The Navy Once Called Him an ‘Unknown Negro Sailor.’ Now It’s Naming a Carrier After Him

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Former sailors on the USS Miller, salute a statue depicting th World War II hero
Former sailors on the USS Miller, salute a 9-foot-tall bronze statue depicting World War II hero Doris Miller, during an unveiling ceremony along the banks of the Brazos River, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017, in Waco, Texas. Miller was a mess attendant on the USS West Virginia stationed at Pearl Harbor, he dragged his injured captain to safety, then directed machine-gun fire at enemy aircraft as the ship sank. (Rod Aydelotte /Waco Tribune-Herald via AP)

Nearly 80 years after the Navy declined to even name the hero black sailor who displayed extraordinary bravery during the attack on Pearl Harbor, the service’s acting secretary is breaking with tradition to name a powerful aircraft carrier in his honor.

The family of Navy Cross recipient Doris “Dorie” Miller said Sunday that acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly’s decision to name a carrier for their uncle is an honor. Having the announcement made on Martin Luther King Jr. Day only makes the situation even more meaningful, Miller’s niece Brenda Haven told CBS Sunday Morning.

“That's beautiful,” Haven said, adding, “It has been a long, hard road.”

Over the last several decades, most of the Navy’s aircraft carriers have been named for U.S. presidents. This will mark the first time a carrier will be named for an African American or a sailor who performed heroic acts while serving in the enlisted ranks.

“In selecting this name, we honor the contributions of all our enlisted ranks, past and present, men and women, of every race, religion and background,” Modly said Sunday. “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. observed, ‘Everybody can be great - because anybody can serve’. No one understands the importance and true meaning of service than those who have volunteered to put the needs of others above themselves.”

Modly will formally announce his decision to name the next Ford-class carrier for Miller Monday -- Martin Luther King Jr. Day -- at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. That’s where Miller is credited with displaying “extraordinary courage and disregard for his own personal safety” to move his captain to safety after the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack.

Related: Navy to Name Aircraft Carrier for Pearl Harbor Hero Miller

Then-Mess Attendant 3rd Class Miller not only got his mortally wounded officer to safety during a serious fire, but also manned a machine gun to fire at Japanese aircraft until it ran out of ammunition and he was ordered to leave the bridge.

Black sailors were limited in the roles they could serve in at that time, which meant Miller wasn’t trained to operate the machine gun. When the Navy later recognized the men who’d receive awards for heroism for their actions that day, the service referred to Miller only as “an unknown Negro sailor.”

Facing public pushback over that move, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt later stepped in to award Miller the Navy Cross -- but as Modly told CBS Sunday Morning, the move wasn’t without controversy.

“There were some people who did not want him to receive the Navy Cross because of his race,” the acting SecNav said.

Miller was the first black service member to receive the Navy Cross, which was presented to him by Fleet Adm. Chester Nimitz.

The Navy in 1973 commissioned a Knox-class frigate named in honor of Miller. Modly wanted to name the next Ford-class carrier for a Navy hero, USNI News reported. He decided on Miller “after extensive conversations with current and former Navy leaders,” according to the outlet.

After receiving the Navy Cross, Miller would go onto become a high-profile spokesman for the sea service before being assigned to the carrier Liscome Bay. That ship was sunk by a Japanese torpedo. Miller and 645 others died in the attack.

The ship named for Miller will be the fourth in the new Ford-class carriers, which will replace the aging Nimitz-class flattops. Two of the other carriers in the class -- the Gerald R. Ford and John F. Kennedy -- are named for presidents.

“Doris Miller stood for everything that is good about our nation, and his story deserves to be remembered and repeated wherever our people continue the watch today,” Modly said.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect how often aircraft carriers are named for U.S. presidents. The practice has been common since the 1970s. 

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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