One of the first American war heroes of World War II was an African-American named Doris Miller. Heard of him?
Doris “Dorie” Miller was a big man, a boxer and mess attendant on the USS West Virginia. As a black man, he wasn’t allowed to be in a combat position. But when the Japanese attacked the U.S. naval force at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, Dorie Miller got into combat position anyway.
Immediately after the attack, Miller was asked to help move the injured body of the ship’s captain. Then he went topside, where Japanese fighter planes were laying waste to U.S. ships. Without training and without orders, Dorie Miller grabbed one of the ship’s machine guns and started firing away.
A modest account says he downed one Japanese plane. Some stories say Dorie Miller shot down six Japanese aircraft. Some sources say he shot down four. In all the confusion, it’s hard to really say if he shot down any.
And yet it doesn’t really matter. His shipmates considered him a hero. You have to figure that for a black man in 1941 to earn the respect and admiration of his fellow white sailors, he must have done something incredible.
Eventually his supporters got to see Dorie Miller decorated for his efforts, and by the spring of 1942 he was making national news as an American war hero. After doing some PR work for the war effort, Miller was promoted and reassigned.
While on board the USS Liscombe Bay, Miller participated in maneuvers near the Gilbert Islands in the South Pacific. The ship was attacked and sunk by the Japanese in November of 1943, and Miller was never seen again.
To find out more, follow the links after the Who2 biography of Dorie Miller.
To read about more famous African-Americans, go to our feature on Black History Month.