Born near Waco on October 12, 1919, in Willow Grove, Texas, Doris Miller is the first African American to be awarded the Navy Cross for valor in combat. Miller was the fourth-born son of the family, and named by his mother’s midwife as she was convinced the baby was to be female. After attending local segregated schools, Miller worked, then enlisted in the Navy a month before his 20th birthday. After training, he was assigned to the USS West Virginia.
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This ship resided at “Battleship Row” in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and was there on the fated day of December 7, 1941, when Japanese naval air forces attacked United States air, land, and sea forces. Upon hearing the alarms, he left work and positioned himself as ready for duty. Under the lead of the ship’s communications officer, Miller first assisted his wounded captain, then was stationed by a lieutenant at an anti-aircraft machine gun. Despite lacking training, he loaded and began firing at the dive-bombers. Although his bravery was at first concealed, Congress was pressured to force the Navy to reveal the hero’s name and to award commendation. Personally recognized by Admiral Nimitz, Miller was awarded with the Navy Cross in May 1942.
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Miller’s next assignment was aboard USS Indianapolis from December 1941 to May 1943, then on the aircraft carrier USS Liscome Bay. Tragically, the ship was torpedoed, then sank while engaged in conflict on November 24, 1943. Doris Miller died at sea, alongside 645 other men. Since his brave days with the United States military, the name Doris Miller has graced the destroyer escort USS Miller, as well as schools, streets, plaques, and veteran’s groups. The 1945 poem “Negro Hero,” by Gwendolyn Brooks, is narrated from Miller’s point of view. Currently, the non-profit Cultural Arts of Waco is working to raise the remaining funds to complete a park-style memorial to Doris Miller.