By JONATHAN TILOVE
May 25, 2004
c.2004 Newhouse News Service
WASHINGTON _ As the United States dedicates the National World War II Memorial nearly six decades since the war’s end, it is well to remember that even before that war was declared, America had a hero, a black hero _ or, as he was known in the months before the Navy had the grace to name him, “an unidentified Negro messman.”
The name was an unlikely one: Doris Miller (his mother had been hoping for a girl). But his deeds of valor on that day of infamy, Dec. 7, 1941, were considered more unlikely still. The son of sharecroppers from outside Waco, Texas, he rose above station and expectation to risk all for a nation startled and even unsettled by his bravery, a nation that remains, in the view of those most faithful to his memory, unwilling to grant him a last full measure of thanks.
Dorie Miller, as he came popularly to be known, was collecting laundry aboard the USS West Virginia when the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor. Amid the chaos of enemy strafing, Miller helped remove his mortally wounded captain and others to greater safety before manning a machine gun, for which the Navy had allowed him no training. For 15 minutes, the West Virginia a sinking inferno, Miller trained his fire upon the incoming Zeroes until he ran out of ammunition and was ordered to abandon ship.
To his people, he instantly became a new Joe Louis, proof of their capacity, worthiness and patriotism. The black press and black protests forced a grudging Navy to release Miller’s name, grant him a commendation, and then, thanks to President Roosevelt, bestow upon him the Navy Cross.
But unlike 15 others who distinguished themselves that day, Miller _ who in 1943 was lost at sea when his ship, the Liscome Bay, was torpedoed in the Pacific _ never received the Medal of Honor, the highest military award the nation has to give.
“We’re still on a mission to get him that medal,” said Juliete Parker of Lumberton, N.C., who last year wrote, “A Man Called Doris,” the second book in recent years about Miller. The first, “Doris Miller: Pearl Harbor Hero,” is the work of his niece, Vickie Gail Miller, of Midland, Texas.
Parker was inspired to write her book by the childhood memory of her mother telling her about Miller. “It was more of an emotion I caught from her,” Parker said. “Her eyes would light up and she would say his name with reverence.”
Philip Klinkner, a professor of government at Hamilton College in Upstate New York, believes Miller’s story encapsulates the black experience in World Ward II. “Despite discrimination and maltreatment they rose to the occasion; despite not being able to share in all the blessings of being American, they helped defend their country,” he said.
Miller provided a rallying point for challenging segregation.
“When Dorie Miller took gun in hand,” the poet Langston Hughes wrote in 1943, “Jim Crow started his last stand.”
Or, in the more caustic voice of Gwendolyn Brooks’ “Negro Hero” _ “I had to kick their law into their teeth in order to save them.”
In 1942, U.S. Rep. John Dingell of Michigan (father of the current representative) and Sen. James Mead of New York submitted a bill authorizing FDR to give Miller the Medal of Honor, but Parker said it was scuttled by lawmakers from Miller’s home state.
In the last several congresses, U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, with the support of the Congressional Black Caucus and a few other members, has filed legislation to waive the statute of limitations so that Miller could receive the Medal of Honor.
No blacks won the Medal of Honor during World War II, but in 1997 President Clinton awarded it to seven black soldiers, all but one posthumously, who an Army study commission concluded were denied their due because of the Army’s “racial climate.” A Navy study including Miller’s case found no cause for similar action.
“The Navy has concluded that the Navy Cross, the highest award that can be approved and awarded by the Secretary of the Navy, appropriately recognizes Petty Officer Miller’s heroic actions,” Lt. Mike Kafka, a Navy spokesman, said this week. Kafka said those seeking to upgrade Miller’s award can offer new evidence or ask the Navy to look at the case anew, a request Johnson may make.
It is impossible to entirely extract race from consideration of Miller’s case. His performance was so extraordinarily above and beyond the call of duty in part because that call was so colored by his race.
“No one expected him to do anything but wash dishes and polish those officers’ shoes,” said Marion Tumbleweed Beach, a poet, teacher and activist now living in Chicago, who has worked to secure Miller the Medal of Honor since 1944.
After receiving the Navy Cross, and before shipping off to sea again, Miller traveled black America drumming up support for the war effort.
Beach was 15 when her grandmother took her to see Miller at a war bond rally in Alabama. “Our black men stood in line to volunteer to go into the service in the name of Dorie Miller,” she recalled. “He was quite a shy lad and very handsome, very dark.”
At 13, Ross Fowler, a retired Coast Guard commander from Detroit, saw Miller at a war bond rally at the Regal Theater in Chicago, chaired by Fowler’s mother, a teacher. “I was in awe,” Fowler recalls. “He was humble. He was big and he was humble.”
They sold $1 million in bonds. Fowler has been a passionate advocate of Miller’s cause for the last 15 years.
Like others, Fowler believes Miller was denied the Medal of Honor because it would have required every officer and enlisted man he encountered to salute this black messman.
There were, of course, many whites who were unabashedly inspired by Miller’s story.
It became part of Ronald Reagan’s lexicon of classic American tales. As Edmund Morris writes in “Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan,” “Dorie Miller, the black hero of Pearl Harbor, was, as Reagan precisely described, `a Negro sailor whose total duties involved kitchen-type duties,’ who had shot down four dive bombers with a borrowed machine gun.”
In fact there is no agreement about how many, if any, planes Miller downed. Reports range from zero to six. The citation accompanying the Navy Cross is silent on the question.
But Rep. Johnson is not.
Miller “lived on the edge of the neighborhood where I grew up,” said Johnson, who turned 6 in Waco just days before Pearl Harbor.
She recalled “a big party” when Miller came home. “I don’t know if I was there or not but I did walk around with my father to collect money for an ID bracelet (for Miller). It was silver.”
For Johnson, Miller remains forever the young black hometown hero.
“To the black Americans at the time and every moment since, he was the one that prevented us from having war on these shores in the U.S.,” she said.