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H-001-4/2021: Loss of Cook 3rd Class Doris Miller

Dec. 23, 2021 | By NHHC Director Samuel Cox
One of the sailors lost in the sinking of Liscome Bay (CVE-65) was Cook 3rd Class Doris Miller, who had been the first African American to be awarded the Navy Cross for his heroism in combat aboard the battleship West Virginia (BB-48) during the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. Miller’s highly publicized award made him the first real hero of the African American community in the United States during the war, and his loss came as a profound shock. I have found no account that describes how Miller met his ultimate fate, other than that he was one of the 591 (at least) enlisted men lost when Liscome Bay was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine, exploded, and rapidly sank on 24 November 1942 near Makin Island during Operation Galvanic.
Doris Miller enlisted in the U.S. Navy on 16 September 1939 into the messman branch, the only branch open to him as an African American. The messman branch was racially segregated and comprised primarily of Black and Filipino personnel; White sailors were not permitted to serve in the messman branch. Conversely, Blacks sailors were not allowed to serve in almost all other ratings, since with the conversion of Navy ships to oil, “coal passer” was no longer an option.
The messman branch was responsible for feeding and serving officers, who at the time were all White. (The all-White commissary branch cooked for the enlisted crew.) At the time, messmen could advance from mess attendant third class to second class to first class and then branch to officer’s cook third class or steward third class up to chief officer’s cook or chief steward. In February 1943, the messman branch was changed to the steward branch. Mess attendants became steward’s mates, and the “officer’s” was dropped from the cook titles (although the duties remained the same). In June 1944, new rating badges were introduced to cooks and stewards that had petty officer and chief chevrons. However, despite the rating badges, even chief cooks and chief stewards ranked below petty officer third class. It was not until 1950 that cooks and stewards were accorded petty officer status.
How messmen, cooks, and stewards were used in battle depended to a degree on where in the country the ship’s commanding officer was from. In general, most had battle stations that involved significant manual labor, such as ammunition handling or stretcher bearing, and a number of others assisted in first aid stations. On some ships, however, they were given more responsibility. For example, on the submarine Cobia (SS-245) the skipper held a competition among the crew to find the best gunners to man and operate the deck gun. Cobia’s two Black stewards won the competition, and when the submarine went to surface battle stations, the Black stewards manned the deck gun. Nevertheless, Cobia’s action reports treat the fact that Black sailors manned the deck gun as almost an embarrassing secret, but at least the skipper put combat capability ahead of racial prejudice.
After enlisting, Miller was first assigned to the ammunition ship, Pyro (AE-1), but on 2 January 1940 he reported to the battleship West Virginia, where he quickly became the ship’s heavyweight boxing champion. He was promoted to mess attendant 2nd class on 16 February 1941. In July 1941, he had temporary duty on the battleship Nevada (BB-36) for secondary battery gunnery school, returning to West Virginia in August. On the battleships, the secondary battery was comprised of 5-inch guns, some in protected locations for surface action, and some on deck for antiaircraft (or surface action) defense.
On 7 December 1941, Miller had finished serving breakfast and was collecting laundry when the attack began. In the first minutes of the attack, West Virginia was hit by at least five torpedoes (and later by two bombs). When Miller got to his battle station in the ammunition magazine for the amidships antiaircraft battery, it had already been destroyed by a torpedo hit.
As West Virginia was sinking—only quick counter-flooding kept her from capsizing like Oklahoma (BB-37)—Miller reported to a location on the ship known as “Times Square” to make himself available for duty. The ship’s communications officer, Lieutenant Commander Doir C. Johnson, ordered Miller to accompany him to the bridge to assist in moving West Virginia’s commanding officer, Captain Mervyn Bennion, to a less exposed location. Bennion had been on the bridge when he was hit and severely wounded by shrapnel from a bomb that hit Tennessee (BB-43), which was nested inboard of West Virginia. Bennion’s wound would prove mortal, but he continued to issue commands to defend the ship, despite having his abdomen sliced open. Miller and another sailor moved Bennion behind the conning tower for better protection, but Bennion insisted on remaining on the bridge, although he was fading rapidly.
At this point, Lieutenant Frederic H. White ordered Miller to help Ensign Victor Delano load the unmanned No. 1 and No. 2 .50-caliber antiaircraft machine guns. (The operational ships at Pearl Harbor were actually at Condition Baker (equivalent to Condition III—wartime steaming) readiness with a quarter of their antiaircraft guns manned and ready before the attack.) White gave Miller quick instruction on how to feed ammunition to the machine guns, but after a momentary distraction, White turned to see Miller already firing at Japanese aircraft, so White wound up feeding the ammo to Miller and Delano (on the other gun).
