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Black Pearl Harbor hero Doris Miller saved numerous lives by manning anti-aircraft gun despite race ban

The aircraft carrier will be the first to be named after someone of African-American heritage. Miller died during the battle of Gilbert Islands on November 24, 1943, after his ship, the Liscome Bay, was attacked in the Pacific Ocean
UPDATED JAN 20, 2020
Doris Miller (US Navy)
Doris Miller (US Navy)

In a historic decision, the US Navy has announced that it will be naming a future aircraft carrier in honor of an African-American who was a hero during the attack on Pearl Harbor and lost his life in battle in World War II.

Thomas Modly, the acting Secretary of Navy, said in a statement that the CVN-81, a Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier scheduled to be laid down in 2023 and launched in 2028, will be named after Doris Miller, a mess attendant who heroically jumped into combat during the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

Miller was born in Waco, Texas, to sharecroppers and went on to become his school's star fullback before being forced to quit due to financial problems, according to the Doris Miller Memorial.

He then supplemented his family's income by working as a cook in a small restaurant during the Great Depression before enlisting in the US Navy less than a month before his 20th birthday.

His time in the Navy was during a period when Jim Crow laws — designed to deny African Americans their rights and segregate their population — dominated vast swathes of the country.

It was also the time when armed forces policies did not allow for the training of African American recruits like him to use firearms. An African American was not allowed to man a gun in the Navy in 1941. Hence, he was confined to roles in the Messman branch that required him to swab the decks, cook and shine other officers' shoes. 

On the day of the attack, he had woken up at 6 am and was collecting laundry when the Japanese attacked his ship, the USS Virginia, according to a report by NPR. He quickly made his way to the antiaircraft battery magazine to return fire but found it damaged in the torpedo attack.

He then went to the deck, where he started carrying his wounded comrades to safety. He even helped rescue the ship's captain, who had been severely wounded in the attack, before going on to man an anti-aircraft machine gun — something he had never been trained to operate — and using it until it was out of ammunition.

Miller being awarded the Navy Cross for his actions during the bombing of Pearl Harbor (US Navy)

The crew on the USS Virginia was eventually ordered to abandon the ship, at which point Miller once again helped move injured sailors to safety. 

For his bravery, Miller was awarded the Navy Cross in 1942, which was the third-highest honor in the Navy at the time. He was the first black sailor to be awarded the medal, though it wasn't without controversy.

Despite vehement support from African-American groups, others had demanded he not be given the medal because of his race, something President Franklin Roosevelt ignored.

He was also awarded a Purple Heart Medal, the American Defense Service Medal, Fleet Clasp, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, and the World War II Victory Medal, and saw his face used in World War II recruitment posters.

Miller died during the battle of Gilbert Islands on November 24, 1943, after his ship, the Liscome Bay, was torpedoed and sunk in the Pacific Ocean. 

The official announcement regarding the aircraft carrier to be named in his honor is scheduled to be made on Monday, January 20 — which is celebrated across the country as Martin Luther King Jr. Day — at Pearl Harbor.

Two of his nieces are expected to be in attendance at the time. The USS Doris Miller will be the "premier forward asset for crisis response and humanitarian relief, and early decisive striking power in a major combat operations," according to the Navy.

It will be the first-ever aircraft carrier and the third naval ship to be named after an African-American, with previous ones named after famous battles, military leaders, and US Presidents. 

"Doris Miller stood for everything that is good about our nation, and his story deserves to be remembered and repeated wherever our people continue the watch today," Modly added.