DALLAS -- That Sunday morning began as usual, with Mess Attendant 2nd Class Doris Miller collecting laundry in the bowels of the battleship USS West Virginia. His other daily duties as an African American in the U.S. Navy of 1941 were still ahead of him: serving and clearing tables in the junior officers' mess, shining shoes, making beds.

But the alarm for general quarters sounded just before 8 a.m. The 22-year-old native of Waco, Tex., ran to his battle station at the antiaircraft battery magazine amidships. As the West Virginia shuddered and listed from three portside torpedo blasts, he found the magazine too damaged to use and made his way to the deck.

There, he helped pull the ship's mortally wounded captain to a sheltered area, then manned and fired a .50-caliber machine gun at attacking Japanese planes until ordered to abandon ship.

The question appears to be simple: Do the actions taken by Mess Attendant Miller at Pearl Harbor on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, merit his being awarded the Medal of Honor in 1990?

An answer is harder to come by. Congressional committees have debated the question without result. Veterans organizations and military historians argue about it. Department of Defense researchers continue an investigation ordered two years and an administration ago. Last year, even the Texas legislature joined the fray by passing a resolution.

Doris Miller? He was killed in action in 1943. His last surviving sibling died in April.

So what was it about one man's actions on that Sunday morning that still galvanizes the federal government nearly a half-century later? What happened in those few hours, and the succeeding decades, to elevate Doris Miller from an unknown Navy mess attendant to an African American hero who will be the focus of a TV movie scheduled to air on the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor Day?

A Hollywood screenwriter could do worse. The underlying theme is race and the role it played then, not only in the country's armed forces but also in its politics. For backdrop there is the fact that not one of the 1.5 million African Americans who served in World Wars I and II has been awarded the Medal of Honor. Add to that the revered, even mythic aura surrounding the nation's highest award for military valor, the personal crusade of a retired history professor, the dispassionate Navy files on Pearl Harbor and the cumbersome federal bureaucracy, and there is enough material for a miniseries.

The final and, of course, most important piece is the protagonist, Doris Miller, the sharecropper's son and high school dropout who joined the Navy in 1939 to help support his family on his monthly pay of $50.

In the U.S. Navy of 1941, the only duties available to African Americans were those of mess attendant and cook. They were forbidden to practice with or fire any type of weapon, and their assigned battle stations were as ammunition handlers. Everything -- meals, accommodations -- was segregated. A popular justification was that segregation was in the "best interests of general ship efficiency."

One of the few open activities on ship was boxing; Doris Miller, at 6 feet 3 and 225 pounds, was the West Virginia's heavyweight champion. He was big, but not as big as Naval Reserve Lt. j.g. Frederic H. White, whose size 14EE feet earned him the nickname "Mr. Snowshoes." Doris Miller had to shine those shoes; he was the lieutenant's room steward.

When the torpedoes hit the West Virginia, the two men were in different areas of the ship. By chance they met on the quarterdeck, where they were part of a small detail helping rescue injured men. (In his official report to the commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet four days after the attack, the senior surviving officer of the West Virginia wrote that White, "aided by" Mess Attendant 2nd Class Miller, was "instrumental ... in saving the lives of a number of people who might otherwise have been lost.")

Officers ordered both White and Miller to the bridge to help move the ship's wounded captain to a safer spot. One officer wrote in his report that "I had brought a colored mess attendant with me -- a very powerfully built individual -- having in mind that he might pick the Captain up and carry him below."

After the captain was moved, White says, he noticed two unmanned .50-caliber machine guns just forward of the conning tower. He loaded ammunition belts into both guns.

Miller "didn't know very much about the machine gun, but I told him what to do and he went ahead and did it," says White, who retired from the Navy in 1962 as a captain and now lives in Florida. "He had a good eye.

"One of the planes that he was shooting at, and everybody else in the bay was shooting at, went down. He felt very pleased with that. And I don't blame him. But there were a lot of other guys shooting at it also."

Their ammunition gone within 15 minutes, both men were ordered to abandon ship.

For weeks after Pearl Harbor, American newspaper and radio reports repeated the story of an "unnamed Negro messman hero." But it wasn't until March 14, 1942, that Miller's identity was discovered and revealed by the African American newspaper Pittsburgh Courier. The discovery set in motion a chain of events still playing itself out today.

Within a matter of days Miller became one of the best-known African Americans. His birth name, Doris, the gift of an aunt, was masculinized in both Navy and press reports to "Dorie," much to his mother's chagrin. He was referred to as "Dorie Miller, Texas-born and Texas-raised." Bills were introduced in the U.S. House and Senate -- against the objections of the secretary of the Navy -- to present the Medal of Honor to him. On April 1, 1942, the Navy awarded him a letter of commendation for his bravery.

A month later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the Navy to award Miller its highest honor -- the Navy Cross. He was the first African American to receive the medal, pinned on him by fellow Texan Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, commander of the Pacific Fleet. The Navy, in late May 1942, issued its version of the events of Dec. 7 aboard the USS West Virginia to the national press:

"An officer ordered {Doris Miller} to the bridge to aid the mortally wounded captain of the ship. Here, Miller, after helping that dying officer, manned a machine gun. It was his first experience with such a weapon. He said: 'It wasn't hard. I just pulled the trigger and she worked fine. I had watched the others with these guns. I guess I fired her for about fifteen minutes. I think I got one of those Jap planes. They were diving pretty close to us.' "

The rest of 1942 was busy for Miller. He was promoted to mess attendant first class, he traveled the country promoting war bonds, and his face appeared on a Navy recruiting poster. Schools, parks and buildings around the country were named for him. He became known as "the first American hero of World War II."

