History, Politics, Race in America

Better than a medal

For Memorial Day, I posted a picture of a World War II serviceman with a couple paragraphs about his service. I felt his story deserved something more.

When Doris Miller crawled out of his bunk one Sunday morning, he was looking forward to a fairly quiet day. Serving as a messman aboard U.S.S. West Virginia (BB-48), Miller knew most of his ship’s officers and crew were ashore on liberty. His first duties of the day after serving breakfast included collecting dirty laundry.

A Black man serving in a segregated navy, Miller’s skin color restricted him to the steward corps but his keen interest in other subjects meant Miller paid attention to things going on around him. In high school back in Waco, Texas, the six-foot-three-inch two-hundred-pound Miller had played fullback on his high school football team. After dropping out, Miller worked on his family farm and practiced his marksmanship by target shooting with a rifle. He reportedly worked as a cook at a small Waco restaurant during the Depression.

At 7:57 on that Sunday morning, as he gathered soiled laundry, the first of seven Japanese torpedoes hit West Virginia. Miller reported to his battle station, a midships anti-aircraft magazine, only to find it in ruins. Reporting to a back-up location, the ship’s communications officer, Lt. Cdr. Doir Johnson, pressed Miller into service to help move wounded from the ship’s flag bridge. As the battle raged around them, Miller lifted his commanding officer, Capt. Mervyn Bennion, who had been badly wounded by flying shrapnel from the battleship Tennessee (BB-43), which was engulfed in explosions and moored alongside West Virginia. Miller moved the captain to a sheltered spot in the lee of the ship’s conning tower.

Lt. Frederic White took Miller and another sailor, intending to man the two unused .50-caliber anti-aircraft guns aft of the conning tower. White meant for Miller to supply the guns with ammunition but, when he was distracted momentarily, Miller had taken charge of one of the guns and was engaging the Japanese planes shrieking overhead.

Miller fired the gun until it ran out of ammunition. The West Virginia’s gunnery officer, Lt. C. V. Ricketts, then enlisted Miller’s help to move the Capt. Bennion to the navigation bridge to get the mortally wounded commanding officer out of the raging smoke. Bennion had kept his wits about him, constantly issuing orders and inquiring about the state of his badly damaged ship. Here, the captain died. He was later awarded a Medal of Honor.

Although at one point the West Virginia listed nearly 25-degrees, Miller then moved injured sailors along the oily and smoking decks to the relative shelter of the quarterdeck. Ricketts wisely ordered counter-flooding so the giant ship eventually settled on a relatively even keel in the harbor’s shallow waters. It was soon engulfed by fire fed by fuel leaking from the flaming U.S.S. Arizona (BB-39). West Virginia was abandoned and Miller swam to shore, avoiding flaming patches of fuel oil atop the roiled water.

An accurate evaluation of Miller’s efforts on the gun is impossible to determine due to the utter chaos of battle. Some reports credit him with shooting down at least one Japanese attacker. Whatever the case, Miller’s actions were universally lauded for meeting the highest standards of bravery and courage in the face of the withering enemy fire and unspeakable violence going on around him.

Miller was killed in action when U.S.S. Liscome Bay (CVE-56) was sunk in November 1943. An escort carrier, Liscome Bay’s magazines catastrophically detonated in a Japanese torpedo attack off Butaritari Atoll, Gilbert Islands. It was the deadliest sinking of a carrier in the history of the U.S. Navy.

Wilton Lanning, Jr., a Waco community leader, penned a moving account of meeting Miller’s parents. Even as the child he was at the time, Lanning recalls the small flag with the gold star Miller’s parents displayed in their window. Lanning said decades later, he can recall the absolute pride Miller’s parents took in their son’s actions on the “day that will live in infamy.”

Personally, I always thought Miller should have received the Medal of Honor for his actions aboard the battleship West Virginia. I am not the only one who feels that way. In view of Capt. Bennion’s receipt of a posthumous Medal of Honor, I felt Miller’s actions at least matched his captain’s in courage and honor. But even lobbying from organizations, newspapers and bills from two members of Congress couldn’t convince President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox to acknowledge Miller’s heroic actions with an award higher than the Navy Cross. At the time, the Navy Cross was the third-highest award for valor. Later, Congress would revise the order of precedence, placing the Navy Cross above the Distinguished Service Medal, making the Navy Cross the second-highest award for valor.

When the commander-in-chief of the Pacific Fleet, Adm. Chester Nimitz, pinned the Navy Cross to Miller’s chest on May 27, 1942 aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise (CV-6), it was the first time a Black man had received the honor. Now I’m not knocking the Navy Cross — it is a high honor, indeed. Nevertheless, I always thought Miller deserved more.

But from time to time, the Navy gets it right, even years later.

The Navy has long named its ships after its heroes, often relegating such courageous men as Miller to the nameplates of destroyers or support vessels. When CVN-81 is launched in 2029, she will bear a name somewhat different than her sisters. If you’re familiar with U.S. Naval nomenclature, you already know a CVN is no ordinary ship — a CVN is the pride of the entire Navy. Usually, CVNs are named for vaunted presidents or hallowed legacy vessels like Enterprise. But CVN-81 will proudly bear the name U.S.S. Doris Miller.

The pinnacle of naval power, CVN-81 is a magnificent Ford-class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier scheduled to be laid down in 2026. The U.S. Navy doesn’t name such ships lightly.

I don’t know about you, but I think naming the grandest symbol of naval might after Doris Miller is way better than a medal.

File photo collage