Doris “Dorie” Miller was supposed to have been a girl. Born October 12, 1919, to sharecroppers Connery and Henrietta Miller, he got the name Doris when the midwife assisting with his delivery became somehow convinced he would be female. Doris was the third of four sons accustomed to hard work on the family farm. Miller’s grandparents had been slaves.
Doris dropped out of school in the eighth grade and completed a correspondence course in taxidermy. Few ridiculed him over the effeminate nature of his name, however. By his 17th birthday, Doris was 6 foot 3 inches tall and weighed more than 200 pounds.
Miller enlisted in the US Navy in 1939. At this point in history, there were few billets open to African-American sailors. As a result, Doris trained as a mess attendant and was assigned to the USS Pyro, an aptly named ammunition ship.
In January of 1940, Miller transferred to the battlewagon USS West Virginia. There he found that he had a gift for boxing, a wildly popular sport among Navy personnel at the time. In short order, Miller had earned the coveted position of heavyweight champion of the ship, a vessel whose complement typically ran some 1,300 men.
Nobody is really sure where the name Dorie originated. Some claimed it was a typographical error made by some nameless clerk who simply could not believe that a 200-pound musclebound black man might actually be called Doris. Others asserted it was a nickname bequeathed by loyal shipmates following his boxing exploits.
One Fateful Sunday…
On Sunday morning, December 7th, 1941, Dorie Miller arose at 0600 to serve breakfast mess and begin collecting laundry. Two hours later his day was interrupted when Lieutenant Commander Shigeharu Murata, a Kate torpedo bomber pilot launched from the Japanese aircraft carrier Akagi, released the first of seven torpedoes to eventually strike the West Virginia.
West Virginia’s steel hull armor varied between 8 and 13.5 inches. One torpedo failed to explode. However, six is still a whole lot of torpedoes.
Miller’s battle station was an antiaircraft magazine amidships. He reported there only to find that it had been destroyed in a torpedo strike. Now looking for trouble, Dorie subsequently headed to “Times Square,” the confluence between fore-and-aft and starboard-to-port passageways. Lieutenant Commander Doir Johnson snatched up Miller and took him to the bridge to help move the injured Captain.
Captain Mervyn Bennion had been essentially eviscerated by shrapnel while running the fight from the bridge. Captain Bennion was a Mormon from Salt Lake City who had graduated third in his 1910 class at Annapolis. Bennion used one arm to hold his entrails in place while he directed the fight against the attacking Japanese.
Dorie Miller and others attempted to evacuate Captain Bennion to a position of safety amidst the attack. Despite the pleading of his men, Bennion remained at his post and ultimately bled out. Captain Bennion was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions.
Under constant attack by Japanese dive bombers, torpedo planes, and fighters, the situation on the West Virginia’s bridge was dire. There were two unmanned Browning M2 .50-caliber machineguns mounted on the aft aspect of the bridge structure. Lieutenant Frederic White grabbed Miller along with Ensign Victor Delano and moved to these two guns amidst sleeting fire from the attacking Japanese planes.
Miller had never before seen a .50-caliber machinegun up close, so the two young Navy officers gave him a quick block of instruction under fire. They had expected Miller to feed ammunition, but he was manning the starboard gun and firing at the Japanese before they could intervene. Dorie Miller ran his gun until they had expended all available ammo.
By now the West Virginia had been struck by seven torpedoes and two armor-piercing bombs. Fast action on the part of damage control parties counter-flooded the ship such that she sank to the harbor bottom on an even keel. This maneuver saved countless lives.
His gun rendered useless by a lack of ammo, Dorie Miller then turned his attention to rescuing injured sailors. He helped move the wounded through the oily water to the quarterdeck and safety. Eventually, the crew abandoned the ship. Miller was among the last three to leave.
Dorie Miller’s Gun
The M2 .50-caliber machinegun was born on the blood-soaked battlefields of WW1. General John “Blackjack” Pershing commanded the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe and was alarmed over the introduction of armored aircraft like the German Junkers J.1 to the modern battlespace. Airplanes of this sort combined with observation balloons operating beyond conventional rifle range necessitated a new Infantry weapon. Pershing compiled the criteria for the new gun himself.
