They usually name aircraft carriers after presidents. But the tradition-bound U.S. Navy will name its next aircraft carrier after a black enlisted man who became one of the first Americans to fight back while the Japanese were attacking Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
Messman Third Class Doris “Dorie” Miller was serving on the battleship West Virginia and was sorting laundry when Japanese planes bombed and torpedoed his ship. Ordered topside to evacuate the captain, who lay mortally wounded, Miller discovered an unmanned .50-caliber Browning anti-aircraft machine gun and fired at the attacking aircraft. He also assisted in getting some of the wounded to safety.
At the time, African Americans were not allowed to fire lethal weapons. In fact, blacks at that time couldn’t serve in any other capacity except in the mess.
At first, the Navy refused to recognize his act of heroism. But a black newspaper highlighted his story, putting pressure on the Navy to give him a letter of commendation. Eventually, President Roosevelt awarded him the Navy Cross, given to Miller by Admiral Chester Nimitz. Miller was the first black to receive the award.
Miller went on a speaking tour and became a black celebrity in the same league as heavyweight champion Joe Louis and singer Lena Horne.
Akers said, “Some considered him just as important, just as aspirational, drew just as much hope from him.”
Was he comfortable with his celebrity? “No, not at all,” Akers said. “His goal was really to get to his next ship.”
Miller was assigned to the aircraft carrier Liscome Bay, which less than a year after Pearl Harbor, was sunk by a Japanese torpedo. Dorie Miller was never seen again.
Miller also had a destroyer named in his honor that was decommissioned in 1991.
In a historic moment just in time for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, @SECNAV announces that the newest #USNavy aircraft carrier will be named USS Doris Miller #CVN81. Miller was the first African American to receive the Navy Cross.
— U.S. Navy (@USNavy) January 19, 2020
There will be talk of pandering in an election year. And there may even be some criticism. Navy historian Regina Akers.
Construction has not yet begun on the USS Doris Miller; it will be seven or eight years before the ship gets into the water. It will be expected to sail the world for 50 years.
Akers said, “Like everything else that’s celebrated about Dorie Miller, it’s gonna draw some criticism, rest assured.”
“What would be the criticism?” asked Martin.
“Some may suggest it’s more than he deserves. Some may say he was just a guy who did his job when general quarters went off on a ship, ‘What’s the big deal?'”
Isn’t that true in most cases of heroism? It’s showing courage while just “doing your job” that makes heroes out of ordinary folks.
You can argue whether the tradition of naming a carrier after a president should have been continued and Miller could have been named after a cruiser or another class of ship. But I can say confidently that the USS Miller will help project American power and influence.
And it doesn’t matter what her name will be.