Among the names of the many individuals who served valiantly during World War II, Waco’s own Doris Miller was a hero of national and international acclaim. Although many noted the valor he displayed during the war, some argue he still has not received the honors due him.
Born as the third of four sons to Connery and Henrietta Miller on October 12, 1919, Doris, named for the midwife present at his birth, grew up on a small sharecrop farm just outside of Waco in Speegleville, Texas. Years later, Henrietta Miller admitted that she had hoped for a baby girl, and her wishful thinking led to the feminine name, despite her husband’s protests.
Along with his siblings, Doris worked to support the family farm from an early age. In his youth, he became an excellent marksman as he hunted for small game with his brothers. Doris also had a successful school career at A. J. Moore High School. His tall stature gained the attention of the football coach at the school who recruited Doris as a fullback on the team.
However, as Doris became older, and as war loomed on the horizon, he longed to join the armed forces much to the chagrin of his parents. After several attempts to join different sectors of the military, Doris Miller enlisted in the US Navy in Dallas, Texas, on September 16, 1939. Unfortunately, at the time of his enlistment, discrimination limited the areas of service for African Americans in the military. After training, his assignment was as a mess attendant, third class. It was from this station that Miller answered the call in extraordinary circumstances.
Assigned to the USS West Virginia anchored at Pearl Harbor, on December 7, 1941, Doris was collecting laundry in the hull of the ship when the attack began, according to some reports. As the air raid sirens started, Doris Miller burst into action. When he ran to the deck of the ship, he saw his captain sprawled, fatally wounded, on the ground. Miller pulled the wounded captain to safety before racing back to an unmanned antiaircraft gun in the midst of low-flying planes and a rain of bullets. Despite discriminatory policies that forbade Miller or other sailors of color to man heavy artillery, Miller seized control of a .50 caliber machine gun to fire at attacking Japanese planes. He committed his efforts to the defense of the West Virginia until superiors ordered all to abandon ship. Conflicting accounts exist of Miller’s actions that day, but the most widely circulated reports won him quick and international attention.
After the attack, the military awarded Miller with an unprecedented honor. He became the first African American recipient of the Navy Cross, the highest decoration the navy can offer besides the Congressional Medal of Honor. The navy leveraged Miller’s new status by returning him to the home front for a short time to act as a recruiter. In 1943, Miller received a promotion to petty officer, ship’s cook third class, and was assigned to the escort carrier USS Liscome Bay. That November, in the Battle of Makin Island, a Japanese torpedo struck the Liscome Bay and the ship sunk within minutes. Miller did not survive the attack.
While awarded the Purple Heart posthumously, Doris Miller never received the Congressional Medal of Honor, which many believe he deserved. Those who fight for his legacy still lobby for its award.
Though his life was cut short due to the call of active duty, Doris Miller lives on in public memory. Throughout the nation, streets, schools, and parks bear his name. In Waco, his hometown, stands the Doris D. Miller Park and the Doris Miller Family YMCA, active reminders of one African American man’s willingness to serve his country despite its discriminatory practices. Cultural Arts of Waco is currently raising money for a Doris Miller Memorial to be located on the east bank of the Brazos River.