Pearl Harbor: Dorie Miller and his .50-caliber Browning Machinegun

Doris “Dorie” Miller was a patriot and a hero.

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.

After leaving school in the eighth grade Doris Miller studied to become a taxidermist.

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.

At age 20 Doris Miller enlisted as a mess steward in the US Navy.

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.

Heavyweight boxing was the alpha sport aboard WW2-era Navy war-ships.

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.

This guy just didn’t look much like a Doris.

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…

The Pearl Harbor attack was justifiably reviled as one of the most treacherous acts in military history.

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.

This is a shot of the USS West Virginia taken during the Pearl Harbor attack.

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.

Aboard the West Virginia during those fateful hours on December 7th, all was confusion and chaos.

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.

CPT Mervyn Bennion was grievously wounded on the bridge of the USS West Virginia, the capital ship he commanded during the Pearl Harbor attack.

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.

CPT Bennion earned the medal of Honor defending his ship from 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.

A battleship like the West Virginia was festooned with antiaircraft weapons. The pair of fifties mounted on the aft aspect of the bridge were found to be unmanned.

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.

Despite never having touched a .50-caliber machinegun before, Dorie Miller chugged away at the attacking Japanese aircraft until he exhausted his ammunition.

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.

Quick action on the part of the crew prevented further catastrophe. 106 sailors died onboard the ship on December 7, 1941. 25 sets of remains were never recovered.

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.

Dorie Miller helped rescue injured sailors from the flaming oily water of the harbor once the Japanese attack abated.

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 is a WW1-era contrivance. It soldiers on today minimally unchanged.

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.

John Browning ultimately designed every major rifle-caliber automatic weapon used by American forces during WW2. What a stud. Here he is seen test-firing his .50-caliber prototype.

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 .50 BMG cartridge is a monster. The original geometry was taken from the .30-06 service round of the day.

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.

The first versions of Browning’s .50-caliber machinegun were water-cooled weapons.

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.

The M2 was one of the first truly modular weapons in US military service.

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.

American forces perched the M2 HB atop everything from supply trucks to tanks during WW2. The long-range and prodigious firepower of the M2 provided serious fire support against both airborne and terrestrial targets.

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 war-winning weapon in aircraft mounts during the Second World War. This B25H gunship could carry as many as fourteen of the guns.
Versions of the AN/M2 aircraft fifty remain in service as heavy defensive armament aboard helicopters like this German CH53 today.

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.

Many of the newest Information Age JTLV’s rolling off the lines at Oshkosh today will still mount the venerable WW1-era Ma Deuce as primary armament.

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.

Cuba Gooding Jr. played Dorie Miller in the over-the-top Michael Bay/Jerry Bruckheimer Hollywood epic Pearl Harbor. Note the crimped blanks feeding in from the right on the nearest gun.

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

In the early days of WW2 America needed heroes.

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.

Dorie Miller received his award from Admiral Chester Nimitz.

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.

Miller toured the country telling his story and selling war bonds.

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.

Dorie Miller gave his life for his country on November 24, 1943.

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.

This Destroyer Escort was named for Miller back in the 1970’s.
CVN-81, a state-of-the-art supercarrier featuring electromagnetic launch catapults, will be christened the USS Doris Miller when it launches in 2030.

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.

The venerable .50-caliber machinegun helped win World War 2. Clark Gable flew combat missions aboard B17’s during the war.
John Browning’s Ma Deuce isn’t going away any time soon.

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About the author: Will Dabbs A native of the Mississippi Delta, Will is a mechanical engineer who flew UH1H, OH58A/C, CH47D, and AH1S aircraft as an Army Aviator. He has parachuted out of perfectly good airplanes at 3 o’clock in the morning and summited Mount McKinley, Alaska, six times…always at the controls of an Army helicopter, which is the only way sensible folk climb mountains. Major Dabbs eventually resigned his commission in favor of medical school where he delivered 60 babies and occasionally wrung human blood out of his socks. Will works in his own urgent care clinic, shares a business build-ing precision rifles and sound suppressors, and has written for the gun press since 1989. He is married to his high school sweetheart, has three awesome adult children, and teaches Sunday School. Turn-ons include vintage German machineguns, flying his sexy-cool RV6A airplane, Count Chocula cereal, and the movie “Aliens.”

