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The Backstory: Doris Miller, the Texas hero at the center of the attack on Pearl Harbor

On Dec. 7, 1941, the attack on Pearl Harbor plunged America into WWII. And in the chaos of that day, a Texas hero emerged.

AUSTIN, Texas — Seventy-nine years ago Monday, America was plunged into World War II when Japanese planes attacked U.S. Navy ships at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.   

Dec. 7, 1941, fell on a Sunday, and many people in Austin – population about 88,000 back then – were enjoying a leisurely afternoon when the first bulletins came across the radio that the Japanese had attacked. 

About 3,700 miles from Austin at Pearl Harbor, a 22-year old-man from Waco named Doris Miller, nicknamed Dorie, a cook on the USS West Virginia, heard the alarm as several hundred Japanese torpedo planes attacked American ships including the one he was on.

He rushed on deck to help carry wounded sailors to safety and was ordered to help load anti-aircraft machine guns – and did something extraordinary. The Navy Times wrote that “the deck was awash with oil and water, and fires raged around him but Miller – finding a gun unattended, and without orders and with absolutely no training in its operation – took control and opened fire.”

“It wasn’t hard,” he later said. “I just pulled the trigger and she worked fine.”

Miller was among the last few men to leave the ship, now in ruins. As he and his shipmates swam 400 yards to shore, helping the wounded along the way, they dodged flaming oil and bullets being fired from Japanese planes.

Miller’s act of bravery earned him the Navy Cross in a ceremony aboard the USS Enterprise several months later, the first Black American to earn such an honor and one of the first Black war heroes.

Miller was brought stateside for several months to promote the war bond effort. His picture appeared on a navy recruiting poster.

But, soon, he was back at sea, still a cook and serving aboard the aircraft carrier USS Liscomb Bay. In 1943, Miller’s ship was hit by a Japanese torpedo and sank. His body was never recovered.

Then, earlier this year, the remarkable story of Doris Miller came to life again. His three nieces joined the acting U.S. Navy Secretary at Pearl Harbor on Martin Luther King Junior’s birthday this past January to hear a special announcement that the young Naval hero from Waco would be honored in a special way.

For the first time in history, a new aircraft carrier will pay homage to a Black American. The USS Doris Miller – now under construction – is expected to be operational by the year 2030.


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