Eighty years ago today, 360 Japanese warplanes attacked the United States’ Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, killing more than 2,400 Americans and wounding over 1,100 others in the most horrific assault on American soil to that point in the nation’s history.
So many stories told and untold, among them the tale of two sailors moored side by side on Battleship Row, sharing the last name of Miller, and one with a California connection.
The more well-known was Doris “Dorie” Miller of Waco, Texas. A Black American, he joined the Navy during a time when Black sailors were relegated primarily to cooking and housekeeping duties: making beds, shining the shoes of white officers, and serving their food in the officers’ mess. In fact, the 22-year-old Miller – who had attended a segregated boot camp at Norfolk, VA before being assigned to the USS West Virginia – held the rank of mess attendant third class at the time of the attack.
Working laundry detail when the first Japanese torpedo hit the ship, he was ordered to the signals deck, where he carried mortally-wounded Captain Mervyn Sharp Bennion to a safer place for the time being. Then he went to assist an anti-aircraft gunner and soon found himself one.
“The deck was awash with oil and water, and fires raged around him but Miller — finding the second gun unattended, and without orders and with absolutely no training in its operation — took control and opened fire,” World War II Magazine reported in a 2019 story.
Miller took aim and shot down as many as six Japanese planes. After the captain he’d carried to safety died and the abandon ship order given, he was among the last sailors to leave the West Virginia. He and a few other sailors swam to safety, avoiding the flames in the oily harbor.
Dorie Miller’s heroics made him the first Black American to receive the Navy Cross, pinned onto his dress whites by Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. He later served aboard the USS Indianapolis (two years before it was torpedoed and sank after transporting the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II). Miller was among the 591 enlisted men who died aboard the carrier Liscome Bay (CVE-56) when Japanese torpedoes sank the ship on November 24, 1943.
The Navy named a frigate in his honor in 1973, and in 2032 will commission the USS Doris Miller (CVN-81) as the first aircraft carrier named for an enlisted sailor and the first named for a Black American.
Moored alongside the USS West Virginia on Battleship Row on the day of the attack was the USS Tennessee and the other Miller in this story: J.B. Delane Miller.
Only 23 years old at the time, he is believed to have been among the first sailors killed when the Tennessee took hits.
“We were told he was there when a bomb was dropped on the deck,” his sister-in-law, Marjorie Miller, told the Modesto Bee in 2011. “It didn’t explode, but the concussion got him.”
J.B. Delane Miller holds the distinction of being Modesto’s only known Pearl Harbor casualty. The misnomer? He never actually lived there. So how did he become a Modestan?
A native of Harmon County, Oklahoma, Miller graduated from high school and stayed in Oklahoma to attend junior college when his Dust Bowl-migrant parents came to California in the mid-1930s settling in Modesto.
He visited them shortly before entering the Navy in 1939, and that might have been his only stay in that city. Yet, because he gave his parents’ address as his home of record, a December 12, 1941, story in the Modesto paper bearing news of his death bore the headline: “Modesto Youth Is War Casualty.”
His name is engraved on a monument honoring the Stanislaus County’s war dead in Courthouse Park, downtown Modesto.
Two men named Miller, on ships moored side by side at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. One lived to save others. One died immediately.