Doris 'Dorie' Miller

The first black recipient of the Navy Cross

Doris Miller (12th October 1919 – 24th November 1943) was a United States Navy cook third class and first Black American to be awarded the Navy Cross, the highest decoration for valor presented by the US Navy, and the second highest in the United States after the Medal of Honor.

Miller was a crew member of the battleship West Virginia when it was attacked by Japanese torpedo bombers on 7th December 1941, during the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

He assisted several injured sailors during the onslaught and shot down several Japanese aircraft while operating an anti-aircraft machine gun, despite having never been trained to operate it.

Miller's deeds earned him the medal, and the publicity Miller received as a result in the Black press helped to establish him as a legendary figure in the struggle for Black Americans' civil rights. Miller perished in the Battle of Makin in the Gilbert Islands in November 1943 while serving on the escort ship Liscome Bay, which was sunk by a Japanese submarine.

Early life

Miller was born on 12th October 1919, to Connery and Henrietta Miller in Waco, Texas. He was given the name Doris since the midwife who helped his mother during pregnancy thought the baby would be a female. He worked on the family farm and helped around the house as the third of four sons. He also prepared meals and did washing. He played fullback for the Alexander James Moore High School football squad in Waco.

On 25th January 1937, when he was 17 years old, he enrolled in the eighth grade. The next year, he repeated the grade due to struggling with the work, at which point he made the decision to leave school.

Waco, Texas during the 1930's.

He spent his free time studying for a correspondence course in taxidermy and squirrel hunting with a .22 rifle. He submitted his application to the Civilian Conservation Corps, but it was rejected. He stood 6 feet 3 inches (1.91 m) tall and weighed more than 200 pounds at the time (91 kg). Miller's nickname "Dorie" may have come from a spelling error; he continued to labour on his father's farm until just before turning 20. 

On 7th December 1941, he was nominated to receive recognition for his actions, and on 14th March 1942, the Pittsburgh Courier published an article identifying him as "Dorie Miller." After that, some authors said it was a "nickname to shipmates and pals."

Enlisting in the US Navy

On 16th September 1939, Miller enlisted in the United States Navy as a third-class mess attendant for six years at the Naval Recruiting Station in Dallas, Texas. This was one of the few ratings available to black sailors at the time when the entire US armed forces enacted a policy of segregation and treating Black servicemen as lower class or ‘lesser’ – fundamentally due to the racist attitudes that were still prevalent in the US at the time. 

The USS West Virginia in San Francisco Bay, 1934.

80-G-1027204 USS West Virginia (BB-48) (

On 19th September he arrived at the Naval Training Center at Naval Operating Base Norfolk, Virginia, where he was reassigned. After attending training school, he was given the munitions ship Pyro before being moved to the Colorado-class battleship West Virginia on 2nd January 1940.

He began boxing in competition while stationed on the West Virginia and eventually won the heavyweight title for the ship.

He performed ad hoc duty aboard the Nevada during Secondary Battery Gunnery School in July. On 3rd August, he returned to West Virginia. His rating increased to mess attendant second class on 16th February 1941.

Attack on Pearl Harbour

On December 7, 1941, Miller awoke on board West Virginia at six in the morning. At 7:57 a.m., while he was serving breakfast mess and gathering laundry, the first of seven torpedoes suddenly hit the West Virginia. They had been launched by planes from the Japanese aircraft carrier Akagi. When the warning for "battle stations" went off, Miller raced to his battle station, a magazine for an anti-aircraft battery in the middle of the ship, only to find that a torpedo had destroyed it.

View of battleship row as explosions damage three American battleships during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, 7th December 1941. From left to right, the USS West Virginia, the USS Tennessee, and the USS Arizona.

Interim Archives/Getty Images

The location where the fore-to-aft and port-to-starboard passageways crossed on the ship was nicknamed "Times Square" - after the famous and bustling New York City location.  Miller arrived here and declared himself available for duty, eager to help as best he could.

He was then given the responsibility of helping to transport injured sailors to locations that offered them more security. 

Despite the chaos around him, Miller performed his duties calmly and efficiently.

Miller was then ordered to accompany Lieutenant Commander Doir C. Johnson, the ship's communications officer, to the conning tower on the flag bridge to help move Mervyn Bennion, the captain, who had a gaping wound in his abdomen (He appeared to have been struck by shrapnel from a bomb which struck the USS Tenenessee which was docked next to the West Virginia) following the initial Japanese attack.

Mervyn S. Bennion, captain of the USS West Virginia and recipient of the Medal of Honor (Posthumous). He was mortally wounded by a shrapnel shard from the nearby USS Tennessee after she was hit by a bomb during the Japanese attack.

Naval Historical Center - Naval Historical Center Online Library, Photo #: NH 56151

The skipper was lifted by Miller and another sailor, but they were unable to get him off the damaged bridge. Instead, they transported him on a cot from his exposed location behind the conning tower, where he remained throughout the second Japanese attack. In addition to refusing to leave his position, and despite being in great pain, Captain Bennion questioned his officers and crew about the state of the ship and gave orders for them to fight and defend it. He was brought up a ladder to the navigation bridge since he was unable to access the deck below due to smoke and fire. Despite the assistance of a pharmacist mate, he passed away from blood loss there. The Medal of Honor was awarded to him posthumously due to his actions during the attack.