{ 17 comments… add one }
  • Bones December 17, 2021, 8:37 am

    Hey how about writing and running a story on the Japanese Americans who were thrown into “ prison” camps during WW2 and stripped of their freedoms as Americans because of their race?seems more fitting for a Christian time of year like now… as a learning lesson you know…huh?..and while your at it ..write a story reflecting on what “ Jesus “ would do ..if needy,sick poor and hungry immigrants came to him looking for know ..from a purely Christian that would be interesting..haha..I’m guessing y’all are scared !

    • Frank December 17, 2021, 7:36 pm

      Well, one thing’s for sure “osteoporotic bones”… the only thing we have to fear from you, is potentially laughing ourselves to death at your asinine, imbecilic opinions. They miss you at MSDNC.

  • Michael DeVaughn December 11, 2021, 10:31 am

    Very inspiring story. Doris should be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor Posthumously. He is a role model Young Black Men can look up to and also all Young Men.

  • Frank December 11, 2021, 10:04 am

    Thanks, Will. I hope there are always “enough” young people in our country who study/remember real history and REAL men such as Doris Miller.

  • Alan S December 10, 2021, 7:59 pm

    This man definitely deserves the Medal of Honor. I pray that he is rightfully awarded that honor. Great man. Great patriot.

  • jim December 10, 2021, 3:19 pm

    The best always seem taken from us too soon. Mr. Miller epitomized the struggles of early 20th Century blacks. Second-class citizens who had to struggle just to get an education, barely earn enough to raise a family, and tried to stay out of trouble. Though the system was rigged against them, they loved America, and many of them volunteered to defend our nation. Mr. Miller will be revered for centuries, along with the likes of Jackie Robinson, and MLK. Will the same be true of Jay-Z, Stacey Abrams, or Kim Fox? I hope not.

    • R December 23, 2021, 5:02 pm

      MLK was a terrible man. As an individual, he was a hypocritical degenerate sex criminal. As a public figure, the Civil Rights movement he led destroyed our nation. Integration turned formerly safe and successful neighborhoods, cities, and schools into third-world hellholes. The Civil Rights movement laid the foundation for BLM and the rest of the anti-white garbage that threatens us today. America is dead because of MLK and those like him

  • Dale December 10, 2021, 1:16 pm

    Great man. We need more like him.

  • Clint W. December 10, 2021, 12:24 pm

    I don’t think Dorie Miller would take a knee.

  • Armed and Dangerous December 10, 2021, 10:42 am

    It’s those like Dorie Miller that the young blacks should look up to as heroes. But no, they seem to want to worship rap singers instead. Doris Miller was a super hero. Thanks for this article.

  • Anthony D December 10, 2021, 9:29 am

    I think also he should of received the Medal of Honor Semper-Fi Warrior

  • jack December 10, 2021, 7:41 am

    One of my best friends was on patrol as a gunner on a quad 50 equiped duce-n-a-half in Nam in 69 when they were ambushed by an NVA company, he and four other guys survived but were all injured but they destroyed most of the NVA and the remainders ran off. All five were awarded bronze’s star and purple heart’s.

  • robert L. sickler December 10, 2021, 5:54 am

    I was a plank owner on the destroyer escort back in ’73. at commissioning, dorie miller’s mother was the one that swung the bottle of champagne on the bow. i knew of many pieces of information regarding Doris Miller, but this was a very informative piece by the author. by the way, the Miller now rests in the eastern Mediterranean as wreck. purchased by the country of turkey, and used for target practice. she had been moth balled in Phila. Pa. before the sale

  • D.J. Smith Jr December 10, 2021, 12:01 am

    Dorie Miller was indeed a Hero, and in my opinion, deserved the medal of honor, let’s never forget him and other heroes like him!

  • RIC CARTER December 8, 2021, 11:19 am

    Great man, great article!

  • Miles December 8, 2021, 10:49 am

    Thank you for posting this article. This is the story of one of brave men who served at Pearl during the attack. His bravery and his story brought tears to my eyes and reminded me of the lessons I learned from my dad. One of my friends was on the USS ARIZONA up to Dec 6, 1941. He was shipped to another boat that day. He watched “his boat” sink with all his friends on board and yet he always wore his USS ARIZONA cap. His name is Willard Jewel and is a great American hero. Let us never forget the fallen. God bless America. God bless the United States military personnel.

  • Jimboecv December 7, 2021, 4:40 pm

    Nice one, Dabbs.

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