Eighty years after he rescued shipmates from the burning USS West Virginia at Pearl Harbor and crossed the color line to strafe Japanese war planes with anti-aircraft fire, Doris Miller’s stature keeps growing.
The Navy messman and son of Waco sharecroppers was the first Black hero of World War II, winning the Navy Cross for his actions.
The Waco Veterans Affairs hospital was named after him in 2014. His hometown honored him four years later with the dedication of the riverside Doris Miller Memorial, where a Memorial Day ceremony is planned for Monday.
Last year, the Navy announced it would commission the aircraft carrier USS Doris Miller, an honor usually reserved for presidents and high-ranking officials.
But as those extraordinary honors pile up, one distinction remains elusive as the 80th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor approaches. Miller’s family, the city of Waco and members of Congress connected to Waco have sought a Medal of Honor for Miller for decades, only to see their requests politely declined by the Navy.
Since 2001, Waco-born Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, has led a congressional effort to clear the way for a Medal of Honor for Miller through legislation, including a bill in 2020 that would waive statute of limitations to upgrade his Navy Cross to the higher honor.
Past Congressmen Chet Edwards, D-Waco; and Bill Flores, R-College Station, have partnered with Johnson in her efforts.
New U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Waco, has said honoring Miller is a priority for him. A spokesperson for Sessions said this week that he “is working on some projects” to honor Miller but was unavailable to discuss them.
More than 15 cities, including Waco, Dallas, Highland Park, University Park, Grapevine, Grand Prairie and Irving, have expressed support for Miller’s cause over the years. The U.S. Conference of Mayors adopted a resolution endorsing the effort in 2001.
“We are not stopping,” Johnson said last year. “We are not giving up. It’s not my nature to give up on anything I believe in.”
But decisions on military honors are typically reserved for the military, and the Navy does not appear to be ready to change course on Miller’s status.
“There is no doubt Doris Miller’s actions on Dec. 7, 1941, like those of other Navy Cross recipients, are truly heroic,” a Navy spokesperson stated in an email Friday in response to questions from the Tribune-Herald. “In fact the law that established the Navy Cross states it is to be awarded to those who distinguish themselves by ‘extraordinary heroism or distinguished services in the line of his profession.’
“Still, the process is an inherently subjective one. While there are guidelines on what actions merit certain awards, the process relies on the recollections of people who were oftentimes actively engaged in combat or struggling to survive. Ultimately this question is unanswerable. None of those involved in the decision are alive. … Some variance is to be expected with awards from past conflicts. The important thing to remember is that Doris Miller is an American hero.”
Edwards, the former congressman, said Congress has traditionally respected the military’s decisions on honors so as not to politicize them.
“Every year I was in Congress I hoped that Doris Miller would receive the Medal of Honor, and I believed he earned it,” Edwards said. “He earned our nation’s respect. Unfortunately, the Pentagon seemed to push back on the legislation.”
Edwards saluted the Navy for naming the USS Doris Miller, and he acknowledged the difficulty of retroactive awards.
“I think when you’re trying to review somebody’s record from many years ago it requires a much higher standard of evidence,” he said.
But he added: “If a sailor who was designated as a cook going on the deck of a ship to fire at Japanese planes on Pearl Harbor Day doesn’t deserve a Medal of Honor, I don’t know what does.”
Johnson, who remembers Miller from her childhood in Waco, has said honors including the aircraft carrier are appreciated.
“But it’s not the Medal of Honor,” she said.
Miller, who worked on a farm near Speegleville and attended segregated Moore High School, joined the Navy in 1939 and was assigned as a cook to the USS West Virginia. Black sailors were not trained for combat and were relegated to kitchen and laundry duties.
As the attack progressed, Miller helped injured sailors on deck, including pulling his wounded captain to safety. Then, despite no training, Miller manned an anti-aircraft gun and took aim at Japanese attack planes.
In an official report on the Japanese attack, originally classified, the senior surviving officer of the USS West Virginia wrote that Miller “was instrumental in hauling people along through oil and water to the quarterdeck, thereby unquestionably saving the lives of a number of people who might otherwise have been lost.”
In 1942, bills were introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate to award Miller the Medal of Honor, according to Miller’s biographers, Thomas Cutrer and Michael Parrish.
But the effort was defeated by Georgia Democrat Carl Vinson, the House of Representatives’ Chairman of Naval Affairs; along with Secretary of the Navy William Franklin Knox and the Texas congressional delegation, Cutrer and Parrish wrote in an October 2019 article in World War II Magazine. President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself had to intervene to pressure Knox to give Miller the Navy Cross.
Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, pinning the Navy Cross on Miller on May 27, 1942, said the award “marks the first time in this conflict that such high tribute has been made in the Pacific Fleet to a member of his race, and I’m sure that the future will see others similarly honored for brave acts.”
In their 2018 book “Doris Miller, Pearl Harbor and the Birth of the Civil Rights Movement,” Cutrer and Parrish describe Secretary Knox as a thoroughgoing racist who threatened to resign if the Navy was desegregated.
“Knox was notorious for being prejudiced,” said Parrish, a history professor at Baylor University, in an interview this past week.
He said the Navy as a whole in the years leading up to World War II had a reputation for mistreating people of color within its ranks, and raised the question of whether any Black person could have earned a Medal of Honor in the Navy.
“That’s the perennial question,” he said. “There doesn’t seem to be any consistent policy on the part of the Navy to make the decision, or at least any consistent policy then.”
In fact, none of the 1.2 million Black Americans who served in World War II earned a Medal of Honor until the 1990s, when scholars and members of Congress worked to build the case for honoring seven Black soldiers, only one of whom was still alive.
Miller died in action on November 24, 1943, on the USS Liscome Bay in the Pacific Ocean after a Japanese torpedo sank the vessel off the coast of Butaritari Island. By then, he had become a nationally celebrated hero and was used in advertisements to recruit Black Americans to join the war effort.
Waco community activist and social worker Bettie Beard recalls that Miller recruited her two uncles to join the service during World War II. One of her uncles, Travis Howard, was on the USS Liscome Bay with Miller when the ship went down. Her uncle survived the attack and died in 1994, Beard said.
She said a Medal of Honor for Miller is long overdue.
Beard is organizing a communitywide Memorial Day event at 8:30 Monday at the Doris Miller Memorial at Bledsoe-Miller Park on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
Steve Hernandez, McLennan County veterans service officer, will serve as master of ceremonies for the Memorial Day event, and the Rev. Carlton Stimpson of the Open Door Church of God in Christ will offer prayer.
Beard, whose family is full of veterans and active-duty service members, will recite “In Flanders Fields,” a poem written during World War I, and she invites those who have lost relatives in wars to come forward, say their relative’s name, their branch of service and what war they fought in.
Beard also invites the public and members of veterans organizations who normally lay wreaths on Memorial Day to bring their wreaths to the ceremony and place them on the Doris Miller Memorial.
“We hope that this will be a day of unification,” Beard said. “We want to make sure we are honoring our deceased veterans, especially the ones who fought in wars. But we also want our community to consider what we have in common.
“Everybody, every race, every creed, everyone. If we love this country and all the freedoms we have, then we must honor those who fought to keep us free. We must make sure we honor and never forget those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for us and our country,” Beard said.