Up Next

Commentary

Pots & pans: Dorie Miller’s heroism should be remembered on Pearl Harbor Day

This Navy cook wasn’t afraid to fight the Japanese on Dec. 7, 1941

From now through Saturday’s Army-Navy game, I’ll be thinking of Doris “Dorie” Miller. And I’ll be thinking of my dad. During World War II, both men served in segregated Navy units: my father in the States and Miller overseas, including at Pearl Harbor. On Dec. 7, 1941, Miller, a cook with no weapons training, fired upon Japanese planes as they attacked his USS West Virginia.

If not for the black press, especially the Pittsburgh Courier, Miller’s heroism might not have been heralded. As it was, Miller was awarded the U.S. Navy Cross, and he was commended by the secretary of the Navy, who cited his “distinguished devotion to duty, extraordinary courage and disregard of his personal safety during the attack on the Fleet in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. While at the side of his Captain on the bridge, Miller despite enemy strafing and bombing, and in the face of serious fire, assisted in moving his Captain, who had been mortally wounded, to a place of greater safety and later manned and operated a machine gun until ordered to leave the bridge.”

Mural of African-American sailor Dorie Miller carrying the captain of a ship out of range of enemy fire, 1942.

Mural of African-American sailor Dorie Miller carrying the captain of a ship out of range of enemy fire, 1942.

Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images

Miller was from Waco, Texas, where he played high school football. At the time of Pearl Harbor, he stood 6-foot-3 and weighed 200 pounds. He was an outstanding military boxer, which might help explain his fearlessness at Pearl Harbor.

After touring to encourage people to buy war bonds, Miller was killed on Nov. 24, 1943, when his USS Liscome Bay came under fire, two years to the day he manned that machine gun on the USS West Virginia. He was just 24. Thinking about that made my father speak through clenched teeth in a whistling-kettle rasp: It angered him that Miller had been sent back into harm’s way instead of being used solely as an advocate for the war throughout its duration.

Still, my father was proud of his own WWII service. To paraphrase a stirring anthem from 1940, this was his country, land of his birth, on Independence Day in 1910. This was his country, which he served and protected in honor of what it might be for his children and grandchildren instead of what it had been for him and others of his generation. This was his country, even if many sought to disown the sharecropper’s son, hold him back, keep him down.

Consequently, when I was a child, my father rooted for the Navy against the Army in their annual football game, which was usually played in Philadelphia, my hometown and the place where the Founding Fathers gave birth to the nation.

In the early 1960s, my dad rooted for the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, as if he had been a decorated war veteran, just like John F. Kennedy, who had just been elected president, or Miller, who didn’t live long enough to see his country embrace a broader idea of what he could be or who he could become. I rooted for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. Benjamin O. Davis Jr. had graduated from West Point. He would go on to command the Tuskegee Airmen, the dashing black pilots of World War II.

About 20 years before my father and I rooted for different teams during the Army-Navy games, Miller and millions of his generation embarked upon what some academics call a double victory. They defeated the Axis powers abroad and fought entrenched inequality at home based on race, ethnicity and gender. From the West Coast barrios to the East Coast and Midwest factories, the WWII-era generation fought to make the poetry and promise of the Declaration of Independence apply to all Americans instead of a privileged minority. That struggle continues.

Immediately after WWII, wartime military service was used to argue for full civil rights for black Americans, including the fight for Jackie Robinson, a WWII vet, to play Major League Baseball, the national pastime. Robinson, like Miller, was born in 1919, a time when black progress fomented white rage.

Ship's cook third class Dorie Miller was decorated for firing at Japanese aircraft on his own initiative during the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Ship’s cook third class Dorie Miller was decorated for firing at Japanese aircraft on his own initiative during the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Corbis via Getty Images

On Wednesday, days before the Army-Navy game in Baltimore, we’ll mark the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, including the valor of people like Dorie Miller. We’ll honor the WWII veterans of all races. We’re down to a precious few who can tell those stories from personal experience from that era.

They are precious American stories. They define us. They steel and uplift us at a time when many Americans feel besieged, as if they were Miller at Pearl Harbor, who remembered: “The sky seemed filled with diving planes and the black bursts of exploding antiaircraft shells.”

When Miller faced danger, he didn’t cower. He didn’t panic. He didn’t run.

He took action.

This was his country.

And this is our country.

A graduate of Hampton University, Jeff Rivers worked for Ebony, HBO and three daily newspapers, winning multiple awards for his columns. Jeff and his wife live in New Jersey and have two children, a son Marc and a daughter Lauren.