WWII’s First Black Hero Gets First-Class Salute

December 31, 2009 Columns, News: Events & Stories

What: First-Day-of-Issue dedication ceremony of the Distinguished Sailors 44-cent Commemorative First-Class stamps. The event is free and open to the public.
When: 10:30 a.m., Thurs., Feb. 4, 2010
Where: The Arleigh and Roberta Burke Theater

United States Navy Memorial

701 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W.

Washington, DC  20004-2608

Background: The U.S. Postal Service will immortalize Dori Miller and three other sailors who served with bravery and distinction during the 20th century when it issues the Distinguished Sailors stamps.  In addition to Miller, others commemorated on the stamps include:  William S. Sims, Arleigh A. Burke and John McCloy.

As the first Black American hero of World War II, Doris (pronounced Dorie) Miller (1919-1943) was awarded the Navy Cross and became an inspiration to generations of Americans for his actions atPearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. He was later awarded the Navy Cross.

Miller was born into a family of sharecroppers and raised near Waco, TX. Imposing in stature, he played football in high school and later showed skills as a heavyweight boxer. On Sept. 16, 1939, at age 19, Miller enlisted in the Navy as a mess attendant, the only job rating open to Blacks at the time.

While serving aboard the battleship West Virginia during the Japanese attack, Miller helped rescue scores of wounded or trapped shipmates and later helped move the ship’s mortally wounded captain to a more sheltered area.

Though never trained in its operation, he manned an unattended 50-caliber machine gun and fired on Japanese aircraft until ordered to abandon the bridge as fires raged out of control (Actor Cuba Gooding, Jr., portrayed Miller in the 2001 film Pearl Harbor.)

Thanks to press coverage and the tremendous interest of the African American community, Miller (often referred to as “Dorie” in press accounts) arguably became the best known enlisted sailor of World War II.

He was killed on Nov. 24, 1943, with more than 600 shipmates when a Japanese submarine torpedoed and sank the escort aircraft carrier Liscome Bay during Operation Galvanic, the invasion of the Gilbert Islands. His body was lost at sea.

Miller received numerous posthumous honors. A destroyer escort, USS Miller (DE-1091), commissioned in 1973, was named for him. A number of elementary schools across the country have been named after Miller; in Waco, TX, a school, park, cemetery and YMCA branch bear his name.

Although he was only the first of a number of African Americans to be recognized for their heroism in World War II, Miller is singularly remembered for providing inspiration to a campaign for equal recognition and opportunity for Blacks in the military, a campaign that bore fruit in 1948 whenPresident Truman ordered “that there shall be equality and opportunity for all persons in the armed forces.”

Commander of U.S. naval forces in European waters during World War I, William S. Sims (1858-1936) was an outspoken reformer and innovator who helped shape the Navy into a modern fighting force.

After serving as one of the top destroyer squadron commanders of World War II, Arleigh A. Burke (1901-1996) had an equally distinguished postwar career in which he played a major role in modernizing the Navy and guiding its response to the Cold War.

Described by a shipmate as “like a bull” who couldn’t be stopped, John McCloy (1876-1945) holds the distinction of being one of the few men in the nation’s history to earn two Medals of Honor for separate acts of heroism.

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