By Christopher Moore, Author: Fighting For America: Black Soldiers, The Unsung Heroes of World War II.
Sunday morning, Dec. 7, 1941, at 7:55 a.m., Doris “Dorie” Miller was below deck collecting laundry when his ship, the U.S.S. West Virginia, was struck by the first of five aircraft torpedoes and two 1,000-lb bombs. Miller scrambled on deck—under a hail of machine-gun fire from strafing enemy planes—and carried several wounded soldiers, including his mortally wounded captain, to greater safety.
In the lopsided Japanese victory that stunned America, the government, military and news media searched for heroes to present to the American public. Newspapers carried stories and printed the names and actions of local heroes. Except for one national story about the heroics of an anonymous “negro messboy,” all of the acts of bravery belonged to white Americans.
More than three months passed before Dorie Miller’s name became known and received national attention. His identity was announced by Lawrence Reddick, Director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Suspecting that the Navy might have purposefully withheld the name of a black hero, Reddick wrote an amicable letter requesting that the soldier’s name be released so that he could be acknowledged in an “Honor Roll of Race Relations.” The Navy provided Reddick with Miller’s name, and on March 12, 1942, Reddick’s announcement made public the war’s first African-American hero.
Following Pearl Harbor, American military racial policy became simple: black soldiers were not generally asked to carry guns, but they were ordered to carry nearly everything else. For the next four years, black soldiers would be called upon to build, transport, or carry virtually every element of the military’s combat campaign. They built bases, airfields, and roads. They transported artillery, ammunition, troops, and airplanes. They drained swamps and shore-lines for docks and piers. Certainly, they contributed as pilots, tankers, artillerymen and combat soldiers too, but the bulk of their work was as extraordinarily valuable, life-saving, battle (land, sea and air) winning laborers.
From December 1941 until August 1945, black soldiers were the veritable back-bone of the American military’s labor needs. Dismissed for more than 65 years as “non-combat service units” most black WWII veterans have gone to their graves with no public awareness or acknowledgment of their sacrifices or deeds.
- Dr. Lawrence Reddick ca. 1942
- Aboard the USS Enterprise, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, the Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, presents the Navy Cross to Dorie Miller.
- World War II Campaign Poster
All Photographs are from the Photographs and Prints Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library