WASHINGTON — Doris “Dorie” Miller was an unlikely hero — a mess attendant, second class, from Waco whose race precluded him from serving in a combat assignment.
But when the Japanese hit the USS West Virginia at Pearl Harbor, he manned a machine gun he’d not been trained on and ended up pulling the ship’s captain and many others to shelter.
His acts of courage earned him the Navy Cross, the Navy’s second-highest honor. But for decades, admirers have believed Miller deserved the top award: the Medal of Honor.
Now Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, a fellow Waco native, is mounting a fresh effort to rectify what she sees as a historical slight.
Johnson, D-Dallas, is building a national committee of 500 community leaders, elected officials and historians, and a smaller committee of about 30 that will work closely with her office as part of her most recent efforts to secure the nation’s highest military award for Miller.
They will seek support for the effort, and, starting this summer, members will be asked to write letters to the White House requesting that President Barack Obama award the Medal of Honor to Miller. She’s aiming for at least 5,000 letters.
Miller was killed in action in 1943, when the ship he was serving on in the South Pacific was struck by a torpedo.
The senior surviving officer, Cmdr. R.H. Hillenkoetter, noted in the West Virginia’s action report on Dec. 11, 1941, that Miller and Lt. F.H. White had been instrumental in “hauling people along through oil and water to the quarterdeck, thereby unquestionably saving the lives of a number of people who might otherwise have been lost.”
Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox issued an official commendation for Miller for his actions at Pearl Harbor but recommended against the Medal of Honor.
But Adm. Chester Nimitz saw value in giving Miller an award, not just a commendation, said Reginia Akers, a historian at the Naval History and Heritage Command.
“President [Franklin D.] Roosevelt approved that, but it was intervention on [Nimitz’s] part that that happened,” Akers said.
In early May 1942, Roosevelt approved the Navy Cross for Miller, and Nimitz, commander of the Pacific Fleet, pinned the medal on him later that month, making Miller the first African-American awarded the Navy Cross.
But advocates say he deserves the Medal of Honor.
70 years later
Getting the Medal of Honor for someone after more than 70 years takes time, though.
“One of the provisions is that each branch of service that they served with has to clear them to be considered when you’re going to get it congressionally. I have never been able to get that done. And it’s not just me,” Johnson said.
The father of recently retired Rep. John Dingell of Michigan attempted to get the Medal of Honor for Miller in 1942, and Reps. Jake Pickle, Barbara Jordan, Craig Washington and Mickey Leland, also of Texas, tried after him.
The Medal of Honor usually goes through a recommendation process in the military chain of command. But that has to happen within three years of the heroic act.
After that, getting the Medal of Honor requires several extra hurdles.
First, a member of Congress must ask the secretary of the Navy, or other appropriate military branch, to review the case. If the secretary finds a serviceman deserving, Congress can pass a bill creating an exemption from the time limits. Then the secretary can ask the president to grant the Medal of Honor.
According to a statement from Navy spokesman Lt. David Bennett, Miller’s Navy Cross citation has been reviewed multiple times.
During 1988 and 1989, the Navy conducted a review of awards to African-Americans during World War II to determine whether racial discrimination had played a part in the level of awards approved.
“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,” Bennett said.
In Miller’s wake
W. Marvin Dulaney, a professor at the University of Texas in Austin, is leading a committee of historians as part of Johnson’s efforts. He said Miller was instrumental in changing the way African-Americans serve in the Navy.
“Prior to World War II, most African-Americans were required to be cooks and messmen. They couldn’t join the Navy and become a seaman,” Dulaney said. Miller showed that they could do more.
After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Office of War Information published a poster featuring Miller to encourage African-Americans to join the war effort.
“His valor and his heroism sort of set the tone for the new approach the United States Navy was going to start taking after that point,” Dulaney said.
The West Virginia’s captain, Mervyn S. Bennion, was awarded the Medal of Honor after he was killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor. His Medal of Honor citation said, “As commanding officer of the USS West Virginia, after being mortally wounded, Captain Bennion evidenced apparent concern only in fighting and saving his ship, and strongly protested against being carried from the bridge.”
Bennion was one of 17 people who received the Medal of Honor for actions during Pearl Harbor. Of those, 11 were awarded posthumously.
No African-Americans received the Medal of Honor for actions during World War II until 1997 after a review of African-Americans who had received the Distinguished Service Cross. At that time, seven — only one of whom was still living — were upgraded to the Medal of Honor.
Retired Army Colonel Fred L. Borch, president of the Orders and Medals Society of America, said the Medal of Honor is for extraordinary heroism in combat.
“The actual words are ‘conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty,’” Borch said. “You just have to be unbelievably heroic.”
The citation for Miller’s Navy Cross said it was for “distinguished devotion to duty, extraordinary courage and disregard for his own personal safety.”
Miller wasn’t forgotten.
Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan, got legislation passed last year to rename the Waco VA Medical Center for Miller. The Navy named a ship for Miller in 1973. The USS Miller, a Knox-class frigate, was decommissioned in 1991. And in 2001, Cuba Gooding Jr. portrayed Miller in the movie Pearl Harbor.