Virginia woman revives effort to see Black WWII hero awarded Medal of Honor: ‘This has to be done’
The Virginian-Pilot November 11, 2022
(Tribune News Service) — A Black sailor who dragged wounded shipmates to safety and shot down Japanese planes during the attack on Pearl Harbor was never awarded the Medal of Honor.
One Virginia woman is reviving a national effort to change that.
Linda Thomas, the former president of the Virginia NAACP, is urging President Joe Biden to posthumously give Doris “Dorie” Miller — a World War II sailor — “the recognition he and so many other Black men and women deserve.” In the eight decades since his heroism, congressional bills and calls to grant Miller the Medal of Honor have failed time and again. Thomas said it is “time to right this wrong.”
Roughly 3,500 Medals of Honor have been awarded since 1863. Of those, less than 3% — about 100 — have been awarded to Black service members.
Miller was a cook aboard the USS West Virginia during the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Born in Texas in 1919, he enlisted in the Navy in 1939 to earn extra money for his family. He trained at Norfolk’s Naval Training Station before receiving his assignment in January 1940.
At the time, Black service members faced segregation at home and abroad. The military viewed them as second-class citizens who were unfit for combat or leadership roles — only allowing them to serve as laborers, cooks or mechanics.
“I cannot fully comprehend the concept that under the extreme prejudices and extreme racism of that era, Black men still said, ‘I will still put it all on the line, my life, my fortune and my sacred honor to defend something that I cannot yet benefit from, but I do it with the hope that future generations will,’” Thomas said.
Miller did exactly that.
Miller was gathering laundry early Dec. 7 when the alarms sounded — the ship was being hit from below by torpedoes and above by enemy planes. Miller leapt into action, carrying wounded sailors to safety. Despite being ordered to abandon ship, Miller fired an anti-aircraft machine gun — a weapon Black sailors were not permitted to use — at diving enemy planes until it ran out of ammunition, taking down at least two, according to the Department of Veteran Affairs.
“Doris Miller’s legacy paved the way for other African American service members to serve in combat roles,” the agency’s website reads.
Miller was recommended by Sen. James Mead and Rep. John Dingell Sr. for the Medal of Honor after the attack. Instead, President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved the awarding of the Navy Cross in May 1942, the highest Naval decoration. Just before Thanksgiving 1943, a Japanese submarine sank the USS Liscome Bay, the escort carrier to which Miller was assigned. He, along with two-thirds of the crew, died or went missing. He was 24.
Miller posthumously received the Purple Heart, World War II Victory medal and a combat action ribbon. And in 2020, the Navy announced a Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier will be named in Miller’s honor. The keel of the USS Doris Miller CVN-81 is scheduled to be laid in January 2026 at Newport News Shipbuilding. While it will be the fourth Ford-class carrier — the first to be named for an African American.
But Thomas said the military “fell short” in recognizing Miller’s valor and dedication to the U.S. Thomas is not the first to advocate for Miller to be awarded the Medal of Honor.
Under federal law, a sitting president may award a Medal of Honor to a person who demonstrated “gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.” The act of valor must be witnessed by two people, and recommendations for the medal must be submitted within three years of the act. Any submissions outside of this timeline require a special recommendation on behalf of the secretary of the Navy and an act of Congress to waive the time limits.
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, of Texas, first introduced a bill in 2000 to waive the Medal of Honor time limitation specified by law to allow the congressional honor to be given to Miller. But it and subsequent legislation have not passed. And in 2011, the National Board of the NAACP passed a resolution requesting the honor be given to Miller, but failed to pick up traction.
“Every time Black men have stepped forward to serve this country, they have in effect been saying, ‘We are proving our loyalty — now show that you value us as Americans,’” Thomas said. “But always, this country seems to hesitate with the full honoring and full awareness of Black contributions.”
Thomas’ efforts received full support from Robert Barnette, the sitting president of the Virginia NAACP. Barnette, who retired from the Air National Guard as a state command chief master sergeant, said awarding the Medal of Honor to Miller would “correct the past wrongdoing” of skipping over Miller and other Black service members.
“(Awarding this honor) would represent fairness. Racism has played a part in the awarding of the highest medal for military service. This medal should be represented by military members of all backgrounds,” Barnette said. “I think the military has done a disservice for not seeing this as a problem.”
Barnette, who also served in the Air Force and was deployed during the Vietnam War, remembers fighting alongside Black and white service members, before returning to the U.S. and being told to “get to the back of the bus.”
“Some of them wouldn’t do it … and got beat for not doing it,” Barnette said. “How in the world can you justify, fighting a war for your country only to be mistreated? Heroism be damned.”
Thomas said stories from service members like Miller, Barnette and others that push her to keep fighting.
She has written more than a dozen letters to members of the Senate and House of Representatives urging them to bring her effort to the attention of the president, in hopes Biden will issue an executive order to award the honor.
A White House spokesperson did not respond to a reporter’s request for comment regarding Thomas’ efforts.
“My goal is to bring enough attention and public conversation into the ether that it will not escape the view of the president,” Thomas said.
Sen. Tim Kaine was quick to support Thomas’ request, penning a letter to Biden a week after Thomas first reached out to the senator, according to an NAACP news release. Kaine said part of his job is to ensure “our veterans receive the recognition they deserve for their courage and dedication to our country.”
Thomas said she hopes other legislators will do the same, and she is not willing to let up until Miller receives the highest military decoration in recognition of his valor.
“For me, it’s phone calls and emails. No one’s shooting at me. There are no torpedoes headed for me. There are no enemy planes overhead. I do not leave my door and get confronted with Jim Crow-ism in the sense that they did,” Thomas said. “This has to be done. This must be done.”
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