Illustration of Miller defending the fleet at Pearl Harbor.

Charles Henry Alston, 1907-1977, Artist (NARA record: 3569253U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

Miller had been instructed by Lieutenant Frederic H. White to assist him and Ensign Victor Delano in loading the unmanned number 1 and number 2 Browning 50 calibre anti-aircraft machine guns which were located aft of the compass tower.

White and Delano showed Miller how to use the firearm because he was unfamiliar with it.

Delano anticipated Miller would simply restrict himself to loading one of the guns with ammo, but when he was briefly called elsewhere, Miller took over the gun and started firing it.

Upon returning and seeing that Miller appeared to be handling the gun capably, White let him carry on and instead concentrated on ensuring both guns kept firing by keeping them both supplied with ammunition.

Twin Browning M2 .50 caliber machine guns seen here aboard PT-107, an 80-foot Elco torpedo boat during exercises in 1942.

Miller manned this type of machine gun during the Japanese attack.


When his ammunition finally ran out, Miller was ordered by Lieutenant Claude V. Ricketts to assist in carrying the captain up to the navigation bridge so that they might escape the heavy oily smoke produced by the several fires on and around the ship. 

Miller was later credited with probably downing two Japanese aircraft: “I think I got one of those Jap planes. They were diving pretty close to us”, he later said.


Eventually, Japanese aircraft launched five 18-inch (460 mm) aircraft torpedoes into the battleship's port side and dropped two armor-piercing bombs through the battleship's deck, causing further catastrophic damage. Miller assisted in transferring injured sailors through water and oil to the quarterdeck when the attack eventually subsided, "unquestionably saving the lives of a number of people who might otherwise have been lost."

Sailors in a motor launch rescue a survivor from the water alongside the sunken battleship West Virginia during or shortly after the Japanese air raid on Pearl Harbor. The battleship Tennessee is inboard of the sunken battleship. Note extensive distortion of West Virginia's lower midships superstructure, caused by torpedoes that exploded below that location. Also note 5/25 gun, still partially covered with canvas, boat crane swung outboard and empty boat cradles near the smokestacks, and base of radar antenna atop West Virginia's foremast. 

It was during this attack that Miller shot down two Japanese aircraft and assisted with the evacuation of wounded sailors, earning him the Navy Cross.

National Archives

Bombs, torpedoes, and the ensuing explosions and flames severely damaged the ship, but the crew managed to keep her from capsizing by counter-flooding a number of compartments. As her remaining crew, which included Miller, abandoned ship, the West Virginia sank to the harbour bottom in shallow water. (However, the ship was later salvaged and repaired and returned to active service later in the war.) 

The Japanese raid on West Virginia resulted in 132 men being killed and 52 being injured. With his previous ship now out of action, Miller reported for duty on the heavy cruiser Indianapolis on 13th December.

Commended for bravery

The Navy published a list of awards for actions during the attack on Pearl Harbor on New Year’s Day 1942. One of them was a commendation for an unidentified black man. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) pushed for the Distinguished Service Cross to be awarded to this unidentified black sailor, campaigning directly to President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself.

Eventually, the recommendation that the sailor be honoured was given to the Navy Board of Awards. Miller was identified as the sailor on 12th March in an Associated Press report that cited the Pittsburgh Courier – the most popular African American newspaper - as its source. Unsurprisingly, the Courier – which was a leading voice in promoting equal rights for Black Servicemen – saw Miller as a positive role model for Black Americans and one whose actions demonstrated the value of the Black servicemen.

Miller became known as one of the "first American heroes of World War II". 1st On April 1, he received praise in a letter from Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, and the following day, CBS Radio aired a dramatization of Miller's efforts in an episode of the show They Live Forever.

Black organisations started a push to get Miller more credit. The Pittsburgh Courier urged readers to write to congressional Naval Affairs Committee members on 4th April in support of Miller receiving the Medal of Honor - the highest award for valour available. On 17th - 19th April, the All-Southern Negro Youth Conference launched a signature campaign supporting the Couriers view while the National Negro Congress criticised the recommendation to deny Miller's Medal of Honor recommendation.

Article from the The Pittsburgh Courier

 Saturday 3rd Jan 1942, which describes the heroic actions of a 'colored mess attendent' - later confirmed to be Miller.

NAACP on mess attendant 01-03-42 -

However, despite the pressure from these prominent and influential African American organisations, on 11th May, President Roosevelt approved the Navy Cross for Miller instead.

Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet, personally thanked Miller on May 27 while the aircraft carrier Enterprise was at port in Pearl Harbor.

Nimitz awarded Miller the Navy Cross, which at the time was the third-highest Navy award for valour in battle; however, on 7th August 1942, Congress changed the order of precedence, moving the Navy Cross above the Distinguished Service Medal. 

