When Japanese forces descended on Pearl Harbor and attacked the United States naval base on Dec. 7, 1941, U.S. Navy cook Dorie Miller took hold of an anti-aircraft gun to defend his country.
After hearing about Miller’s heroic act, Dante Brizill, a Newark-area resident, decided to write a book about the sailor’s contribution to the defense of Pearl Harbor.
In his book, “Dorie Miller: Greatness Under Fire,” which was released Nov. 26 on Amazon ahead of the 77th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, Brizill chronicles Miller’s heroism, his background, and the legacy he left for African-Americans.
“I feel as though it’s inspirational because it shows a guy who rose above what he was trained to do and rose above the purpose the Navy had for black men at the time,” Brizill said. “He basically stepped in when his ship was under attack and basically just rose above and beyond what he was assigned to do."
‘A date which will live in infamy’
On that infamous day, 2,403 Americans were killed, including 2,335 military personnel and 68 civilians. Another 1,246 Americans were wounded, including 1,143 military personnel and 103 civilians, according to the Pearl Harbor Visitors Bureau.
Although historians have not been able to confirm the exact number of aircraft Miller shot down — various records report between two to six — Miller helped to keep the number of dead and wounded from rising any higher.
While Miller has been included in the narrative of the African-American experience in World War II, Brizill said the sailor’s story has been largely left out of more mainstream accounts of the Pearl Harbor attack.
Miller’s character has been portrayed in a few movies, perhaps most notably by Cuba Gooding Jr. in the 2001 film “Pearl Harbor.” Even in that version, Brizill said, Miller’s contribution to the defense of the naval base was not fully shown.
Miller, who was 20 years old when he enlisted in the Navy, was a messman stationed aboard the USS West Virginia, where he prepared and cleaned up after meals. Brizill explained that at the time, black servicemen were primarily relegated to non-combat roles and that Miller wasn’t even trained to operate any weapons on the ship.
“It was a commonly held belief by a lot of senior people in the military at the time that African-Americans were not capable of being in skilled positions that required intensive training and combat,” he said.
The morning of the attack, Miller was doing wake-up and laundry duties. As the West Virginia came under fire, however, he grabbed ahold of one of the anti-aircraft guns, shot at the attacking Japanese planes, and was able to down multiple aircraft.
After the attack
Following the attack, Brizill said, the military didn’t want to draw attention to Miller’s heroism.
“At first, the Navy kind of kept his story quiet, but enough people had witnessed his courage to talk about it,” he said. “It spread by word of mouth that this black cook on the ship did some heroic deeds.”
According to Brizill, the Secretary of the Navy was satisfied with giving Miller a congratulatory letter, but The Pittsburgh Courier, an influential African-American paper, and the NAACP advocated for Miller to be publicly recognized.
Miller became the first African-American to be awarded the Navy Cross, the second highest award U.S. Navy personnel can earn, following the Congressional Medal of Honor.
According to Brizill, many people then and today believe Miller should have received the Medal of Honor. However, efforts to award Miller the nation’s highest military honor were denied.
It was also common for war heroes to go on tour and raise bonds for the war. But unlike his white counterparts, Miller was not allowed to do so initially, Brizill said.
Again, the Courier newspaper stepped in and advocated for Miller to be able to go on tour, which he was eventually granted permission to do.
After he returned from his tour, Miller was stationed on the USS Liscome Bay, an escort carrier. Japanese forces sunk the ship, killing over 600 sailors, including Miller, Brizill said.
Brizill said Miller’s exclusion from many publications was due in part to Miller’s race, while another part was the fact that he lived a short life, having died two years after the Pearl Harbor attack.
“He didn’t really get an opportunity to promote himself, to tell his story like you see in these documentaries on World War II of people who are able to be there front and center,” Brizill said.
Honoring him on the page
When Brizill was in the fifth or sixth grade, he knew he wanted to be a teacher.
“I had a lot of great teachers coming up in elementary school, middle school and high school,” said Brizill, who teaches history at Elkton High School in Maryland. “I wanted to do what they did.”
A self-described World War II buff, Brizill said he has gravitated to reading about history since he was a kid. He added that his grandfathers were both veterans — one served in World War II, the other in the Korean War — who amplified his love of learning about history.
When Brizill first learned about Miller, he was surprised that he hadn’t heard the story sooner.
One of the things that pushed Brizill to write his book was a documentary made by National Geographic in 2001 about Miller as part of the 60th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack.
Not only did he enjoy hearing Miller’s story, but so did the students that Brizill shared it with.
Over the past three or four years, Brizill has researched Miller’s history with the intent to write a book about it.
He said his book is primarily targeted toward middle schoolers, but he has found that adults want to read books like his too.
“People want to hear stories like Dorie Miller because most people weren’t taught about this in school,” he said.
Brizill hopes readers, especially young people who are told what they can’t do, find a kindred underdog spirit in Miller and are reminded of what they can do.
“I think our young people need heroes,” he said. “They need to hear about stories that maybe aren’t front and center, aren’t familiar. They need to see examples of young people who overcame the odds. They need to see examples of young people that rose above the labels that were placed on them.”
As his book enters the hands of audiences, Brizill said telling Miller’s story was his way of sharing one of the voices that has been hushed by history.
“To introduce this extraordinary individual to a new generation of kids was a rewarding experience,” he said. “I like to find stories and people that are behind-the-scenes a little bit and bring them to the forefront.”
Legacy for justice
In writing the book, Brizill not only uncovered what happened while Miller was alive, but also the impact he had and continues to have even after his ultimate sacrifice.
Brizill explained that while the United States and its allies were fighting fascism abroad, America had its own challenges brewing at home that made life particularly difficult for black members of the military.
“In World War II, African-Americans had to fight two wars: we had to fight racism at home and our enemies overseas,” he said.
With the country initially being slow to award Miller for his service, Brizill said it took the hard work of civil rights organizations to push for any level of recognition.
“He had some powerful people advocating for him, powerful civil rights and African-American organizations advocating for him,” Brizill said. “The fact that he got the Navy Cross was because of a pressure campaign that was put on the military and the president at the time, President Roosevelt.”
A few years after Miller’s story was revealed, President Harry S. Truman integrated the armed forces by way of an executive order.
Brizill said the African-American experience in World War II laid the groundwork for the civil rights movement in ‘50s and ‘60s, as organizations launched pressure campaigns to secure the rights for black people in the U.S.
“When you see African-Americans in the military today that are in senior positions, that are in highly skilled positions, Dorie Miller’s legacy I think has a lot to do with that,” he said. “He opened doors with his actions on Dec. 7, 1941.”
As the U.S. comes up on the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, Brizill said there is still time for Miller to be fully recognized for what he gave to this country.
“One of the things I do advocate is that it’s not too late for Dorie Miller to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. I challenge people in my book to contact their congressperson and senator to recognize him and give him the Congressional Medal of Honor. I think that would be a fitting tribute for what he did,” he said.