Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly, right, poses for a group photo with the Miller family after the unveiling of the new Ford-class aircraft carrier USS Doris Miller (CVN 81) at a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration event at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.

S.E. Williams | Contributor

On January 20, 2020 —the holiday marking the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.— the U.S. Navy officially named its newest aircraft carrier, the future USS Doris Miller (CVN 81).

Doris Miller, known as “Dorie” to shipmates and friends, saved the lives of his shipmates and then valiantly fought attacking Japanese forces during the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, bravery for which he was awarded the Navy Cross—the first African American to receive this honor. Almost two years after his valor at Pearl Harbor, Miller gave his life for his country when his ship was sunk during battle.

Although the USS Doris Miller (CVN 81) will be the second ship named in honor of Miller it will be the first aircraft carrier named for an enlisted sailor and the first named for an African American.

Miller grew up on his family’s farm in Waco, Texas, and played football in high school before enlisting as a ship’s mess attendant in the U.S. Navy in 1939. In 1940, Miller was transferred to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and reported for duty onboard USS West Virginia (BB 48), where he became the ship’s heavyweight boxing champion.

“Dorie Miller stood for everything that is good about our nation. His story deserves to be remembered and repeated wherever our people continue to stand the watch today.”

 — Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly, Jan. 20, 2020

Miller was below decks December 7, 1941, when the first Japanese torpedo struck USS West Virginia (BB 48). His battle station in the magazine damaged, Miller was ordered to the bridge, where he helped carry the ship’s mortally wounded captain to safety. Miller then loaded and fired an anti-aircraft machine gun—a weapon that, as an African American in a segregated military, he had not been trained to operate. Miller stayed behind once the order to abandon ship was passed to help evacuate shipmates and save the lives of Sailors in the burning water.

The Honorable Eddie Bernice-Johnson, United States representative from the 30th district of Texas, left, speaks at the unveiling of the new Ford-class aircraft carrier USS Doris Miller (CVN 81) at a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration event on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam as Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly look on. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication 2nd Class Justin R. Pacheco), Family of late Ship’s Cook 3rd Class Doris Miller unveil a plaque commemorating the future Navy ship, Ford-class aircraft carrier USS Doris Miller (CVN 81), at a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration event on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.

For his extraordinary courage, Miller was the first African American to be awarded the Navy Cross. Newspapers around the country cited his example as an argument for civil rights and equality.

During the naming ceremony Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Russell Smith declared, “Naming CVN 81 for Dorie Miller casts long overdue recognition to a true American hero and icon. It also honors the contributions of African Americans and enlisted sailors for the first time in the history of American aircraft carriers.”

Smith concluded, “The Sailors who will put the USS Doris Miller to sea will be the fortunate ones, as heirs to the mightiest of Navy legends who epitomized the kind of fighting Sailor we need today.”