Home of the Brave

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Modern-day U.S. Navy veteran connects with Pearl Harbor hero’s local roots

By Trey Gregory

I moved to Waco from the D.C. area after my wife and I separated from the military in the summer of 2013. I visited Waco many times the previous decade to visit my mother and sister, but I didn’t know much about Waco outside of Baylor and the infamous story of David Koresh’s deadly siege. One day my wife and I were driving through town when I noticed the YMCA was named after Doris Miller. My jaw dropped. I grabbed my phone and searched Miller’s name to confirm my suspicion: Waco is the hometown of the Navy legend Doris Miller. How was it possible that I didn’t know this?

Miller’s name is well known in the Navy community because he was the first African-American to receive the Navy Cross. After living in Waco for only a short time, however, I felt as though few people from Waco knew who he was or what he did. I also realized few people in the Navy know where Miller came from.

The unpleasant truth of the matter is that Waco, and even the U.S., hasn’t always been proud to boast the accomplishments of African-Americans. Today, Miller is commonly referred to as one of the first heroes of World War II, but that wasn’t always the case. Miller’s valor at Pearl Harbor was reported to D.C., but only as an unnamed black man. Instead, the government tried touting the actions of white service members so a white man could become the first hero of World War II. However, the sailors and other service members present at Pearl Harbor knew the truth and wrote home about the actions of Doris Miller.

At first the media refused to pick up Miller’s story, and it was only due to the efforts of the black press that the story of Miller’s valor was kept alive. So-called black publications, such as the Pittsburg Courier and the New York Black News Paper, covered the story until the rest of the country was forced to recognize Miller and his heroism. At the same time, the NAACP lobbied Congress and President Roosevelt to award the Navy Cross tothe unknown black sailor for his courage at Pearl Harbor, and it eventually paid off.

On May 27, 1942, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz personally awarded Miller aboard the USS Enterprise. Nimitz, a Navy legend in his own right, grew up about three hours southwest of Waco in Fredericksburg. The two Central Texas natives stood on the deck of the massive aircraft carrier together that day.

Even though I learned of Miller through movies like “Pearl Harbor,” and especially through history lessons in boot camp, I don’t think I truly appreciated what Miller did until I experienced combat for myself. Many of us romanticize about how brave or heroic we may have been had in historical battles, but experiencing combat in any form lends perspective to what heroes like Miller actually did.

The first time I experienced combat was in Afghanistan. I was a Corpsman (combat medic) assigned to a Marine Corps Embedded Training Team. Along with three U.S. Marines, I was embedded with the Afghan National Army and we were on a mission in the Tegab Valley. One day a meeting between the local villagers and some Afghan officers went bad and our Afghan counterparts were ambushed. The Marines and I responded as a quick reaction force with the Afghan National Army. After about 30 minutes of fighting, cobra helicopters showed up for air support, the enemy ran for cover and the fight was over. It was my first brush with combat and I did nothing worthy of being called a hero, but I did gain perspective.

I believe that experience, and others I had during my time in Afghanistan, helped me understand just how heroic Miller was at Pearl Harbor and is a big reason I respect him so much. The gunfire I was exposed to was minimal compared to the torpedoes and machine gunfire from Japanese aircraft that Miller experienced. Miller also witnessed far more casualties than I did, and many of them more gruesome. I kept my head fine for the situation I was in, but I can only imagine how much more intense the confusion and fear would have been if I were present at Pearl Harbor.

Before my own experiences in a combat zone, I may have thought it normal for any service member to do in the same situation, but I assure you that it is not. Miller acted with extreme valor that day and disregarded his own safety so that his peers could live.

Another thing I didn’t truly appreciate about Miller until I was a little older was how an African American put his life on the line so many times for white sailors in an era with very tense race relations. Being an African-American sailor in 1943 was tough, to say the least. The Navy was one of the last services to integrate, and African-Americans were not allowed to have many jobs other than cooks and stewards. There is a real chance that the men Miller helped called him awful names and treated him subhuman at some point, but he continued to risk his life for them, and I think that is a huge testament to what kind of a person he was.

Miller was the kind of man who helped people regardless of how they may have treated him in the past. Maybe it was nature, maybe it was the result of his upbringing or maybe it was both. Unfortunately, Miller died in battle only two years after Pearl Harbor and didn’t provide many unscripted interviews as a way for us to better understand him. However, through reading the available information about him and talking to historians with knowledge of Miller, especially Baylor’s professor of journalism Robert Darden, I believe growing up in Waco had a huge impact on the man that he became.

Miller grew up in Waco in a neighborhood close to Baylor’s campus. His childhood home has since burned down, but it was located close to where Baylor’s McLane Stadium now stands. Miller’s family was not wealthy and Miller never finished the eighth grade. Miller’s mother and siblings said he was an outdoorsy and active man and he loved to hunt along the Brazos River. His family described him as a great shot, excellent hunter and a big kid. Miller played fullback for Waco’s A.J. Moore Academy until he dropped out around age 18. Back then, one of the only avenues to a better life that a young black man had was to either play football or join the military. Since Miller’s football days were over, he proceeded with the latter.  It is unclear why Miller chose the Navy. The U.S. was not engaged in any wars at the time and the Navy didn’t have nearly as many African-Americans as the Army.

Waco had a rather flourishing black culture in the 1930s and 1940s. There was Paul Quinn College, an all-black institution; The Gem Theater, a live performance theater for American-Americans; and a thriving black music scene. But Miller probably got most of his education, guidance and world perspective from the leadership at his church, New Hope Baptist. New Hope was, and still is, one of the oldest African-American churches in Waco and the Miller family was very active in the church.

Looking back on the little that is known about Miller, I have to conclude that his church and community contributed to him being the hero we know from Pearl Harbor. A good decade before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, Miller had a big enough heart to see all men as his brothers and did everything he could to protect them.

Waco was slightly progressive for a southern city, but still had plenty ignorance and racism. For a long time some members of the community would have rather forgotten that Waco was the home of an African-American hero, and I believe that is why so many still don’t know that this great man grew up there. Thankfully, things change. There are many people trying to get Miller posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor and the city of Waco has taken steps to honor and promote their hometown hero’s legacy.

After years of rejection from the Texas Legislature the Waco Veterans Affairs Hospital was finally named after Miller on Feb. 19, 2015. About 200 people gathered outside the VA hospital on a chilly and windy morning to honor Miller. About 30 of Miller’s family members were seated at the front of the ceremony and proudly watched their late relative receive a long overdue honor. Waco Mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr., state Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson and other prominent Texans were among the honored guests that made speeches to honor Miller, and it seems Waco is finally embracing the hometown hero that was ignored for too long.

There are many parts of U.S. history that are hard to digest. Although there are many great stories from the WW II and civil rights era, there are also many that are terrible. Miller’s story, however, is a wonderful bright spot along this checkered history and deserves to be celebrated. I hope Miller’s story is someday common knowledge and that everyone knows the role that Central Texas played in shaping him as a man. That may not happen, however, unless the people of Central Texas embrace him for the local hero he is. Thankfully, it seems Waco and its residents are putting the wheels in motion to make this happen.

When Nimitz presented Miller with the Navy Cross, he said, “This marks the first time in this conflict that such high tribute has been made in the Pacific Fleet to a member of his race and I’m sure that the future will see others similarly honored for brave acts.” Nimitz was correct. Many other African-American men and women have been awarded for their courage, but Waco is home to one the first African-Americans to be awarded for his actions during battle and, more importantly, one of the first true heroes of World War II.