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Doris Miller - Above and beyond the call of duty

Doris Miller, the son of Texas sharecroppers and grandson of slaves, rose to national attention for bravery displayed during the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941.

Born October 12, 1919, in Waco, Texas, Miller joined the Navy in 1939 as a mess attendant one of the only occupational specialties then open to a Black man. In January 1940, he was assigned to the battleship USS West Virginia (BB 48), stationed at Pearl Harbor. Severe damage to the ship during the early phases of the December 7th attack prevented Miller from manning his assigned battle station. Seeking to help where he could, he was ordered to the ship’s bridge to help move his captain, Mervyn Bennion, mortally wounded with shrapnel in his abdomen.

Doris Miller was then ordered to the port side anti-aircraft guns to load ammunition for an officer. After performing this task, Miller, on his own initiative, loaded and manned an unattended gun and fired at incoming Japanese planes. Although untrained, he laid down effective fire and stopped firing when he ran out of ammunition and the ship began to sink. Even then, he persisted in helping his fellow sailors to safety until he finally made his way to shore.[1] Miller, himself, escaped injury and was reassigned to the cruiser Indianapolis (CA 35).

Initially commended only as an unnamed Black man, pressure from the NAACP led to Doris Miller’s identification and the presentation of an award. On April 2, 1942, Miller’s efforts on the West Virginia were dramatized on the CBS radio series, They Live Forever.[2] Although Congressional bills and other calls to grant Miller the Medal of Honor failed, President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved awarding Miller the Navy Cross. Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet, presented the Navy Cross to Miller on board the USS Enterprise (CV-6) on May 27, 1942.

Adm. Nimitz, Doris Miller shaking hands.
Mess Attendant 2nd Class Doris Miller receives the Navy Cross from Adm. Chester W. Nimitz at a ceremony held on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier Enterprise at Pearl Harbor, 27 May 1942. (National Archives)

The Navy detached Miller to participate in a War Bond tour with White war heroes from December 1942 to January 1943, making him the first African American allowed on the speaking tour.[3] Furthermore, his portrait appeared in a 1943 Navy recruiting poster under the words “above and beyond the call of duty.”[4]

Recruitment poster from World War II featuring Dorie Miller

Miller was assigned to the escort carrier USS Liscome Bay (CVE 56) in June 1943 and returned to the war.[5] His ship was struck by a torpedo fired from a Japanese submarine on November 24, 1943, during the Battle of Makin in the invasion of the Gilbert Islands. The explosion detonated the ship’s aviation bomb magazine creating a devastating explosion. The ship sank in 23 minutes. Over 600 of a crew of 900 were lost, including Miller. His parents were notified of their 24-year-old son’s loss on the second anniversary of Pearl Harbor.

While begrudgingly recognized, Doris Miller became a role model and served as a rallying cry for desegregation in the United States Armed Forces. Miller was not keen on the national attention and cautiously optimistic about the standing of African Americans in the military in the future. In one of his few letters to the Pittsburgh Courier he wrote, “you have opened up a little for us, at least for the ones who were following me, and I hope it will be better in the future.” [6]

Since his death nearly 80 years ago, Doris Miller continues to be recognized posthumously for his patriotism and extraordinary bravery. Two more recent examples are: On December 18, 2014, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) honored Miller for his heroism by naming the VA medical center in Waco, Texas, after him.[7] On January 19, 2020, the U.S. Navy announced construction of the aircraft carrier USS Doris Miller (CVN-81), an honor traditionally reserved for U.S. Presidents or other high ranking individuals. The ship is scheduled to be commissioned in January 2030.[8]

Doris Miller VA Medical Center
Doris Miller VA Medical Center in Waco, Texas

Submitted by Robert Cook, VA History Office intern, Pennsylvania State University graduate student, ROTC cadet and Army Veteran


[1] Cutrer, Thomas W., and T. Michael Parrish. “How Dorie Miller’s Bravery Helped Fight Navy Racism.” Navy Times, January 20, 2020, sec. Salute to Veterans.

[2] Doris Miller - Wikipedia



[5] Cutrer and Parrish

[6] Ibid.

[7] Flores, Bill. “H.R.4199 - 113th Congress (2013-2014): To Name the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Waco, Texas, as the ‘Doris Miller Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center’” Webpage, December 18, 2014. 2013/2014.

[8], from LaGrone, Sam (January 18, 2020). "Next Ford-class Carrier to be Named After Pearl Harbor Hero Doris Miller". USNI News. Retrieved January 18, 2020.

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