Unexpected Pearl Harbor Hero Honored in Waco, Texas

By Marie Yeung
Marie Yeung
Marie Yeung
December 6, 2013 Updated: December 6, 2013

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Doris “Dorie” Miller became an unexpected hero. Under heavy fire, he rescued the wounded from the decks of the USS West Virginia.

Then he took charge of a machine gun and fired at attacking planes, without regard for his own safety. He was 20 years old.

As an African-American mess attendant in the segregated Navy, he had never been trained to use weapons. 

He later said he had learned how to use the machine gun from watching other sailors.

He was the first American hero of World War II. He was awarded the Navy Cross. 

Miller, a native of Waco Texas, altered history for African-Americans. He was the first black person to win such a high military honor.

Movies included his story in an era when African-Americans had usually been portrayed only as figures of fun or servants. 

A statue and landscape area commemorating Miller will be built on the Brazos River in the center of downtown Waco. Cultural Arts of Waco is raising funds to develop the space. The design, by architect Stan Carroll and sculptor Eddie Dixon, is complete.

Sense of History

“A World War II memorial will be a nice addition to Doris’s legacy here in Waco, Texas,” said David Smith, Ph.D., senior lecturer of history in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences. “A group of artistic-minded people with a sense of history wanted to build a memorial for Miller for quite a while.”

The bronze statue will be a little bit larger than life. It will be put in a landscape that abstractly evokes the body of the ship, and incudes a reflecting pool. 

“The model and intention is just right,” said Smith. “It’s not too abstract and it’s not too representational, combining the best elements of both. It’s evocative which is what abstract art does at the same time it’s clear, which is what representational art does.”

True Heroes Selfless

Smith added, “The design will make people reflect on the ideas of service, selflessness, and heroism.” Supporters have campaigned for a Congressional Medal of Honor for Miller as well, because of his efforts to rescue and defend others at great risk to himself. In a statement from Baylor University, Smith said the memorial “will be a reminder of how true heroes’ individuality is revered because they surrendered it for others.”

Miller is remembered across the country in many ways. In 2010 the Post Office issued a Dorie Miller stamp. The USS Miller is the third Navy ship to be named after an African-American. A YMCA in Waco, schools across the nation, a college auditorium in Austin, the Doris Miller Foundation in Chicago, and American Legion Post 194, in Arlington, Va., all bear his name.

Miller died in the battle of the Gilbert Islands, on Nov. 24, 1943, when his ship was torpedoed and sunk in the Pacific.

The National Park Service and the U.S. Navy will host a joint memorial ceremony on Dec. 7 at the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center at the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, looking to the USS Arizona Memorial.

The ceremony will mark the 72nd anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Marie Yeung