blessed to be a part of it,” Kacal said.
Baylor Law School Professor Gerald Powell said, “If there will be statues of heroes on the banks of the Brazos, there must be a statue of Doris Miller.”
He added: “Doris Miller made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. We are here today because of all of you.”
Ravenscroft said, “This is just the beginning. We want everybody to be involved in this incredible, historical moment.”
She said of the groundbreaking, “It’s a small, quick moment, but it’s a moment in history.”
The Doris Miller Memorial project got its last fundraising boost in August with a $325,783 gift from the Bernard and Audre Rapoport Foundation, Cooper Foundation and Waco Foundation.
The foundations’ gift was announced at an Aug. 13 fundraiser for Miller.
Ravenscroft said the three foundations’ most recent gift brought the total funds raised to $1.27 million toward the memorial’s $1.35 million cost.
The project got another fundraising boost earlier in August, with a $200,000 gift from the estate of a World War II veteran, the largest single gift until that point to support the initiative.
That gift came from Waco native William Travis Clarke Jr., who served under Gen. George Patton in the European theater of the war and went on to work as a pharmacist at the Waco Veterans Affairs Hospital that now bears Miller’s name. Clarke died in March, leaving the funds to support the construction of the public installation to further memorialize Miller’s actions during the attack at Pearl Harbor.