You know the history. On a quiet Sunday morning, Dec. 7, 1941, Japan launched a surprise attack on U.S. military bases on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. Two waves of 353 fighter planes hit military installments. The first was at Pacific Naval Air Base, destroying or crippling 36 seaplanes and killing or wounding 84 Americans. Seven minutes later, the Japanese hit Pearl Harbor, where 96 U.S. warships were anchored. All eight battleships of the U.S. Pacific Fleet were sunk or badly damaged. Amazingly, all of America's aircraft carriers were untouched. One hundred eighty-eight U.S. aircraft were destroyed. Of the 2,335 Americans killed, 1,102 were aboard the USS Arizona.
Seven of the wasted U.S. battleships -- excluding the USS Arizona -- were eventually raised, six of them deployed in World War II battle. Most inspirational, however, were the myriad heroic stories that also surfaced from the devastating day that "will live in infamy." Here's one about an unexpected hero who can still inspire the extraordinary in all of us.
Doris "Dorie" Miller grew up in Waco, Texas, tending to his father's farm and playing football. He was 19 years old when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1939. Dorie wanted to improve his life, serve his country, see the world and earn some money to help out back home, according to National Geographic.
Clark Simmons, who was a mess attendant on the USS Utah during the attack on Pearl Harbor, explained: "You have to understand that when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president in 1932, he opened up the Navy again to blacks, but in one area only; they were called mess attendants, stewards and cooks. The Navy was so structured that if you were black, this was what they had you do in the Navy; you only could be a servant."
What we regard now as racial restrictions, Miller saw as opportunities. So he joined the Navy as a mess attendant 3rd class, but it didn't stop there. He was promoted to 2nd class and then 1st class and eventually to ship's cook 3rd class. He even became the heavyweight champion boxer on board his battleship.
Miller served on the ammunition ship Pyro and then was assigned to the USS West Virginia battleship in 1940. On Dec. 7, 1941, that battleship was in port at Pearl Harbor, and Miller was aboard.
Even cooks had assigned combat duties in case of emergencies, so when the Japanese hit Pearl Harbor, Miller rushed to his battle station -- an anti-aircraft battery magazine. After seeing that his battle station was damaged, he hurried to the above decks to help the wounded.
Simmons described the scene: "The captain and the executive officer, the 'XO,' were on the bridge, and they both were injured. So Dorie Miller went up and physically picked up the captain and brought him down to the first-aid station. And then he went back and manned a .50-caliber machine gun, which he had not been trained on."
After the battle, Miller himself explained: "It wasn't hard. I just pulled the trigger, and she worked fine. I had watched the others with these guns. I guess I fired her for about 15 minutes. I think I got one of those (Japanese) planes. They were diving pretty close to us."
In May 1942, Miller became the first black man to receive the Navy Cross for bravery in the line of fire, which Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, the commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, personally presented to Miller on board the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise. In addition to the Navy Cross, Miller was honored with the Purple Heart; the American Defense Service Medal, Fleet Clasp; the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal; and the World War II Victory Medal.
The Doris Miller memorial website tells that he visited his Waco home and family for the last time during a Christmas leave in 1942. Afterward, he continued his service in the Pacific aboard a new escort carrier, the USS Liscome Bay. But on Nov. 24, 1943, during the Battle of Tarawa, the ship was torpedoed, killing 646 of its 918 sailors, including Dorie.
In honor of his life, service and sacrifices, the U.S. Navy commissioned a new frigate, the USS Miller, in 1973. It is only the third naval ship to be named after a black sailor. The U.S. Navy also honored him by naming a dining hall, a barracks and a destroyer escort after him.
Dorie was honored by citizens across our country, too. Back home in Waco, a park, cemetery, YMCA branch and statue and landscape area are named after him. In Austin, Texas, an auditorium at Huston-Tillotson University bears his name. In Houston and Philadelphia, elementary schools are dedicated to his memory and name. In Los Angeles, the Dorie Miller Memorial Foundation helps homeless veterans, and a Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter is named for him.
In the midst of minuscule rights and privileges for African-Americans, Dorie didn't play the victim, engage in class warfare or even fight for racial justice. He simply led the way through service to his country and fellow man. He laced up his bootstraps and fought for a better life for himself, his family and his country.
Maybe it's time we quit hunting for evidence to support our views or conclusions that degrade others. Maybe it's time we shake the stereotypes. Maybe it's time to cease the friendly fire on fellow Americans. Maybe it's time we quit making excuses and blaming others for why we don't press onward and upward. Maybe it's time we simply follow Miller's model for personal excellence and encourage others to do the same.
I can't guarantee you that it will eradicate racial injustice, but I can absolutely declare that it will build up the downtrodden, change lives and make for better cities, a better country and a better world -- just as America was created to do.
(To read more about this inspiring American, go to http://www.dorismillermemorial.org.)