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Black sailor from Texas honored on 80th anniversary of Pearl Harbor attack

The Doris Miller Memorial in Waco stretches across the image in white stone.
The Texas Historical Commission
A ceremony was held in Waco at the Doris Miller Memorial on Dec. 7 to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. It honored the heroics of Miller, a Black sailor from the Central Texas city. The ceremony was held at 11:55 a.m. Central Time, the same time as the Pearl Harbor attack.

A public ceremony in Waco on Tuesday, marking 80 years since the attack on Pearl Harbor, honored the heroics of a Black sailor from the Central Texas city.

At the event, bronze sculpted images depicting the life and actions of Doris “Dorie” Miller were unveiled. Miller was a Navy cook when Japan attacked the United States on Dec. 7, 1941. While under siege, he manned a machine gun to fire at Japanese planes and carried the dying captain of the USS West Virginia to safety.

Admiral Chester Nimitz pins the Navy Cross on the chest of Doris Miller during a ceremony. The black-and-white image shows a line of sailors and officers behind Miller.
U.S. Navy
National Archives
Doris Miller receives the Navy Cross from Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, during a ceremony on board the USS Enterprise at Pearl Harbor on May 27, 1942.

When Miller joined the Navy in 1939, he started out as a mess attendant, one of the few classifications a Black person could hold at the time. The responsibilities of that job included cooking and shining officers’ shoes.

Due to racial segregation, Black sailors were also not allowed to serve in combat roles and did not receive the same training as white sailors. So when Miller fired the antiaircraft gun during the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the 22-year-old had not been trained. He also helped rescue injured sailors that day.

Doreen Ravenscroft is the president of Cultural Arts of Waco, which spearheaded the Doris Miller Memorial on the Brazos River, where the ceremony was held.

“If you manage to get to Waco, you will see the statue of this young man—it’s actually a nine foot statue. So, it’s one and half times his actual height—but you will also understand the importance of recognizing someone who went beyond the call of duty,” Ravenscroft said, during a webinar presentation hosted by the Texas Historical Commission on Monday.

A portrait of Doris Miller is next to a cartoon drawing of Miller shooting a gun at Pearl Harbor.
U.S. Navy/National Archives
The Texas Historical Commission
Doris Miller (left), cartoon of Doris Miller’s actions during the attack on Pearl Harbor (right).

Miller was awarded the Navy cross In 1942, one of the highest naval awards. He was the first African American to receive such an honor. But the U.S. Navy was initially resistant to giving Miller the award due to his race, until it was pressured bythe NAACP andBlack newspapers.

Retired Gen.Michael Hagee, who leads the Admiral Nimitz Foundation—which helps manage the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg—reflected on Miller’s impact during Monday’s Texas Historical Commission webinar.

“When he was recommended for the Navy cross, the United States Navy fought against that,” he said. “And, in a 2017 book by Thomas Cutrer and Michael Parrish called “Doris Miller, [Pearl Harbor,] and the Birth of the Civil Rights Movement,’ they argue, in my opinion successfully, that in fact, he really started the civil rights movement.”

The statue of Doris Miller at the memorial is bronze and bigger than life-size. Behind it is a reflecting pool and a wall created with white triangle-shaped stone.
The Texas Historical Commission
The Doris Memorial Foundation in Waco.

According to the book Hagee mentioned, Miller’s actions later helped desegregate the Navy and allowed Black sailors to be eligible for more jobs, other than mess attendant.

Last year, the Navy announced that a supercarrier would be named for Miller, the first ever named for an African American. Most are named after U.S. presidents.