Landers column: A man named Doris

Landers column: A man named Doris

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Doris Miller went to work that morning like any other. A Mess Attendant 2nd Class, which is a fancy name for a cook in the US Navy, he was also assigned other menial tasks such as laundry duty when the kitchen wasn’t in need. After serving breakfast, he went about his morning working in the hot and stuffy laundry area of the USS West Virginia, a 624-foot battleship currently in port, when an explosion rocked the ship. Then another, and another, and pretty soon Mess Attendant 2nd Class Miller realized that December 7th, 1941 was not going to be a normal day.

Miller’s ship was initially struck by a total of nine torpedoes that hit the West Virginia as he rushed out of the bowels of the ship as the battle station alarms sounded. Miller found that his actual area of battle assignment was decimated from one of the torpedo hits. Miller was then directed to assist in helping the ship’s Captain, Mervyn Bennion, to a safer location on the bridge after Captain Bennion was seriously injured from shrapnel launched during an explosion. The whine of Japanese “Zeroes” overhead filled the air, only to be disturbed by the continual sounds of sirens, explosions, and screams of those wounded and burning.

Rarely was Miller allowed above deck on the West Virginia. Even though a strong man and a star running back from his hometown of Waco, Texas, his presence on deck was not allowed. And even though he enlisted in the US Navy to serve his country, Miller was still resigned to below deck duties of laundry and cooking and not even permitted to train on or handle a weapon. For Doris Miller, Mess Attendant 2nd Class, was black, and black sailors were not permitted on deck or allowed to handle weapons. Yet now, faced with an all-out attack, the color of Miller’s skin didn’t seem to matter anymore as he was led to one of the deck’s two towers. Within minutes, Mess Attendant 2nd Class Doris Miller was aiming a .50 caliber anti-aircraft machine gun, a gun he was never trained to use because of the color of his skin, at every Zero flying overhead.

Miller eventually found himself out of ammunition as the ship was now rocked by two armor-piercing bombs dropped from Japanese bombers overhead and struck by an additional five more torpedoes through the water. The ship was on fire, filled with smoke, and taking on vast amounts of water through its torpedo-ravaged hull. Miller returned to his Captain to move him to another part of the ship where he would eventually die from his wounds. Faced with the option to abandon ship himself, Miller continued to seek and assist his fellow sailors trapped below the USS West Virginia, literally carrying them to safety through smoke, flames, and oil-filled water to eventually be taken to the quarter deck and off the ship.

It is unknown to this day how many lives Mess Attendant 2nd Class Miller saved on December 7th, 1941. 2,403 Americans were killed that morning by 353 Japanese aircraft and 8 carriers. Yet it was a single torpedo strike from a Japanese submarine that would claim the life of Miller almost two years later on November 24, 1943 while he was stationed aboard the USS Liscome Bay deep into the Pacific. With a crew of 900, only 628 were lost as the ship went down in 23 minutes, Miller among them.

Mess Attendant 2nd Class Miller would be awarded the distinguished Navy Cross as well as earning a Purple Heart for injuries sustained in combat. He has a nine-foot bronze statue honoring him in Waco, has five schools named after him in Texas and California, and over a dozen streets and parks throughout the land bear his name now. Yet his biggest tribute fittingly was announced just prior to February’s Black History Month this year.

The USS Doris Miller, a 1,106 ft. long, 256 ft. tall, 100,000-ton, nuclear-powered aircraft carrier with a top speed of 35 mph was just announced by the US Navy. The behemoth will hold close to 4,000 personnel, surface to air missiles, 75 fighter jets, and yes will have on its deck four .50 caliber guns, the same kind Mess Attendant 2nd Class Miller was not allowed to be trained on. The new carrier, the most expensive ever made at $15 billion and one of the largest Navy vessels ever made, is typically named in honor of U.S. Presidents. But it just seems fitting that a ship with this much strength, courage, and fortitude be named after a man named Doris.

Opinions expressed by Brian do not necessarily reflect those of the Dells Events or associations Brian may have. Brian can be reached at brianlanders@charter.net

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