THE GREATEST GENERATION.
A singular concept defined American history classes during the last half of the 20th century. Simply put, America and Americans are exceptional. The irrefutable proof for that argument came from “the Greatest Generation,” who defeated fascism. Of course, that story began 79 years ago today, with our “Day of Infamy.” What can we learn from Pearl Harbor and one of its great heroes, Doris Miller?
It reflects poorly on us that our current news sources barely mention today’s sober anniversary. As I write, CNN covers its website in COVID news; at FOX News the election aftermath garners the headlines; and over on Twitter, the release of the Madden 21 video game trends at number one. To be fair, Pearl Harbor ranks as the twelfth most important story of the day for twitter heads.
The world keeps spinning, but maybe we could learn something by reflecting for a moment. Those who survived the Day of Infamy will not survive much longer, the youngest of them are over age 95. Soon, there will be no “living history” of the event. The question they leave for us is whether their sacrifices and victories were fleeting or permanent.
A HAND ON DECK.
Doris Miller grew up in Waco, Texas, a black man in a segregated country. Miller enlisted in the Navy in 1939. Consistent with the country’s racial views, the Navy offered limited options for African-American sailors. Miller’s lot in life was to cook for those who fought as a “mess attendant.” He served in that position on December 7, 1941, aboard the battleship U.S.S. West Virginia.
Miller was a big man, with a powerful build. His claim to fame before the Day of Infamy came from winning West Virginia’s heavyweight boxing championship. When all hell broke loose, Miller reported for duty at a central location on the ship. Seeing Miller’s powerful build, an officer ordered Miller to move the ship’s injured captain to a safer location. Miller then reported to one of two spots housing the ship’s 50-mm anti-aircraft guns.
Miller had zero experience with anything of the sort, the Navy believing his highest and best use was to peel potatoes. An officer gave Miller a quick lesson so Miller would at least know how to feed ammunition to one of the guns. The officer turned to attend to some other emergency; by the time he returned, Miller was in full attack mode.
DORIS MILLER VS. THE JAPANESE.
If there has ever been hell on earth, it was present at Pearl Harbor on that day. The attack lasted two hours during which the Japanese repeatedly put torpedoes and bombs into the ship. Sometimes the devices only ripped holes in the ship; other times they found pay dirt and exploded fuel and ammunition.
To keep the West Virginia in the fight, the crew had to keep her level. If she took too much water on one side, she would pitch over like the Arizona. To keep her flat, the crew opened up the side opposite of the heaviest damage to allow water to pour in. To be clear, the West Virginia’s crew intentionally sank their own ship to keep fighting as long as possible.
No one knows how they will react to furious combat until they face it. Miller never flinched. The Japanese Air Force lost 29 of the 420 planes they unleashed on the Day of Infamy; Doris Miller shot down at least four and as many as six of the Japanese Zeros.
DORIS MILLER VS. DEATH.
Finally, Miller ran out of ammunition. He returned to the command area, where he again moved the ship’s mortally wounded captain through fires and explosions. As the water began to take its toll and the ship started to settle, Miller raced back and forth to the quarterdeck, evacuating the injured. Each trip fraught with danger, Miller kept at it until all abandoned ship. He was among the last to leave.
Miller came to the nation’s attention the next April through a radio broadcast telling of America’s fighting heroes. The next month, Admiral Chester Nimitz pinned a Navy Cross, the service’s second highest honor, on Miller’s chest. Reading the Medal of Honor citations for actions on Pearl Harbor, the only difference one can make out between those awarded the military’s ultimate accolade and Miller is the color of their skin.
Still, Miller was a hero. He sold war bonds and spoke at rallies. In World War II, however, heroes kept fighting. Promoted all the way to Cook, First Class, Miller joined the escort carrier U.S.S. Liscome Bay. At the Battle of Makin, a torpedo found its home in the stern of the Liscome Bay. For a second time, Miller served on a sinking ship, this one with 900 men aboard.
On December 7, 1943, precisely two years after Miller’s heroism during the Day of Infamy, Navy chaplains informed Miller’s parents of his status, missing and presumed dead. Miller was 24 years old. The Navy confirmed the death a year later.
Cross over the Brazos River on the Elm Street Bridge in Waco, Texas and you see a fitting memorial to Cook, First Class Doris Miller. The Navy plans to launch the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Doris Miller in 2028.
I do not know why Doris Miller enlisted. He may have been a patriot or he may have seen the service as the only option for a black man with a limited education. I do know two things, however. First, the America of 1940 was not kind to people like Doris Miller. Second, when called on, Miller fought to the death to preserve her, despite her imperfections.
Roosevelt’s Day of Infamy speech was exceedingly brief. He spoke for a united country, though, when he said: “no matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people, in their righteous might, will win through to absolute victory.” Righteous might defined the American ethos for the next 60 years.
On other days of infamy; when we saw the Chinese rush across the Yangtze, when we saw the Russians beat us to space; when we lost astronauts inside a burning capsule; when Saigon fell; when Iranians took us hostage; when the Challenger exploded; and when the towers fell, we remained convinced of ourselves. It is one thing to for a people of common heritage to band together; it is unique in human experience for a people to bind themselves tightly based only on a set of ideas.
Yet, that is what Doris Miller did on the Day of Infamy and what he kept doing. Miller had no real reason to fight for his American reality; instead he fought for the promise of America. Growing up, the history curriculum informed me that we achieved the promise Miller must have seen. For 60 years, I believed that to be true because we progressed.
LESSON LEARNED OR FORGOTTEN?
More Americans will die with COVID-19 in the last nine months of 2020 than died in combat during all of World War II. In a cruel irony, many of those dying are from the Greatest Generation. The damage to our economy has more zeroes than I can comprehend. While those facts sadden me, they do not worry me in the slightest.
What terrifies me is that the for the first time in my lifetime, no one has invoked the “righteous might of the American people” against a common enemy. Instead, we fight ourselves, accusing other Americans of plots to destroy us from within. The free world pities us instead of following us.
I am only smart enough to see the danger; I have no idea how to turn the ship around. The vaccine will mitigate the pandemic, but our battle is just beginning. There are more days of infamy ahead of us, of what shape we do not know. The question we have to answer is whether we will fight to the death against them or fight to the death amongst us.
Whenever I cross the Elm Street bridge I know the decision Doris Miller made. I pray that rather than just memorializing Miller’s courage, we will realize it ourselves.