Above and Beyond the Call of Duty: Doris Miller’s Story from Waco to WWII
Doris Miller failed eighth grade once.
Then he failed it again.
Then he was rejected by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
By the time he was 19, Doris was deemed unsuitable for a Depression-era government assistance job. It’d be hard to blame anyone for thinking Doris’ life was headed nowhere – and getting there fast.
But setback after setback didn’t discourage this son of Waco-area sharecroppers, who was plenty familiar with hard work and tough circumstances. Instead of being defeated, Doris walked into a Navy recruiter’s office in Dallas and signed himself up.
President Roosevelt had opened up the Navy to African-Americans seven years earlier, but only under the condition that they serve in segregated mess units serving their white counterparts. Doris took his position as a Mess Attendant, Third Class on the USS West Virginia sailing the Pacific theater.
He was a great fit for the Navy, especially when it came to the sport of boxing.
Doris, so-named because his parents had expected a girl, took no prisoners in the boxing ring on the Pearl Harbor-based USS West Virginia, eventually becoming the ship’s heavyweight boxing champion. But the sparring in the ring would soon make way to more serious fighting.
On the morning of December 7th, Doris was collecting soiled laundry when he felt the blow of the first of nine Japanese bombs hit his ship. He hurried to the main deck to assume his battle station and began aiding his fellow wounded sailors, moving them out of the open-fire to temporary safety.
As an African-American sailor with much less training than the white sailors, Doris had no experience with anti-aircraft weapons. In fact, he had never fired a .50 caliber Browning anti-aircraft machine gun until he spotted an unmanned station and took aim at the incoming Japanese bombers.
No one would have guessed that the young mess attendant had no formal training with that weapon. He continued to return fire at the Japanese attackers until he was forced to abandon the sinking ship. Men who served alongside Doris that day recall him shooting down as many as six Japanese bombers, although the true number has never been known.
Doris’ heroic service in defense of his country tragically came to an end two years later when a single Japanese torpedo dealt a fatal blow to the USS Liscome Bay on the morning of November 24, 1943. Of the 916 men on board at the time of the attack, just 272 survived and Doris was not one of them.
Doris truly was an American hero. He was the first African-American to earn the Navy Cross in 1942.
Over 70 years later, his valiant story has not been forgotten. Schools, parks, auditoriums – even a Navy ship, the USS Miller – have been named after him. You may have even seen him on postal stamps throughout the years. And now the newest addition to his legacy will be right here in Texas at the Doris Miller Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Waco, thanks to a Congressional Resolution we passed last year.
As we know, Doris’ story is just one of the many incredible biographies that started here in Texas. I’m proud to share my home state with him and to honor Doris’ legacy in celebration of Black History Month.