Today, Dec. 7, 2017, marks 76 years since Japan’s devastating surprise attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor Naval Base near Honolulu, Hawaii.
For many years, I have taken a personal interest in this day. I grew up in a family and in an instructive community environment where Pearl Harbor Day was a vivid reminder of an attack that, in some ways, brought our fractured nation together. I was also aware of a local WWII hero, Navy Mess Attendant 2nd Class Doris Miller.
Every year right before Pearl Harbor Day, our high school choir would start practicing Sammy Kaye’s “Let’s Remember Pearl Harbor,” which all of us would proudly bellow out. Though this song was not about Doris Miller, you would have had a hard time convincing any of us of that. We felt a special connection to our fellow alum, Doris Miller, whose monument greeted us each morning at the main entrance of the school. As soon as we entered the doors, there he was again in his Navy uniform, looking down upon us from his perch above the trophy case. Then, as now, we had many other reminders around us of our heroic Waco native in the community. We were proud that the story of Miller’s heroism was told and retold in African-American homes across the nation, justifying our part in America’s destiny and defense.
On that December morning in 1941, mess cook Doris Miller had finished serving breakfast aboard the USS West Virginia and was picking up laundry when he heard the alarm. When he found his battle station bombed, he went up on deck where he saw his mortally wounded captain. He moved him to safety, helped other injured sailors, then manned one of the anti-aircraft machine guns and began shooting Japanese planes firing down at the ship.
According to the senior surviving officer’s USS West Virginia action report of Dec. 11, 1941, Doris Miller was one of a few men he identified as “…deserving of the highest commendation for work on December 7 and on the days following.” Three other officers mentioned Miller’s action during the attack: Lt. Cmdr. D.C. Johnson cited his assistance and Lt. C.V. Ricketts noted that “D. Miller, Matt, 2c., and I manned #1 and #2 machine gun forward of the conning tower …” Lt. F.H. White too mentioned that “Doris Miller, mess attendant, second class, U.S. Navy, was instrumental in hauling people along through oil and water to the quarterdeck, thereby unquestionably saving the lives of a number of people who might otherwise have been lost.”
The West Virginia had been severely damaged. After he ran out of ammunition, Miller continued to work to save lives. He was awarded several honors and medals for his courage and became the first African American to receive the Navy Cross, Purple Heart and several other medals. And in 1973 the destroyer escort USS Miller was commissioned in Miller’s honor.
After all of these honors, and with the upgrades of several minority veterans’ medals as a result of the 1993 investigation of racial discrimination in the awarding of such medals, many of us expected Doris Miller to be recommended once again for the Medal of Honor. But even with Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Waco native, and others working tirelessly to have the honor conferred posthumously, the medal has yet to be approved.
Last year, I wrote a letter to President Obama, our nation’s first black president, urging him to press Congress and the Navy to award Miller the Medal of Honor. There was no response. He missed an opportunity to right what many have seen for years as a censure of Miller’s acclaim as a World War II hero. Miller joined the Pacific war dead in 1943 when the USS Liscome fell victim to a Japanese torpedo in battle.
Another year has passed and the issue is as alive today as it was in 1942 when newspapers and other media across the country circulated a story about “an unidentified Negro messman” who bravely carried his captain and others to safety during the harrowing surprise attack by the Imperial Japanese Navy. The Pittsburgh Courier, a widely circulated black newspaper, investigated and identified the figure as Mess Attendant 2nd Class Doris Miller. The paper’s large circulation helped to promote his heroic deeds and garner support and recommendations for the Medal of Honor for Miller.
Doris Miller’s niece, Henrietta Miller, tells me that she’s glad Waco is erecting the Doris Miller Memorial, complete with an unveiling of a statue of Miller today. Even though other cities across the country honor him in various ways, it means a lot to the family that Waco will have this permanent memorial to honor her uncle. She says her sister Vickie would be happy about this because she was all about anything honoring the legacy of Uncle Doris.
“Now that Vickie is gone, it is up to me, my siblings and all the rest of the family to carry on the legacy of Doris Miller,” Henrietta said. “I look forward to being in Waco on Pearl Harbor Day for the ceremony!” And, yes, the family will continue to push for the medal, she said, “just as Vickie would be doing if she were still alive.”
Vickie’s book, “Doris Miller: A Silent Medal of Honor Winner,” continues to be a key reference about her uncle’s life.
Korean War Air Force veteran Ernest Smith and his sister Mary Webster, cousins of Doris Miller, agree it’s important to continue pursuing the Medal of Honor. “He deserves it as much as anyone,” Ernest told me.
Miller has been honored in many ways over the years, including the recent renaming of what was once the Waco Veterans Memorial Hospital to Doris Miller Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center. This was accomplished through the combined, bipartisan effort of our elected state representatives, U.S. representatives, senators and other leaders. It’s my hope and prayer our community will continue to work in unity to honor him — and that includes working diligently to have the Medal of Honor posthumously bestowed on Navy Mess Attendant 2nd Class Doris Miller, an inspirational figure both then and now, in war and peace.