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Doris “Dorie” Miller and his heroic actions during the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 have forever enshrined the Navy serviceman in the annals of history. Although Miller was merely a cook, he commanded an anti-aircraft machine gun and saved countless soldiers during the attack. On May 27, 1942, he became the first Black person to be awarded the Navy Cross for his role.

Miller was born October 12, 1919 in Waco, Texas. Working on his father’s farm before dropping out of school, Miller entered the Navy just shy of his 20th birthday. The Jim Crow laws that placed many Black Americans at a disadvantage across the South was just as prominent in the armed forces. Black troops were segregated and Black soldiers weren’t allowed high-profile positions so Miller was relegated to working as a mess attendant.

While aboard the battleship USS West Virginia, Miller’s role would drastically change on the morning of December 7, 1941 when Japanese aircraft swooped in to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Miller reported to his station but Japanese torpedoes had inflicted heavy damage to the ship. Reporting to a higher officer he once served as a cook, the physically formidable Miller was ordered to help the mortally wounded captain of the ship to safety.

Miller and another serviceman helped load ammunition into two unmanned .50-caliber machine guns, and before his instructions were complete, Miller began firing the weapon at the Japanese warplanes.

“It wasn’t hard. I just pulled the trigger and she worked fine,” said Miller in a retelling of the event. “I had watched the others with these guns. I guess I fired her for about fifteen minutes. I think I got one of those Jap planes. They were diving pretty close to us.”

Despite proving his mettle in a time of war, some African-American organizations were angered that Miller was not on the short list to receive the coveted Medal Of Honor, the Navy’s highest award. Miller’s niece, Vickie Gail Miller, wrote in her 1997 book Doris Miller: A Silent Medal Of Honor that racial discrimination was at the root of her uncle not winning the award although he has posthumously received countless other honors.

Miller was finally made a Petty Officer, although still assigned to mess hall duties. He was killed in action while aboard the USS Liscome Bay in November 1943.

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