Recently, I was perusing a current issue of the Tacoma News Tribune when I came across a 1943 photo of Doris Miller visiting a Tacoma USO at 713 Commerce Street. A local volunteer named Druetta McCabe was also in the photo. Do you remember the name Doris Miller?
Well, on December 7, 1941, Doris Miller was a mess steward aboard the battleship West Virginia anchored in Pearl Harbor. He awoke at 6:00 am that morning to help prepare breakfast for the crew. At 7:57 am, Lieutenant Shigeharu Murata from the Japanese aircraft carrier Akagi launched the first of nine torpedoes that would strike the West Virginia. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was on and Miller headed for his battle station only to discover it had been destroyed.
He then went to what the crew called Times Square, a central spot where several passageways crossed and made himself available for duty. Lieutenant Commander Doir C. Johnson, the ship’s communications officer, ordered Miller to follow him to the bridge and assist with moving the ship’s mortally wounded captain to a safer location out of the thick smoke and flames.
With the Captain safe, Miller was ordered to load a Browning .50 caliber anti-aircraft gun just behind the bridge. Miller not only loaded the gun, but started firing at attacking Japanese planes. When he ran out of ammo and the ship sinking, Miller rushed to the aid of several other seriously injured crewmen and helped them abandon ship, thus saving their lives.
For his selfless actions on this tragic day, Doris Miller became the first African – American to be awarded the Navy Cross for extraordinary heroism under fire. The award was personally presented by Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet.
Miller became an instant hero and posters of him standing resolutely in the open firing a 50 caliber machine gun at attacking enemy planes spread across America. Actor Elven Havard played Miller in the 1970 film Tora! Tora! Tora! and Cuba Gooding Jr. played him in the 2001 film “Pearl Harbor”. Schools, community centers and a Navy frigate have been named in his honor as well as a recent U. S. commemorative postage stamp.
Miller was born in Waco, Texas on October 12th, 1919, the third of four sons born to the Millers. His was named “Doris” as his family was praying for a girl and he later took the nickname “Dorie” He played fullback on his high school football team and was 6 foot, 3 inches tall and weighed over 200 pounds when he joined the Navy in 1939.
He was also the West Virginia’s heavyweight boxing champion.
After his heroic actions at Pearl Harbor he went on a nationwide War Bond tour which took him to Tacoma in May of 1943. He then reported to Puget Sound Naval Yard for duty aboard the escort carrier Liscomb Bay. On 24 November 1943 the Liscomb Bay was torpedoed by Japanese submarine during the battle of Makin Island. Sadly, Doris Miller and most of the crew went down with the ship.
So next time you’re driving on Tacoma’s Commerce Street, give a special thought to a special 1943 visitor named Doris Miller. We owe him and his brave shipmates our eternal gratitude.