Doris Miller was working as a mess attendant on the battleship West Virginia the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. An alarm sounded, and as the ship drew heavy fire, Miller raced to assist the West Virginia's fatally wounded commanding officer. He also fired a machine gun against enemy planes.
For his bravery and "distinguished devotion to duty" that day, Miller was awarded the prestigious Navy Cross, the second-highest military decoration, in 1942, making him the first black person to receive the medal.
Now, 78 years after the attack, the U.S. Navy is set to recognize the sailor with another honor Monday, when it will name a CVN-81 aircraft carrier after Miller, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported.
"I think he is an American hero because he went beyond" what was expected of someone of his rank, Doreen Ravenscroft, a team leader for the Doris Miller Memorial, said Saturday. "His human instinct was to defend his team on board the West Virginia and the United States. He certainly deserves the honor."
Miller was born Oct. 12, 1919, in Waco, Texas. He enlisted in the Navy in 1939, when black sailors were not allowed to serve in combat positions.
After training in Norfolk, Va., he was assigned to the West Virginia as a mess attendant; his duties included cooking, swabbing the decks and shining officers' shoes.
The day of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Miller woke up at 6 a.m. and had already collected laundry when the general alarm sounded. He headed for his battle station, the Navy said, "only to discover that torpedo damage had wrecked it, so he went on deck."
Miller, then 22, was assigned to carry wounded sailors to safety. An officer ordered him to help Capt. Mervyn Bennion on the bridge, according to the Navy. Bennion died of his injuries.
With no prior training, Miller then operated "a .50-caliber Browning anti-aircraft machine gun until he ran out of ammunition and was ordered to abandon ship," the Navy said.
Of the 1,541 men aboard the ship, 130 were killed and 52 were wounded.
In 1943, Miller was killed during the Battle of Makin. He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart.
New York Times