A Dallas-based congresswoman with ties to Waco is spearheading a national committee to push for a Medal of Honor to be awarded posthumously to local World War II hero Doris Miller.
U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, a Waco native, hopes to utilize the committee to push for legislation to give Miller the country’s highest military award for his bravery in combat at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
Miller was a mess cook aboard the USS West Virginia when the ship was attacked at Pearl Harbor. After his captain was shot by Japanese fighters, Miller carried him to safety, then manned a .50-caliber machine gun to shoot down enemy aircraft, despite having no formal weaponry training.
Miller also carried several other sailors to safety during the attack. He became the first black person to receive the Navy Cross, the second-highest recognition in the Navy, but supporters think his valiant efforts are worthy of the Medal of Honor.
Miller died in 1943 aboard the USS Liscome Bay when the ship was torpedoed in the Pacific Ocean.
In an email, Johnson’s communications director, Yinka Robinson, said the core of the group will consist of about 25 members, while she is hoping to gain up to 200 additional supporters.
Johnson aims to have the first full committee meeting this summer. Robinson said Johnson was unavailable to comment for this story.
McLennan County Commissioner Lester Gibson has been selected to serve on the committee, as well as DeSoto Mayor Carl Sherman and University of Texas-Arlington history professor Marvin Dulaney.
Gibson, also a Navy veteran, recalls seeing Miller’s Navy Cross in person at the Miller family home. He said the sailor also was an influence in his own decision to enlist in the Navy.
“As a young person, you get amazed, mesmerized and attached to a gentleman who did what he did in the Navy,” Gibson said.
“He met all that qualifies an individual for a Medal of Honor. You have national sentiment that he should be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, and I don’t think that effort is going to go away anytime soon.”
Various congressional leaders have mounted attempts to secure the Medal of Honor for Miller, from the initial attempt by U.S. Rep. John Dingell of Michigan in 1942 to former Rep. Chet Edwards of Waco’s District 17.
Incumbent District 17 Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan, also has been evaluating avenues to push for the award for Miller. Flores said Johnson asked him for support on the issue when he first joined Congress in 2011, and he intends to participate in the committee’s efforts.
“I support what she’s doing. I think it’s a great idea,” Flores said. “I respected the fact that she started the process before me, so I wanted to be supportive and not distracting to the process.”
Flores last year successfully authored legislation to have the Waco Veterans Affairs Medical Center renamed in Miller’s honor, a change that is expected to go into effect in a rededication ceremony later this year.
Flores said he hopes the hospital name change will help advance the case for a Medal of Honor award. But he acknowledges that there may be some hurdles in proving that Miller’s actions at Pearl Harbor mirrored the sort of acts completed by other Medal of Honor recipients.
“All of these people are heroes and all of them went above and beyond for the defense of their country, and many of them ultimately sacrificed everything for the country,” Flores said.
“You just have to look at the accounts of what folks have did that won the Medal of Honor and compare it to Dorie. Dorie is undoubtedly a hero, but then we need to make sure it fits the high standards of the Medal of Honor as well.”
Gibson said he thinks if legislators view Miller’s actions through his circumstances — taking aim at bomber planes when he had never been taught to handle a machine gun — most would agree that the mess cook deserves even greater recognition for his service.
“He was a cook, that was the only thing black folks could really get into at that particular time,” Gibson said. “He had to be very observant, because you don’t have knowledge of it and if you hadn’t observed it, you wouldn’t have been able to get up and use that weapon — he had to load it, aim, load it, aim — and he didn’t miss. He had to have been a remarkable man.”