Doris “Dorie” Miller didn’t think about heroism on Dec. 7, 1941, when he grabbed an anti-aircraft gun aboard the USS West Virginia and fired at Japanese fighter planes attacking Pearl Harbor. Because he died in combat two years later, he never knew how grateful the country would be for his valor.
He has been among the most celebrated Black heroes of World War II. His image was used to recruit African-Americans into the war effort, he was remembered on a postage stamp, he was portrayed by Cuba Gooding Jr., in the film Pearl Harbor, and his story is told in several museums including the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture. Still, though many feel he should have it, he has not been awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor.
But that will change if Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson has her way.
Johnson, a Texas Democrat who grew up in the same Waco, Tex., neighborhood that Miller was from has been fighting to get the recognition for him for several decades. Although it’s an uphill battle, she says she’s determined to win.
“I have lobbied the Department of the Navy about as much as I know how to lobby them,” Johnson told the Dallas Morning News. “I’ve been working on it ever since I’ve been here, and I don’t know that I am any closer.”
When she was just seven years old, she went door to door in Waco asking for donations with her father so that they could honor Miller. Johnson recalls seeing him during a stateside tour before he reported back for duty at Puget Sound Navy Yard in Washington. “I remember him coming home after Pearl Harbor,” Johnson said. “He was a real hero. He continues to be a real hero.”
Miller, who was barred from serving in combat because of the then-segregated military served as a Mess Attendant, Third Class aboard the USS West Virginia, stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii when Japanese torpedoes struck the ship. He assisted in moving the ship’s captain before loading an anti-aircraft machine gun and firing against the airborne attackers. He then continued to assist in saving the lives of crew members throughout the duration of the attack.
In 1942, he was awarded the Navy Distinguished Service Cross for his bravery. Two Congressmen, Sen. James Mead and Rep. John Dingell Sr., both introduced bills to award Miller the Medal of Honor, but they never passed. Then-Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox wrote a commendation for Miller, but also recommended against giving him the medal.
After duty at Puget Sound, he reported to the USS Liscome Bay. The ship and its crew fought in the Battle of Makin Island in the South Pacific and took a torpedo hit, sinking it. Miller was one of the 700 crewmen who died in the battle.
Fast forward seven decades and Johnson is still as determined as she was when she was a little girl to see that Miller gets the proper recognition. Navy rules state that for a serviceman to get the medal more than three years after the act of bravery, special recommendation from the Secretary of the Navy to reopen the case. But so far there has been no decision on it from the current secretary Ray Mabus. In 2015, the Navy said that racial discrimination had played no part in Miller being denied the medal according to a study.
“The 1988-1989 study concluded there was no evidence of racial discrimination in the Miller case and the heroic acts of Petty Officer Doris Miller did not rise above the line between the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross. In 1996, a second study came to the same conclusion,” Navy spokesman Lt. David Bennett, told the Morning News at the time.
But Johnson, now in her 13th term in office, balked at that notion. “I disagree, along with about a million other people we’ve heard from,” she said.
Miller may not be any closer to receiving the Medal of Honor, but the groundswell effort to get the award for him continues to grow. William Guzmán, an assistant professor of history and African-American studies at Florida A&M University has also been an ardent campaigner to get the award for Miller and believes Navy studies have not considered what he had to overcome to perform his acts of bravery.
“He wasn’t even allowed to have access to the weaponry, because the Navy sincerely believed that African-Americans were intellectually inferior, that they were cowards,” Guzmán told the Morning News. “And when you consider that he was still able to save some of his fellow comrades from death, that speaks volumes.”