By Norma Adams-Wade
Founding Member of the National Association of Black Journalist
Walking past the TV, the news flash froze my steps. The announcer said jubilantly that the U.S. Navy would posthumously name a future aircraft carrier in honor of war hero and Waco native Doris “Dorie” Miller. The honor is a first for an African-American and was bestowed on January 20 during a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday ceremony. The rest of the celebratory comments faded to “bah, bah, bah” as I immediately began to wrestle with my anger. This is crazy, I said to my anger, trying to make it go away. This is happy news. Why are you reacting this way?
Because I’m tired of waiting, my anger answered. Waiting? What do you mean? Let me explain. Miller, of course, has been written about countless times as the Naval “Mess Attendant” and later kitchen cook who became a hero. Outside his usual duties, the 6 foot 3 inch tall, 200-pound Naval boxing heavyweight champion repeatedly fired an anti-aircraft machine gun at a Japanese enemy aircraft that attacked the U. S. battleship West Virginia at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
After he ran out of ammunition, Miller then helped carry a wounded Captain and later other wounded sailors to safer locations, thus, as Navy officials later reported, “Unquestionably saving the lives of a number of people.” African-American newspapers and civil rights organizations pushed to have the government and military recognize Miller’s heroism. Of course, segregation and discrimination were rampant across the country and in the military at that time, but some elected officials took action to have Miller honored. Their efforts worked – to a point.
Miller became the first African-American to receive the Navy Cross, given for exceptional heroism, particularly in combat. The Navy Cross at that time was the third-highest Naval honor, behind the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Navy Distinguished Service Medal. Admirers were pleased. Yet, there was a problem. Many supporters felt strongly that Miller deserved the top recognition – the Medal of Honor. Champions for his cause kept the heat on and Miller did get diverse recognition – but never the top honor.
He was approved to join a war bond tour with other recognized soldiers in 1942 and even visited Waco and Dallas as part of the tour. Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Waco native, still was continuing her longtime effort to get the top honor for her hometown hero even as recently as 2016. Circumstances dictated otherwise. In 1943, Miller was assigned to the escort carrier Liscome Bay. An enemy torpedo struck that ship on November 24, 1943.
Miller was pronounced missing in action and later declared dead among more than 900 other crew members who went down with the ship. His parents received official notice of his death on December 7, 1943 — exactly two years after his heroic actions.
I was just thinking….Many, many legacies do honor Miller’s name. A previous frigate warship, the USS Miller, also was named for Miller in 1973. Navy officials say they will make a future formal announcement about this new carrier in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on a date to be announced. Other honors including housing communities, statues, plaques, schools, community centers, a cemetery, American Legion posts, a medical center, a foundation, and a commemorative stamp. Naming this recent aircraft carrier for Miller – more than 78 years after Pearl Harbor — is a big deal, yes. One has to assume it is an effort to right wrongs and mend wounds. Yes, thanks are in order for those who led this effort. But you get so, so tired of waiting.