The Navy first attributed the heroic act simply to a colored mess attendant who manned a .50-caliber machine gun and shot at the Japanese planes attacking Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
But that wasn’t enough for some: The black press and civil rights leaders pressured Congress to force the Navy to reveal the hero's name and to award him a commendation. So in 1942, Cook 3rd Class Doris Miller became the first African American to receive the Navy Cross for valor in combat.
In a Martin Luther King Day Jr. ceremony last month at Pearl Harbor attended by three of Miller's nieces, Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly announced that a future Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier will bear Miller's name.
"It was his character, not his skin color, that ordained" Miller to become a hero, Modly said, noting that the sailor was "the son of sharecroppers, grandson of slaves."
On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, Miller, who was a mess attendant 2nd class at the time, was collecting laundry on the battleship USS West Virginia when it was torpedoed by the Japanese.
"He had just finished serving breakfast," Modly said, adding: "All African Americans were below deck, assigned as cooks or personal servants to white officers."
Miller was soon ordered to the bridge to aid the mortally wounded commanding officer. Miller commandeered a .50-caliber Browning antiaircraft machine gun, firing at planes until his ammunition ran out. At the MLK Day ceremony, Modly reminded people that the Browning was "a gun he had not been trained to use simply because of the color of his skin."
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T. Michael Parrish, a historian and professor at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, Miller's hometown, said in an interview: "The Navy relegated black sailors to the worst kinds of duty, the lowest grades and the least respected. They were relegated to the kitchens, to cleaning and swabbing the deck, to being abused and mistreated."
After manning the gun, Miller helped move injured sailors off the ship and to safety.
Modly, who stressed the racism black sailors faced at the time in the country and in the Navy, said: "When the order came to abandon the ship, he stayed and helped. He was one of the last three sailors to leave the USS West Virginia."
Parrish said: "The Navy did not even want to release his name. But the African American press, particularly the Pittsburgh Courier, got a hold of it and went to members of Congress who depended upon black votes in the North to put pressure on the Navy Department to release Doris Miller's name.
"Finally, members of Congress, along with the black press, contacted the White House, and President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the secretary of the Navy to release his name and to give him a major award, the Navy Cross," said Parrish, a co-author of "Doris Miller, Pearl Harbor, and the Birth of the Civil Rights Movement.”
In the following decades Miller has been honored and memorialized in various ways.
"This will be the second ship named in honor of Miller and the first aircraft carrier ever named for an African American, " Modly told the Pearl Harbor crowd. "This is also the first aircraft carrier to be named in honor of an enlisted sailor. "
According to Naval History and Heritage Command, Miller once described firing the machine gun: “It wasn't hard. I just pulled the trigger, and she worked fine,” he said. “I had watched the others with these guns. I guess I fired her for about 15 minutes.”
His heroism galvanized the African American community, which offered his name as a reason to desegregate the armed forces, Parrish said.
"Over and over again, civil rights leaders and the black press and Congress members mentioned Doris Miller's importance as the catalyst resulting in the modern civil rights movement of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. His actions were a springboard for the movement."
At the Pearl Harbor ceremony, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, spoke of having grown up in Waco.
"A black man from my hometown stepped up to save America, Johnson said. “I followed my father all over the neighborhood to collect money for Doris Miller to give him something when he came home."
And when she won her first election, she said, she went to see Miller's mother to let her know that Miller's spirit had encouraged her.
Miller died just two years after his act of heroism, perishing with more than 645 other men aboard the USS Liscome Bay when it was hit by a torpedo and sank off Butaritari Atoll in the Gilbert Islands.
A nonprofit, Cultural Arts of Waco, is in the final stages of raising funds to complete the Doris Miller Memorial, which will feature a bronze relief of the Navy Cross and three bronze images telling Miller's life story.