The U.S. Navy has a supercarrier on the drawing boards to make history. It will be the first to be named after an African American, and the first to be named after an enlisted sailor.
The USS Doris Miller will be named after one of the first heroes of World War II. As “Dorie” Miller’s battleship, the USS West Virginia, was sinking in Pearl Harbor, Miller pulled his dying captain to cover and grabbed a machine gun, shooting at Japanese planes until he was out of ammunition.
In 1941, a Black sailor was not supposed to be manning a gun, nor was he trained to be firing the anti-aircraft weapon.
“One of the ways in which the Navy discriminated against African Americans was that they limited them to certain types of jobs, or what we call ‘ratings’ in the Navy,” said Regina Akers, a historian with the Naval History and Heritage Command. “So, for African Americans, many were messmen or stewards. Dorie Miller was a messman, which meant that he basically took care of an officer, laid out his clothes, shined his shoes and served meals.”
After he was out of ammunition, Miller began pulling sailors out of the burning oil-covered water, and was one of the last men to leave his sinking ship while continuing to get injured sailors to safety.
An official Navy commendation list of those whose actions during the attack stood out mentioned an unnamed Black sailor.
The Pittsburgh Courier, one of the leading Black newspapers of the day, sent an editor to find out who the unnamed black sailor was who had been seen as a hero during the attack. The paper spent $7,000 finding out the identity of Dorie Miller, in order to see the Navy properly recognize and honor him.
And the Courier helped make Dorie Miller one of the first African American heroes of the war, with his face on recruitment posters. He was initially awarded a letter of commendation, but then received the Navy Cross, the third highest honor for heroism.
Even before Miller formally received the medal, the effects of what he had done, trumpeted by the Black newspapers, began to have an effect. The Navy started training Black sailors for jobs such as gunner’s mate, radioman and radar operator. Later it began commissioning Black officers.
The decision to name the supercarrier came from Navy Secretary Thomas Modley, the acting secretary until April. Modley asked a group of Black admirals to find an enlisted African American sailor for the honor, and Doris Miller’s name came back to him within five days. According to Modley, it seemed like the right thing to do given the U.S. Navy’s diversity, especially compared with the navies of other nations.
According to a Navy historian:
“Despite the fact that he was denied certain basic constitutional rights because of the racism in our society at the time, Dorie didn’t let that deter him,” she said. “It didn’t lessen his patriotism, his love for country, his determination to serve and to give the Navy his very best, and that says a lot. That says a lot.”
Miller had returned to the Pacific, and in 1943 his ship was torpedoed and sank, killing hundreds of sailors on board, including Miller.
More details at NPR.