The U. S. Navy’s decision to name an aircraft carrier after Pearl Harbor hero Doris Miller is laudable for the symbolism of honoring an African American worthy of having a ship named after him. At first blush, however, it is a misapplication of norms to apply the name of a relatively momentary hero to an aircraft carrier and not a destroyer, as has been the tradition for generations.
Miller wore the uniform of a Navy that allowed African Americans to serve only in relatively menial positions such as steward or cook and not in more professional rates such as engineering, boat handling or gunnery. Yet in the midst of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Mess Attendant Second Class Miller took it upon himself to man a .50-caliber anti-aircraft gun aboard the battleship West Virginia. He fired on Japanese aircraft until the weapon was out of ammunition, when he was ordered to other duties before the entire crew abandoned ship.
Miller apparently was included on an early list of Navy recommendations to recognize actions of valor during the December 7th attack, although initially he was not specifically named. Vigorous lobbying by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Pittsburgh Courier, an African-American newspaper, led to Miller being publicly identified. Continued pressure resulted in Miller receiving the Navy Cross in recognition of his actions during the attack, including his assistance to the battleship’s mortally-wounded commanding officer.
Miller subsequently was promoted to Mess Attendant First Class as the Courier and other outlets noted the menial nature of the position, even as the Navy promoted Miller’s heroism in recruiting posters. After a stateside war bond drive Miller returned to seagoing duty and, as a Cook Third Class, was serving aboard the escort carrier USS Liscome Bay in November 1943 when that ship was torpedoed and sunk by a Japanese submarine. More than six hundred sailors, including Miller, died in the sinking.
Miller’s is a well-known story, both in the lore of Pearl Harbor and in African American history. The Knox-class frigate USS Miller bore his name from 1971 to 1995, a wholly appropriate honor as he fully meets the Navy’s naming convention for destroyer-type ships, who bear the names of hundreds of Navy heroes from all eras in addition to persons of significance in the service’s history.
The names applied to carriers are, however, a different story. Originally carrying the names of famous battles and ships of the past or significant aviation milestones, the naming convention was first disturbed in 1945 when one carrier was renamed to honor the late President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In the 1950s another carrier was named for James Forrestal, a Navy secretary and the first secretary of Defense, and subsequent names shifted between people, ships, battles or significant events. The Nimitz class of carriers bore only the names of persons and since the 1970s the process became increasingly politicized. The first two ships of the class honored five-star World War II military leaders Chester Nimitz and Dwight D. Eisenhower, followed by longtime Navy champion Congressman Carl Vinson. Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington followed – all names previously borne by ballistic missile submarines – followed by Senator John C. Stennis. Vinson and Stennis, despite their services to the Navy and the nation, were ardent segregationists during their careers.
Although the Stennis name was approved during the Reagan Administration, the next carrier initially reverted to the earlier tradition of perpetuating an honored ship name – in this case that of the United States, one of the six sailing frigates that made up the original U. S. Navy. In the mid-1990s Republicans in Congress mandated the next carrier honor Ronald Reagan, and the Clinton Administration acquiesced with the proviso that Democratic President Harry Truman be honored, and the United States was so renamed.
Numerous naval people, regardless of political persuasion, became increasingly uncomfortable with the growing practice to invoke political, rather than national, sensibilities in the carrier naming process. Yet the political practice continued with presidents George H. W. Bush and Gerald R. Ford becoming carrier names, the Ford gracing the name ship of a new class of carrier. With the decommissioning of the earlier ship carrying the name John F. Kennedy the second ship of the Ford class was so named, but a significant lobbying effort led to a decision to name the third ship Enterprise, honoring several famous ships which have carried the name.
It had been hoped by many that the return to a famous ship name might end the string of political names, with many famous carrier names – Yorktown, Ranger, Lexington, Saratoga, Constellation, Intrepid and more – still available.
With this background the January 20 announcement by Acting Secretary Thomas Modly to name a carrier for Doris Miller strikes many as inappropriate. Not that naming a warship for Miller is wrong, but that the name is more suitable for a destroyer. At first I agreed with that sentiment, and there are thousands of Navy and Marine Corps heroes whose acts of valor were far greater than Miller’s.
But the situation changes if one views Miller’s story as representative of the trials and wrongful restrictions inflicted for more than two centuries on Black Americans by the U.S. government and its military. Mess Attendant Miller grabbing that gun without being ordered to do so was an act of defiance in the face of grievous wrongs. That the Navy wouldn’t advance him professionally only perpetuated some of those wrongs, despite the award of a medal. Official – if not cultural – restrictions on the service of African Americans in the military continued until July 1948 when President Truman ordered the abolishment of racial segregation in the armed forces. Unofficial restrictions, of course, continue to this day, and the struggle goes on.
In this setting the choice to name one of the nation’s largest, most powerful and most expensive warships after Doris Miller is magnificently appropriate, recognition not only to Miller but to the thousands of African Americans denied the chance to serve their country the way they would have wanted to. Miller is worthy of the honor, as are so very many others.
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Posted 26 Jan 2020