Various accounts give different numbers on how many planes Miller shot down. The reality is that there is no way of knowing as by then antiaircraft fire was so intense from all the ships that it is not possible to determine exactly which gun shot down which plane, and some more recent accounts have become embellished. The problem with the .50 calibers was that they were completely ineffective against aircraft before the weapons release point; the best they could do was keep an attacking aircraft from coming back a second time. Nevertheless, Miller and Delano fired until they were out of ammunition.
At this point, Lieutenant Claude V. Rickets (the first seaman to rise via the United States Naval Academy to four-star rank, and who was responsible for ordering the counterflooding that saved West Virginia from capsizing), ordered Miller and Signalman A. A. Siewart to carry the now only partially conscious Captain Bennion up to the navigation bridge to get him out of the smoke pouring into the bridge, but Bennion died soon after. Miller then helped move numerous other injured sailors as the ship was ordered abandoned due to her own fires and flaming oil floating down from the destroyed Arizona (BB-39). West Virginia would lose 105 killed out of her crew of 1500. Captain Bennion would be awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor.
Following the attack, Miller was transferred to the heavy cruiser Indianapolis (CA-35) on 15 December 1941. On 1 January 1942, the Navy released a list of commendations for 7 December, including a commendation for an “unnamed Negro.” The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) asked President Franklin D. Roosevelt to award the Distinguished Service Cross (which wasn’t a Navy medal) to the unnamed Black sailor, and the recommendation was routed to the Navy Awards Board. In the meantime, Lawrence Reddick, the director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, was able to discover Miller’s name, which was then published in the African American newspaper the Pittsburgh Courier and then by the Associated Press on 12 March 1942.
In response to public pressure, Senator James Mead (D-NY) and Representative John D. Dingell Sr. (D-MI) introduced Senate and House resolutions to award Miller the Medal of Honor. The Navy responded with a letter of commendation signed by Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox (who was not known for racially progressive views). This ignited an extensive writing campaign by numerous Black organizations to convince Congress that Miller should be awarded the Medal of Honor, and the National Negro Congress denounced Knox for recommending against it.
Unlike Knox, Chief of Naval Operations Ernest J. King at least saw the importance of having the Black community’s support for the war effort. (During the war, over one million Black workers would be employed in defense industries, including six hundred thousand Black women.) On 11 May 1942, President Roosevelt approved the award of the Navy Cross to Miller, the first for an African American. At the time, the Navy Cross was third in the order of precedence, after the Medal of Honor and Distinguished Service Medal, but was moved to second precedence in August 1942.
On 27 May 1942, Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, personally presented the Navy Cross to Miller in a ceremony with other awardees on the flight deck of Enterprise (CV-6) in Pearl Harbor. Nimitz stated, “This 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.”
The Navy Cross Citation for Mess Attendant Second Class Doris Miller is as follows:
For distinguished devotion to duty, extraordinary courage and disregard for his own personal safety during the attack on the Fleet in Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii, by Japanese forces on December 7, 1941. While at the side of his Captain on the bridge, Miller, despite enemy and strafing and bombing and in the face of a 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 directed at enemy Japanese attacking aircraft until ordered to leave the bridge.
Miller was promoted to mess attendant 1st class on 1 June 1942. As the first Black hero of the war, there was intense pressure to bring Miller back to the United States for war bond tours, to which the Navy was slow to respond, resulting in editorial comments in the press like “Navy felt Miller too important waiting tables in the Pacific.” On 23 November 1942, while still assigned to Indianapolis, Miller was brought back to the states for multiple speaking engagements on a short war bond tour.
After returning to Indianapolis, Miller was promoted to cook 3rd class (under the renamed steward branch) and on 1 June 1943 reported to the escort carrier Liscome Bay. On 7 December 1943, Miller’s parents were informed that he was missing in action. He would never be found. The Knox-class frigate Miller (FF-1091), commissioned on 30 June 1973, was named in Doris Miller’s honor and would serve until decommissioned in October 1991.
It should be noted that during the Civil War at least seven Black sailors were awarded the Medal of Honor, at a time when the enlisted ranks in the Navy were integrated (which was true up until the Wilson administration implemented segregation in the federal government, including in the Navy). The Navy Cross was not created until 1919 (retroactive to World War I), so the Medal of Honor was the only medal for valor at the time of the Civil War, and standards were different. Nevertheless, the Medals of Honor awarded to Black sailors were for courage in serious battles, including four awarded for the Battle of Mobile Bay.