By mid-1943, he had been promoted to ship's cook third class and reassigned to the escort carrier Liscome Bay. On Nov. 24, 1943, the ship was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine near the Gilbert Islands. The Liscome Bay sank in 20 minutes; 646 men, including Doris Miller, died.

During the next four decades little attention was paid to him. But in 1984 Leroy Ramsey, a retired Hofstra University history professor, became angry because so few African Americans were included in televised celebrations marking the 40th anniversary of D-day. A World War II veteran himself, Ramsey decided to write a book on the black military experience during the war. When he discovered that no African American had received the Medal of Honor in either world war, he abandoned the book and began a quest to redress what he believes is a gross injustice.

After reading each of the 3,417 Medal of Honor citations, Ramsey checked the records of African American servicemen who had been awarded other high military honors. And that's how he discovered Doris Miller.

"I just don't think that this can be a situation where no blacks performed with valor to the point that they didn't get the Medal of Honor," says Ramsey. "I saw a hell of a lot of congressional Medals of Honor {awarded} for a whole lot less than ... Dorie Miller did."

Since then, Ramsey has become the seaman's unofficial biographer. It was he who revived interest in a Medal of Honor for Miller by hounding members of Congress in person and through the mail from his Albany, N.Y., home. In October 1987, Rep. Mickey Leland (D-Tex.) cosponsored a bill to waive the medal's statute of limitations for Miller. The bill stalled in committee, but in 1988 the Defense Department began researching the sailor's actions at Pearl Harbor.

Ramsey's own investigation started years earlier, in Miller's childhood. The youth hunted squirrels with a .22 rifle, and was such an accomplished marksman that before entering the Navy he leaned toward becoming a taxidermist, even completing a correspondence course. Twice in the 18 months preceding Pearl Harbor, Miller attended secondary battery gunnery school aboard the USS Nevada. The fact that he wasn't allowed to fire any of the weapons is irrelevant, Ramsey says.

"The first time I got into the car I drove it," he says. "I'd never driven before. I'd seen it done."

In the years following World War II, stories began circulating that Miller had actually shot down two, and possibly five, of the 29 Japanese planes downed that day, even though the Navy did not award "kills" to any individuals. But some Pearl Harbor historians dispute the story.

The 1957 book "Day of Infamy" by Walter Lord, recognized by many as one of the finest studies of Pearl Harbor, recounts how Miller had taken over one of the machine guns: "The big steward had no training whatsoever in machine guns, and at least one witness felt he was a bigger menace than the Japanese."

Ramsey believes that Miller's strength, his sharpshooter's eye and his attendance at gunnery school provide a solid enough foundation to conclude that he shot down two planes. But he also says that point is not essential in the Medal of Honor decision.

"Because Miller was black, this is what makes his heroism so outstanding," Ramsey says. "The first thing that the congressional Medal of Honor asks is {that} you have to go beyond the call of duty. That phrase cannot be lost when it comes to Dorie Miller.

"Here was a man who did what he was not allowed to do. Just manning that machine gun was going beyond the call of duty right there."

But Medals of Honor don't come easy. Bills introduced in Congress in 1942 to award the medal to seaman Miller were referred as a matter of course to the House and Senate naval affairs committees. They never surfaced again.

Some press reports at the time hinted at Texas politicians' responsibility for the bills' failures. That's likely given the state's political atmosphere -- it wasn't until 1944 that the U.S. Supreme Court declared Texas's all-white Democratic Party primary unconstitutional.

Following Miller's death in 1943, interest in his case waned. Thirty years later the Navy dedicated the destroyer escort USS Doris Miller.

Ramsey believes that memorial is one of the biggest obstacles in his effort to get Doris Miller awarded the Medal of Honor.

"The opposition I've been running into with Miller is that if we want to give him a congressional Medal of Honor too, we might as well give him the whole Navy," Ramsey says. "People have said to me, 'Hasn't he received enough?' "

The other obstacle remains race. "I know that a black guy has to be 'super black,' " Ramsey says. "Unfortunately, a black guy has to do twice as much to get half as much."

The Defense Department is left in a difficult position. To award Miller a Medal of Honor today would be admitting an earlier error. To deny him the medal leaves the department open to charges of racism.

Ramsey has tried unsuccessfully several times to establish a Doris Miller memorial -- at the Texas Rangers Hall of Fame and Paul Quinn College in Waco, and at the Admiral Nimitz Museum in Fredericksburg, Tex.

The original Miller home was flooded to make Lake Waco in 1963, and the family's second home was gutted by fire several years ago. The historian tried to raise $100,000 to renovate the home for a memorial but was unsuccessful.

In February 1989, an exhibit honoring African Americans in the armed forces opened at the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum in New York Harbor. There are small photos of Miller on three panels.

Ten months later, on Dec. 7, 1989, 48 years to the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Waco city officials approved the demolition of the Miller home.

It is now a vacant lot.