The weapon needed to be of at least .50-caliber and fire a 670-grain bullet at a minimum of 2,700 feet per second. The French 11mm was used as inspiration but was found to be too slow. Winchester designed the new cartridge, while the legendary John Moses Browning crafted the gun to fire it.
The end result was the .50BMG 12.7x99mm, itself essentially a scaled-up version of the standard .30-06 service round. After a bit of tweaking, this cartridge offered about the same performance as that fired by the German T Gewehr 1918 antitank rifle but in a rimless configuration. The rimless design made it much easier to cycle in an autoloading mechanism compared to previous rimmed designs.
Browning’s M1921 heavy machinegun was a water-cooled beast of a thing that weighed 121 pounds and fed solely from the left. However, the recoil-operated action was a legitimate stroke of genius. Browning died in 1926 but purportedly delivered the prototype on November 11, 1918, the day of the armistice.
After the great man’s death, other engineers tweaked his design into the world’s seminal heavy machinegun. Using a single common receiver the gun could be configured into seven disparate weapons, each of which could feed from either the left or the right by reversing a few parts. Series production began in 1933.
The air-cooled version was titled the M2 HB (Heavy Barrel) and tipped the scales at a more manageable 84 pounds. The M2HB sported a cyclic rate of around 500 rounds per minute. This gun sat atop most everything that rolled or crawled during WW2 and unleashed holy hades against the German and Japanese forces who faced it.
The AN/M2 was a “Light Barrel” aircraft version that weighed 60 pounds and cycled at a blistering 1,250 rpm. “AN” stands for “Army/Navy.” This gun armed just about every American combat aircraft of the war. Updated versions soldier on in aircraft mounts today.
There have been several concerted efforts to improve upon the design. However, the M2 sits minimally unchanged atop JTLV and MRAP vehicles currently serving downrange today. Trust me, running one of these puppies off of a military vehicle is the textbook definition of tactical overmatch.
I had always assumed that Dorie Miller’s gun was the water-cooled variant. However, a narrative I found concerning the Pearl Harbor defense of the USS Nevada, a sister ship to the West Virginia, described the bridge guns as air-cooled M2 HB’s. The Nevada burned through some 65,000 rounds of .50-caliber ammunition during the attack. One first-hand anecdote described changing out barrels when tracers began to veer off precipitously after protracted firing.
The Rest of the Story
Two weeks after the attack Miller was transferred to the USS Indianapolis. The recommendation that made it to President Roosevelt’s desk was that the Distinguished Service Cross be awarded to an “Unnamed Black Sailor.” Miller was eventually positively identified and there resulted Congressional efforts to have Miller awarded the Medal of Honor. In 1942 America, this would have been an earth-shaking event.
Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox ultimately recommended against the award and instead suggested the Navy Cross, then the third-highest commendation for valor in Naval service. Admiral Chester Nimitz decorated Doris Miller aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise in May of 1942. Three months later Congress revised the ranking of medals for valor, placing the Navy Cross just below the Medal of Honor.
While white sailors were awarded officer’s commissions for similar valorous actions, Dorie Miller was promoted to Mess Attendant First Class in June of 1942. He continued his service aboard the Indianapolis before eventually being recalled to the states to help sell war bonds. His stocky visage ultimately graced a recruiting poster.
In 1943 Cook First Class Dorie Miller was assigned to the escort carrier USS Liscome Bay. During the Battle of Makin in June of that year the Liscome Bay caught a torpedo to the stern fired by the Japanese submarine I-175. The bomb magazine subsequently detonated, sinking the ship in 23 minutes. All but 272 of the 900-man ship’s complement were lost. Dorie Miller was among the dead.
In 1973 the US Navy launched the Destroyer Escort, USS Miller. The Gerald Ford-class supercarrier CVN-81 to be commissioned in 2030 will be named the USS Doris Miller. This will be the first aircraft carrier in American history named for an enlisted sailor.