Mess Attendant First Class Doris "Dorie" Miller was born in Waco, Texas, in 1919, the son of a couple hard-working sharecroppers who had traveled the land working cotton fields. A man who would grow to be one of the more unlikely heroes on one of America's darkest days, Miller spent every day of his youth on the edge of poverty, just struggling to survive and make ends meet. By the time he was a young man, his family had settled down, working as subsistence farmers, and as soon as he was old enough to push a plow he went to work busting his ass in the fields to make sure his family had enough food to eat. When he wasn't out providing food for his family, he went to school, trampled DBs as the star fullback on his high school team (no small feat in a place like Texas that, as far as I can tell, has always taken their high school football a little bit seriously), and worked nights as a cook at a local restaurant to help make some extra money during the Great Depression. So he was pretty busy. And he didn't have a problem busting his ass like a madman to make sure that shit got done.
In 1939, the 19 year-old Miller enlisted in the Navy, presumably because this was going to be a little bit of a break from his non-stop life of frying delicious bacon and stiff-arming linebackers so hard that their skulls imploded. After completing Basic, he was assigned as a Mess Attendant Third Class on the awesomely-named USS Pyro, where he essentially served as a mix between a line cook, a waiter, and housekeeping staff. Sure, this wasn't exactly the most glamorous gig in the Fleet, but in the 1930s it was one of the few Navy jobs available to Black sailors, and Miller was damn sure he wanted to serve his country and make some extra money to help provide for his family back home. It didn't hurt the situation when he was transferred to the battleship USS West Virginia and sent out to enjoy the sunny beaches of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, filled with warm weather, hot babes, and picturesque palm trees. He dug living out on the island paradise, and when he wasn't chilling on the beach he was getting some of his aggression out by face-punching the fucking bejeezus out of other men on his ship on his way to becoming the heavyweight boxing champion of the West Virginia -- a warship of about 2,000 sailors and U.S. Marines. I can only imagine that grilling up a burger is a lot more awesome when the dude you're cooking it for is sporting a nasty black eye because you'd just spent all morning pummeling him ruthlessly about the face and torso with your gigantic fists.
But the temporary stay in paradise wouldn't last long.
At 8am on the morning of 7 December 1941, Mess Attendant Doris Miller was collecting laundry from the bunks when he heard a deafening roar overhead. Two hundred Japanese torpedo planes, fighters, and bombers of every conceivable flavor were bearing down on Hawaii on an insane sneak-attack bombing run that was soon to knock out the bulk of American battleship power in the course of a couple hours, and Miller suddenly found himself in the middle of the biggest military shitstorm to hit U.S. soil since the Civil War.
Well Dorie Miller was a guy who spent his entire life giving the death-stare to adversity, and he wasn't about to let a trivial bullshit thing like the entire goddamned Japanese Naval Air Force stop him from being completely mecha-extreme to the max. His first instinct was one that had been drilled into him through months of training – get to your battlestation. Miller's station was an anti-aircraft battery located on one of the middle decks of the ship, but no sooner did he get there than he realized that a Japanese torpedo had already blown it the fuck up, and now there was a huge hunk of twisted metal where there used to be a giant gun. Not one to be discouraged by this, he rushed up to the deck to see if there was anything he could do to help out.
USS West Virginia burns during the attack. This isn't the sort of thing you want to see when you walk outside your ship.
At this point, the situation on the West Virginia was a grade-A five-alarm clusterfuck. Planes and bombers were shrieking overhead, unleashing their payloads, and Battleship Row was now little more than a goddamned shooting gallery for Japanese aircraft. Once again, Miller sacked up and did what he had to do. The biggest, strongest, toughest man aboard the ship, he immediately started running across the deck, grabbing wounded men and carrying them to safety on the quarterdeck, where the injured sailors and Marines were partially shielded from the machine guns of strafing Zeroes. After pulling a few men to safety, Miller saw that the ships commander – Captain Bennion – had been mortally wounded by a piece of shrapnel. Bennion was still conscious, trying to direct and command his men, and Miller knew he had to get his C.O. off the bridge and to a place where he would be safe. So Doris Miller sprinted across the deck, blitzing through smoke, water, and flaming oil while bullets zinged around him, grabbed the Captain, and carried him to safety as well.
Now, this in and of itself is some seriously epic heroism, but it's just the beginning of Doris Miller's badass cred. After saving the lives of his comrades by pulling them to safety, the heavyweight boxing champion of the USS West Virginia noticed the some of the deck guns were going unmanned, so he rushed over to a giant .50-caliber anti-aircraft machine gun, strapped himself in, and immediately went to work putting a giant curtain of bullets between West Virginia and the Japanese Naval Air Force.
Despite not having any training on how to operate the .50-cal (Miller had plenty of experience working hunting rifles back in Texas, so he figured it out pretty quickly), now the fucking ship's cook was manning a deck gun, blasting Zeroes out of the sky with a stream of tracer fire from the heavy MG. With planes strafing overhead, bombs going off, and ships getting trashed around him, Miller held his ground for fifteen minutes straight, blasting away from his exposed position. During the battle two armor-piercing bombs blasted the deck of the West Virginia and five 18-inch torpedoes hit the port side, but this guy couldn't be stopped by anything short of his ammunition supply – he only backed down after he ran out of bullets and his half-dead commanding officer ordered him to abandon ship.
The specific details of Dorie Miller's efficiency with the .50 cal aren't well-documented – his kill count ranges from "at least one" to "several" depending on who you ask – but you can't deny the fact that the men of Pearl Harbor (and the citizens who would hear the story later) were inspired by the bravery of this incredible badass who had dropped his chef's hat, saved the lives of a half-dozen Americans, and then blew the shit out of the enemies that were fucking with his battleship. Basically, he was Steven Segal from Under Siege.
"You're not a cook."
"Yeah, well... I also cook."
Doris Miller survived the attack on Pearl Harbor, as did 1,500 of his fellow crewmen aboard West Virginia. When tales of his heroism reached the people of the U.S., they saw it as one of just a few bright spots amid one of the darkest days in American history. Yeah, the Japanese sucker-punched us in the balls, but at least we made them pay for it.
Miller personally received the Navy Cross – one of the Navy's highest awards for bravery – from Admiral Chester Nimitz, the commander of the American Pacific Fleet. Miller was one of the first black men to receive the Cross, and, as it happens, one of the first Americans of any ethnicity to win the Navy Cross for actions in World War II. Cities named Boys' Clubs after him, he had a parade in Waco, he spoke at a commencement ceremony or two, and the public started a write-in campaign to get him admitted to the Naval Academy. Despite the accolades, Miller stayed humble. He was just doing his job. He continued working in the Mess, eventually getting promoted to Ship's Cook First Class. He went back to the front, serving on the cruiser Indianapolis, and then later on the Liscome Bay, and spent the next two years tenaciously taking the fight to the Japanese. He was killed in action on 24 November 1943 when his ship was hit by a torpedo while supporting landing operations of the Pacific Island of Tarawa. Nowadays there are a bunch of parks and schools named after him, and in 1973 the Navy honored him as just the third black man to have an American warship named after him – the frigate USS Doris Miller. He's also appeared on a postage stamp, and Cuba Gooding Jr. played him in a movie back when people still liked Cuba Gooding Jr.
Receiving the Navy Cross form Admiral Nimitz.
Naval History & Heritage
Doris Miller Memorial