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First black hero of World War II


WHEN WORLD War II history is taught in the nation's schools, one man should not be forgotten because his heroism helped the war effort and helped to change the role of black people in the U.S. military.

Doris "Dorie" Miller was a cook in the U.S. Navy, and thus an unlikely candidate for the role of America's first African-American hero of World War II. But that's exactly what he was during the Japanese air attack at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. As a mess steward on the battleship USS West Virginia, he shot down as many as four enemy planes, according to eyewitnesses.

Miller's heroism was duly acknowledged by a grateful nation in two ways: first, he was awarded the coveted Navy Cross for his heroism, and second, a photograph of him was distributed nationally with the words "above and beyond the call of duty" typed across the top.

The quiet man unfortunately was lost in action aboard the USS Liscome Bay on Nov. 24, 1943 -- a victim of a Japanese submarine I-75 attack, but his heroism is recorded in the Navy's history.

A farm boy, Dorie was the son of sharecropping farmers who lived near Speegleville, Texas, close to Waco. He was the third of four sons. He got his feminine first name -- Doris -- from the midwife who delivered him, an incongruous moniker for the tall, quiet athlete who played fullback on the football team at Waco's A.J. Moore High School. By 1939, Miller was 6-foot-2 and weighed 220 pounds.

Due to his family's financial troubles, Miller -- like many other boys during the Depression -- dropped out of school to get a job. He first worked as a cook in a small restaurant in downtown Waco. He tried to join the Civilian Conservation Corps, then the Army, which refused him because at 17 he needed a waiver that his parents wouldn't sign.

In September 1939, however, the U.S. Navy took him on as a mess steward. The Navy, at that time, was rigidly segregated, a situation that existed throughout the war until President Harry S. Truman ended the practice with an Executive Order.

Recalled sailor Ted Mason, "The country wanted it that way and the Navy liked it that way, especially aboard ship. Their lives revolved around the needs of their officers. The only interaction they had was at general quarters, when they joined the seamen in the powder and ammunition-handling rooms."

One of Dorie's brothers, Selvia, survived the war to recall: "It was tough for Negroes in the services at that time. Because there were not any tests, it was hard to advance." Dorie Miller took his basic training at Norfolk, Va., and then was sent to the ammunition ship USS Pyro in 1940, and later transferred to the USS West Virginia at Pearl Harbor.

There, he was a member of the ship's heavyweight boxing squad, and, writer William B. Allmon noted: "Many Navy boxers were the equal of professional boxers in the U.S. Doris eventually won his division's heavyweight boxing championship."

On Dec. 7, 1941, Dorie Miller rushed to his battle station when the general quarters alarm sounded; his job was to pass ammunition to a gun crew. When he reached it, however, the gun had been destroyed and the men killed. Lt. Cmdr. Doir Johnson took Miller to the bridge of the West Virginia, where they found the ship's skipper fatally wounded. The two men carried the captain's body to safety, in the wake of flames, bullets and bombs.

Miller then joined an officer and two enlisted men at two unmanned machine guns; at first, Miller just passed ammunition, but eventuallyhe took over one of the guns, which he had never fired before. "It wasn't hard," he is reported to have said. "I just pulled the trigger and she worked fine!" After a few spent rounds, Miller sent a Japanese plane into the harbor, and continued firing, all the while surrounded by flames from the destroyed USS Arizona. Meanwhile, six or seven torpedoes struck the West Virginia as well.

The order "Abandon ship!" was given, but Miller stayed at his post, firing away, until he was personally ordered to leave the bridge. He dived overboard and swam to safety. On May 27, 1942, he was awarded the Navy Cross by his fellow Texan, Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, commander of the Pacific Fleet. Miller was cited for "Extraordinary courage and disregard for his own personal safety," and was promoted to the rank of Petty Officer 1st Class. He was only 20 years old, but quickly became a role model for black servicemen.

When the Liscome Bay went down, only 214 officers and men were rescued out of a crew of 950. Doris Miller's heroism proved that black men could perform well under fire if given the chance.

Blaine Taylor writes from Towson.

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