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MoH campaign for Pearl Harbor hero 'Dorie' Miller continues

DeSoto Mayor Carl Sherman had only a few seconds of the president's time. So as he shook Barack Obama's hand, he asked him to honor Doris "Dorie" Miller, a ship's cook who became a hero in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Miller, a Navy enlistee from Waco, was barred from combat duties because he was black. He shined shoes, cleared tables and did laundry aboard a segregated battleship.

But on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, he manned a machine gun, firing at the Japanese warplanes until he ran out of ammunition and carried wounded sailors to safety.

Sherman met Obama briefly at a June meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington. He urged the president to posthumously award Miller the nation's top military award, the Medal of Honor. He said the president told him, "I will seriously consider it."

Sherman, who is black, said he believed Miller's race was the only thing that prevented him from receiving the Medal of Honor long ago.

"It's never too late to do what's right," he said.

Sherman said he found it inspiring that the open discrimination endured by Miller and other blacks in the Jim Crow-era military "did not in any way temper his level of commitment" to his country and shipmates.

The DeSoto mayor joins a long line of politicians, historians and others, black and white, who have tried and failed to secure the nation's highest military honor for Miller. Less than two years after Pearl Harbor, Miller was killed in the line of duty in the Pacific. He was 24.

The struggle has gone on for so long that many of Miller's champions have died: Jake Pickle, the longtime Democratic congressman from Central Texas; Barbara Jordan, the first Southern black woman elected to the U.S. House; and Mickey Leland, who succeeded Jordan in representing an inner-city Houston congressional district.

A renewed effort kicked off last spring, when U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, formed a committee of advocates and rallied local elected officials to petition the president, the secretary of the Navy and members of Congress.

More than 15 cities, including Dallas, Waco, Highland Park, University Park, Grapevine, Grand Prairie and Irving, have expressed support for Miller's cause. The U.S. Conference of Mayors adopted a resolution endorsing the effort.

"We are not stopping," Johnson said. "We are not giving up. It's not my nature to give up on anything I believe in."

Miller, the son of Waco sharecroppers, joined the Navy in 1939. He was assigned to the USS West Virginia, which was docked at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked.

Miller, who was up early that morning collecting the ship's laundry, jumped into action.

After aiding the wounded on deck, he manned an anti-aircraft machine gun — although he had no training as a gunner — and took aim at the Japanese warplanes.

"I think I got one ... they were diving pretty close to us," he later said.

In an official report on the Japanese attack, originally classified, the senior surviving officer of the West Virginia wrote that Miller "was instrumental in hauling people along through oil and water to the quarterdeck, thereby unquestionably saving the lives of a number of people who might otherwise have been lost."

For months after Pearl Harbor, newspaper and radio accounts told of an "unnamed Negro messman hero." On March 14, 1942, the Pittsburgh Courier, a black newspaper, identified Miller by name.

Navy posters featuring his photo were printed to recruit African-Americans.

Miller received a letter of commendation from the Navy, then, after the intervention of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Navy Cross, the second-highest military decoration for valor awarded to U.S. sailors. He was the first African-American thus honored.

Bills were introduced in the U.S. House and Senate to award Miller the Medal of Honor, over the objections of Frank Knox, FDR's Navy secretary. The legislative efforts fell short.

The Navy named a ship for him in 1973. The Waco VA Medical Center was renamed for him in 2014.

Johnson, who was born and raised in Waco, grew up well-acquainted with the story of her hometown hero.

"My father, Edward Johnson, was a personal friend to Mr. Miller," she wrote in 2013, "and took me door to door as he solicited funds to purchase a silver bracelet for the war hero. ... I can still recall the proud look on my father's face as the bracelet was presented to Mr. Miller at a celebration in Waco."

No African-American received the Medal of Honor for actions during World War II until 1997, more than 50 years after the end of the war. In January of that year, President Bill Clinton awarded the medal to seven black World War II veterans, only one of whom was still alive.

Navy officials determined, however, that the Navy Cross was the appropriate award for Miller, said Lt. Jackie Pau, a Navy spokeswoman.

"Short of new evidence presenting itself, the Navy has no standing to further pursue upgrading Miller's award," she said.

Johnson isn't discouraged. She said she's taken up Miller's cause with every Navy secretary who has served since she arrived in Congress in 1993.

The longer she stays at it, the more people learn the Dorie Miller story.

"I won't give up," Johnson said. "But it would almost be too good to be true when it comes to pass."

Follow Melissa Repko on Twitter at @melissa_repko.
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