The First Hero of World War II

Thomas Cutrer

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Doris Miller, the son of an impoverished sharecropper, was born in McLennan County, Texas. During the Depression, he took the only job that he could find: the Navy. There, in common with all black recruits, he was assigned to the messman branch, making the beds, shining the shoes, and serving the meals of white officers. In December 1941, he was assigned to the West Virginia, stationed at Pearl Harbor, when the Japanese launched its infamous attack. Although not trained in gunnery, when Miller was ordered on deck to help his wounded captain, he took over an unmanned machine gun and began to fire at the attacking planes. News of the heroic actions of this humble messman spread through the American press, making him the country’s first hero of WWII and earning for him the Navy Cross, the first ever awarded to a black man.

Thomas W. Cutrer

Professor Emeritus, Arizona State University

Thomas W. Cutrer is a professor emeritus at Arizona State University. After serving as a combat intelligence officer in the U.S. Air Force, he earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas. He then worked as a curator at the University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures and as associate director of the Texas State Historical Association. Including his biography on Miller, he is the author or editor of ten books on Southern military and cultural history. He now lives in Texarkana where his wife is the president of Texas A&M University – Texarkana.

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