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HE WAS GATHERING dirty laundry when the bombs started falling.
It was early on the morning of December 7, 1941, at the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and Mess Attendant Dorie Miller had just gone on duty aboard the battleship USS West Virginia. A six-foot-three, 225-pound Texan, Miller was the ship's heavyweight boxing champ. But his everyday duties were somewhat less challenging. As one of the ship's African American mess attendants, he cooked and cleaned for the white sailors.
Miller was below deck, picking up clothes, when the first torpedo slammed into the side of the West Virginia. Sirens shrieked and a voice roared over the loudspeaker:
"Japanese are attacking! All hands, General Quarters!"
Miller ran to his assigned battle station, an ammunition magazine—and saw it had already been blown apart.
He raced up to the deck and looked up at a bright blue sky streaked with enemy planes and falling bombs. Japan's massive attack had taken the base by surprise, and thunderous explosions were rocking American ships all over the harbor. Two direct hits cracked through the deck of the West Virginia, sending flames and shrapnel flying.
Amid the smoke and chaos, an officer saw Miller and shouted for him to help move the wounded. Miller began lifting men, carrying them farther from the spreading fires.
Then he spotted a dead gunner beside an anti-aircraft machine gun. He'd never been instructed in the operation of this weapon. But he'd seen it used. That was enough.
Jumping behind the gun, Miller tilted the barrel up and took aim at a Japanese plane. "It wasn't hard," he'd later say. "I just pulled the trigger, and she worked fine."
As Miller blasted away, downing at least one enemy airplane, several more torpedoes blew gaping holes in the side of the West Virginia. The ship listed sharply to the left as it took on water.
The captain, who lay dying of a belly wound, ordered, "Abandon ship!"
Sailors started climbing over the edge of the ship, leaping into the water. Miller scrambled around the burning, tilting deck, helping wounded crewmembers escape the sinking ship before jumping to safety himself.
* * *
After the battle, an officer who had witnessed Miller's bravery recommended him for the Navy Cross, the highest decoration given by the Navy. "For distinguished devotion to duty," declared Miller's official Navy Cross citation, "extraordinary courage and disregard for his own personal safety during the attack on the Fleet in Pearl Harbor."
In early 1942, soon after the United States had entered World War II, Admiral Chester Nimitz personally pinned the medal to Miller's chest. "This marks the first time in this conflict that such high tribute has been made in the Pacific Fleet to a member of his race," Nimitz declared. "I'm sure that the future will see others similarly honored for brave acts."
And then Dorie Miller, one of the first American heroes of World War II, went back to collecting laundry. He was still just a mess attendant.
It was the only position open to black men in the United States Navy.
Text copyright © 2014 by Steve Sheinkin