Doris “Dorie” Miller was a Mess Attendant working on the USS West Virginia. Like most mornings, he rose before dawn for a dreary day of hauling trash, scrubbing dishes and prepping food for the battleship’s cook. While collecting the crew’s laundry, the General Quarters alarm sounded. Ships have drills all the time — even on Sunday mornings — but a sailor still must answer the call.
However this time he couldn’t get to his designated battle station. The torpedo-twisted metal proved this alarm was for real.
With nowhere else to report, Dorie ran to the deck to see what was happening. Being a former fullback for his Waco, Texas high school, one of the officers told him to carry the wounded to safety. Soon he was told the ship’s captain was seriously wounded and trapped on the bridge. After bringing the mortally-wounded officer through the fire and blood to a safer place, Dorie saw a .50 caliber Browning without a gunner.
Dorie was just a hash-slinger. He wasn’t trained on pistols, let alone anti-aircraft guns. But his shipmates needed him.
“It wasn’t hard,” Dorie explained. “I just pulled the trigger and she worked fine. I had watched the others with these guns. I guess I fired her for about 15 minutes. I think I got one… they were diving pretty close to us.” He stayed at the gun until he ran out of ammo. Then he refused to leave his new post until he was ordered to abandon ship.
Dorie earned the Navy Cross that day, pinned to his chest by Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz. A couple of years later, Dorie’s new ship was sunk by a Japanese sub. This time, he didn’t make it.
In his honor, a new warship was named after Dorie. FF-1091, the USS Miller.
The photo above holds a special resonance for me. Miller is giving a speech standing on the same warped floorboards I marched across with my Navy bootcamp drill team in Great Lakes, Ill. Thankfully, I never had to fight active battles, but enjoyed the luxury of merely maintaining the peace.
Since my submarine was based out of Pearl Harbor, I often looked across the waters and skies and wondered what it must have been like that awful Sunday morning 76 years ago today. Thanks to heroes like Petty Officer Miller, I never had to experience a day of infamy firsthand.
A version of this article was published Dec. 7, 2014.