Editors’ Note: Sourced from a New York Times opinion piece, November 7, 2020.
History tells us that “20 and odd” African captives were aboard a Dutch man o’ war ship that deposited them in Jamestown, Virginia, in August 1619, the first of many thousands that followed, powering the economy of southern states, populating at the same time a racial divide that plagues us today.
Another warship, the USS Doris Miller, is to be built at the Newport News shipyards. It is a Ford-class aircraft carrier of advanced design and technology, engineered to replace the Navy’s existing fleet of carriers. Construction of the Doris Miller is to begin in 2026; it is set to be launched in 2029, and commissioned in 2030. The Doris Miller is named for an African-American sailor who served as a cook aboard the West Virginia, a battleship stationed at Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
Doris “Dorie” Miller (October 12, 1919 – November 24, 1943) was an American sailor who manned anti-aircraft guns for which he had no training during the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and tended to the wounded, both on the ship and later in the water. He was recognized by the Navy for his actions and awarded the Navy Cross.
Miller was a crewman aboard the West Virginia and awoke at 6 a.m. on December 7, 1941. He served breakfast mess and was collecting laundry at 7:57 a.m. when the Japanese aircraft carrier Akagi (“red castle”) launched the first of seven torpedoes that hit the West Virginia. When the alarm went off, Miller headed for his battle station, an anti-aircraft battery magazine amidships, only to discover that a torpedo had destroyed it.
He then went to “Times Square,” a central spot aboard the ship, reporting himself available for duty. A junior officer ordered Miller to accompany him to the bridge to assist in moving the grievously wounded captain. Miller and another sailor lifted the skipper but were unable to remove him from the bridge, so they carried him from his exposed position on the damaged bridge to a sheltered spot behind the conning tower. The captain refused to leave his post, questioned his officers about the condition of the ship, and gave orders.
Although untrained in the use of the weapons, Miller commenced firing at the attackers. He fired until running out of ammunition. When the attack finally lessened, Miller helped move injured sailors through oil and water to the quarterdeck, thereby “unquestionably saving the lives of a number of people who might otherwise have been lost.”
Miller was then ordered to load two Browning .50 caliber anti-aircraft machine guns aft on the ship. Although untrained in the use of the weapons, Miller commenced firing at the attackers. He fired until running out of ammunition. When the attack finally lessened, Miller helped move injured sailors through oil and water to the quarterdeck, thereby “unquestionably saving the lives of a number of people who might otherwise have been lost.”
While some suggested that Miller was deserving of the Medal of Honor, that was not to be. Navy bias against Blacks was still in full flower. However, President Roosevelt approved awarding Miller the Navy Cross—at the time, the third-highest Navy award for gallantry during combat. In presenting the Navy Cross to Miller, Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, the commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, said that Miller’s award “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.”
Miller later served aboard an escort carrier, Liscome Bay, which was sunk by Japanese torpedoes in November 1943. Reported “missing in action,” his parents were informed, ironically, on December 7, 1943.
Aaron Anderson was the nation’s first Black recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, in 1865, for his heroism during the Civil War. [See https://wp.me/p9wDCF-1Y1, VoxFairfax, November 16, 2020.]
The Black American’s journey from slave ship to Navy aircraft carrier namesake in some 400+ years reflects some recognition of the contributions of African-Americans to the nation’s heritage.
The Black American’s journey from slave ship to Navy aircraft carrier namesake in some 400+ years reflects some recognition of the contributions of African-Americans to the nation’s heritage. And as The New York Times noted, “that the ship celebrates a descendant of enslaved Americans is especially resonant at a time when the country is poised to rename military bases that currently honor the very Confederate officers who fought the Civil War with the goal of preserving slavery.”
It is a myth to believe that World War II spawned some national realization that racial equality was on the wane. In fact, segregation in the military remained widespread well into the Korean War. The accolades that rained down on Dorie Miller were well deserved. Miller’s heroism — and the legend it engendered — moved the Navy to examine its racial policy, and served as part of a catalyst for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s that brought an end to the worst of America’s racial intolerance.
But as The Times states, “The decision to name the new supercarrier for Miller reflects the Navy’s desire to break with its egregiously racist past. In pursuing this goal, however, the leadership needs to steer clear of the fable that casts the Black mess attendant’s story as one of victory over segregation. The whole, unpleasant truth is that segregation circumscribed the lives of Black servicemembers throughout the so-called good war.”
Recognizing the systemic racism that permitted the Navy to pursue discriminatory practices is an encouraging first step to addressing the racial virus that has infected the country since 1619.