The torpedo blast destroyed Miller’s ammo that day, and he was forced to the deck, where he carried injured sailors to safety. But even without gun training, Miller knew he could do more to save his crew. He jumped behind one of the unmanned Brownings, swung it skyward and fired until his belt was empty and crew members were ordered to abandon ship.
Asked later about his heroics, Miller was collected.
“It wasn’t hard. I just pulled the trigger and she worked fine. I had watched the others with these guns,” Miller said at the time, according a biography of Miller by the Naval History and Heritage Command. “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.”
Of the West Virginia’s 1,541 crew members, 106 (including the captain) died and 52 were injured.
After Dec. 7, Miller was hailed in news reports only as an “unnamed Negro messman hero.”
Miller wouldn’t remain anonymous forever. Months later, he was recognized for his heroics by the Pittsburgh Courier, the influential African American weekly newspaper. He was the first black recipient of the Navy Cross medal — the highest decoration after the Medal of Honor.
And 78 years later, the Navy will name a $12.5 billion aircraft carrier in his honor, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser first reported, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
It will be the first aircraft carrier named for a black sailor, the Star Advertiser said, citing Navy records, and joins the growing list of Navy dining halls, YMCA branches, parks, schools and American Legion posts to bear his name.
After Miller was identified, he was celebrated as a hero, even though most reports of the incident accessed through the National Archives do not credit him with downing any of the Japanese planes.
Miller’s actions were enough to inspire the Navy to offer black recruits better opportunities: Four months after the Pearl Harbor attack, Navy Secretary William Franklin Knox announced black recruits would be trained in expanded service roles at an all-black section of Naval Station Great Lakes in Illinois, according to a report by World War II Magazine that was republished last year by the Navy Times.
Miller’s story was used to help drive recruitment of black sailors. Less than two years after his heroic turn at Pearl Harbor, he reported to the newly built USS Liscome Bay with a promoted rank of cook third class.
Miller was never able to realize the opportunities his actions spurred within the Navy. On Nov. 24, 1943, a torpedo sank the Liscome. Miller was listed as missing for two years before the Navy declared him dead.
The launching of a new ship bearing Miller’s name is among ongoing efforts to cement his place in U.S. wartime history. Doreen Ravenscroft, executive director of the Cultural Arts of Waco, has been leading an effort for the past decade to build a memorial to Miller in his hometown.
Ravenscroft said Miller is a hero worthy of international recognition.
“He used his own instinct of survival to do what he thought he should do, and his instinct was to defend his country,” Ravenscroft told The Washington Post on Saturday. “The fact that he went beyond the call of duty, we need that today — doing that extra, doing more than what’s expected.”
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