Regarding Miller's praise, 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 honoured for brave acts."

Admiral Chester W. Nimitz pins Navy Cross on Doris Miller, at ceremony on board the USS Enterprise at Pearl Harbor, 27th May 1942.

Official U.S. Navy photograph, Office of Public Relations, Review Section - NARA

Doris “Dorie” Miller being awarded the Navy Cross.

New US Aircraft Carrier Named Pearl Harbor Hero Doris Miller (

Continuation of service

On 1st June 1942, Miller received a rating promotion to mess attendant first class. Later that month, the Pittsburgh Courier demanded that he be let to travel on a war bond tour back to his home country with white military heroes. The Pittsburgh Courier published a picture of Miller on July 25th with the headline, "He Fought... Keeps Mop," next to a picture of a white Pearl Harbor veteran receiving an officer's commission. The Navy believed that Miller was "too important waiting tables in the Pacific" for him to return to the United States, according to the photo caption.

Miller arrived back in Pearl Harbor on 23rd November and was instructed to go on a war bond trip while still stationed on the Indianapolis. He delivered speeches in Waco, Texas, his hometown, Dallas, and to the first graduating class of black sailors from the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in December and January 1943.   The 1943 "Above and above the call of duty" Navy recruitment poster featured Miller wearing his Navy Cross.

Dorie Miller speaking with sailors and a civilian at the Naval Training Station in Great Lakes, Illinois, January 7 1943.

National Archives

However, the war bond tour catapulted Miller into the spotlight, where his newfound fame became a burden and a cause of concern for him. He also became more and more pessimistic about his prospects for leading a rich life after the war. He told his brother after getting the Navy Cross, "my life is a holy hell. The white folks never did like me because I’m colored. Now the colored guys aboard ship do not like me because they say I think I’m somebody special”. Miller became convinced that his next active duty deployment would be a "suicide expedition".

The Navy amended the rate title "mess attendant" to "steward's mate" in February 1943. Miller, who was assigned to the recently built escort carrier Liscome Bay, reported at the Puget Sound Navy Yard in Bremerton, Washington, on 15th May. The 960-man ship's main duties were escorting convoys, providing aircraft for close air support during amphibious landing operations, and transporting aircraft to naval outposts and fleet carriers at sea.

Miller speaking during his war bonds tour.

Rear Admiral Henry M. Mullinix commanded Carrier Division 24, which had the Liscome Bay as its flagship. On October 22, Liscome Bay set sail for Pearl Harbor.

On 1st June 1, Miller’s rank was increased to third-class cook.

Killed in action

Liscome Bay departed Pearl Harbor on 10th November 1943, to join the Northern Task Force, Task Group 52, after undergoing training in the waters around Hawaii. The 27th Infantry Division of the Army's 165th Regimental Combat Team invaded Makin on November 20, and Miller's carrier participated in that battle. The Liscome Bay was cruising close to Butaritari (Makin Atoll's main island) on 24th November, the day after Makin was taken over by American troops, and the eve of Thanksgiving that year (the cooks had unfrozen the frozen turkeys from Pearl Harbor), when it was struck just before dawn in the stern by a torpedo from the Japanese submarine I-175 (which fired four torpedoes at Task Group 5312).

Two enlisted men of the Liscome Bay, torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in the Gilbert Islands, are buried at sea from the deck of a Coast Guard-manned assault transport. November 1943.


A few moments later, the carrier's own torpedoes and aircraft bombs, including 2,000-pounders, went off, and the ship sank in 23 minutes. Miller was one of the two-thirds of the crew who were recorded as "presumed dead" out of the crew of nearly 900, with only 272 survivors accounted for. On December 7, 1943, his parents were notified that he was lost in action. The sole ship lost during the Gilbert Islands expedition was the unfortunate Liscome Bay.

The Victory Club sponsored a memorial service for Miller on April 30, 1944, at the Second Baptist Church in Waco, Texas. On May 28, a granite marker honouring him was dedicated at Moore High School in Waco. The Navy declared Miller dead on November 25, 1944, a year and a day after the loss of Liscome Bay. 

One of his brothers also saw service during the Second World War.


Other African-American service members were able to serve in battle thanks to Doris Miller's legacy. Additionally, his image was utilised in Navy recruitment campaigns, such as the famous World War II enlisting poster that said, "Above and beyond the call of duty."

Doris Miller also got the Purple Heart, the American Defense Service Medal with the Fleet Clasp, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, and the World War II Victory Medal in addition to the Navy Cross. The Knox-class frigate USS Miller was named after him in 1973.

The future Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier USS Doris Miller is scheduled to be launched in October 2029, and put into service in 2032.

1943 U.S. Navy recruiting poster featuring Miller and his Navy Cross

Office of War Information (OWI Poster Number 68) Artist: David Stone Martin Source of image is the National Portrait Gallery

Further reading

Doris Miller, Pearl Harbor and the Birth of the Civil Rights Movement
By Thomas W. Cutrer and T. Michael Parrish. 140pp. Texas A&M University Press, 2017