Sunday 7 December 1941 – the Day of Infamy
‘As quiet a day as you’ve ever seen, beautiful
sunshine, nothing going on.’ – Survivor Francis Stueve
Sunday morning, 7 December 1941, dawned a typical day in paradise. Sunday mornings were a time of leisure for most American military personnel at the Pearl Harbor naval base, Hawaii.
Many were either still asleep, eating breakfast, getting ready for church or still on shore leave.
Aboard the USS Arizona, some of the crew were preparing to go ashore in Honolulu, their first leave in days. Others were getting the ship ready for the Sunday church service on deck.
Sometime after 7 am, 19-year-old Seaman 1st Class Donald Stratton finished breakfast in the mess hall and set off to visit his crewmate Harl Nelson who was in sick back after contracting yellow jaundice. He grabbed some oranges on his way out.
Stratton was part of the duty section that was to remain on board the Arizona moored on Battleship Row at the weekend.
On the deck near the stern, crew members were assembling for colours, the raising of the flag. The Arizona’s band tuned up on the fantail.
The war raging in Europe seemed a million miles away from Pearl Harbor and the people of Honolulu, Oahu, that morning.
Just a few minutes before 8 am, all hell broke loose.
As Donald Stratton set off for sick bay he heard yelling from on deck. An air raid siren sounded.
Stratton recalled: “Some sailors were hollering and pointing towards Ford Island and we see one of the planes bank and it was the meatball on the wing and I thought, well that’s the Japanese headed right for my battle station.”
John Anderson was eating breakfast below deck when he heard the first explosion.
He heard a mess cook yell: “A bomb hit the island!”
Anderson recalled saying: “My god, those sons of bitches are here.”
The men on deck heard a low whine growing louder. They looked up to see a plane coming in low, 100 ft (30.5 m) above the ship. Its machineguns opened fire and the men on deck scattered.
Members of the 89th Field Artillery battalion were in their mess hall across the harbor from the moorings.
Three bangs were followed by a window breaking. A bullet shot into the mess hall. And then another, that knocked a butter dish off a table.
Army Private Francis Stueve, then 24 years old, and a few of his mates raced outside to see what was happening.
He recalled: “We were looking at the clouds, and watched a Japanese plane that had its signals on.”
“We were getting shot like everything was going to be destroyed,” he said. “Soldiers fell left and right, buildings were hit by gunfire and ships suffered fatal gashes.
“We had so many casualties. It’s a hard thing to do when people are screaming for aid . . . and you don’t have nobody coming,” he said. “Some who were looking out for their own were also getting killed.”
The Japanese launched a massive aerial attack on the American bases at Hawaii on the morning of 7 December with 353 warplanes – 40 torpedo planes, 103 level bombers, 131 dive-bombers, and 79 fighters – launched from four heavy aircraft carriers. In support were two heavy cruisers, 35 submarines, two light cruisers, nine oilers, two battleships and 11 destroyers.
It was the most devastating attack in the history of the US Navy. Almost 2,000 Navy personnel lost their lives. The other military casualties were members of the Marines and Army.
A total of 2,403 Americans lost their lives, including 68 civilians, 13 of whom were children – the youngest just three months old.
Dorie Miller – the fight for recognition
The devastation in the harbour also saw greats acts of heroism. Among the many accounts of bravery and heroism is the story of Doris “Dorie” Miller.
His story has been aired yet the fight to have him recognised with a Medal of Honor continues more than seven decades after his heroic deeds.
When the Japanese hit the USS West Virginia at Pearl Harbor, Miller manned a machine gun he was not trained on – his race precluded him from serving in a combat assignment – and ended up pulling the ship’s captain and many others to safety.
The senior surviving officer, Cdr R.H. Hillenkoetter, noted in the West Virginia’s action report on 11 December 1941 that Miller and Lt F.H. White were instrumental in “hauling people along through oil and water to the quarterdeck, thereby unquestionably saving the lives of a number of people who might otherwise have been lost”.
The West Virginia’s captain, Mervyn S. Bennion, was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously. His Medal of Honor citation said, “As commanding officer of the USS West Virginia, after being mortally wounded, Captain Bennion evidenced apparent concern only in fighting and saving his ship, and strongly protested against being carried from the bridge.”
Miller was born on 12 October 1919 in Waco, Texas, the son of share-croppers Connery and Henrietta Miller.
He was expelled from school for engaging in fights over racial issues. He worked on his father’s farm until he was 20 years old and enlisted in the US Navy in 1939. He served as a Mess Attendant Third Class and became the ship’s cook when he was transferred to the USS West Virginia.
Before and even during World War II, mess attendants were relegated to laundry detail, cooking meals, swabbing the deck and shining officers’ shoes.
Because of his size and strength, Miller competed in boxing competitions on the ships and became the Heavyweight champion of the West Virginia, from a crew of more than 2,000.
He was promoted to Mess Attendant Second Class just before the West Virginia was sent to Pearl Harbor.
On the morning of 7 December 1941, Miller was aboard the West Virginia and woke around 6 am. He had volunteered as a room steward and made an extra five dollars each month providing wake-up services to duty officers, as well as doing their laundry, shining their shoes and making their beds. When the alarm for general quarters was sounded, he headed for his battle station, the anti-aircraft battery magazine amid ship, only to find that a torpedo had destroyed it.
He was ordered to retrieve injured shipmates and carry them to the safety of the quarterdeck. He was next ordered to go to the aid of the injured ship’s captain, Mervyn Bennion. He went to the bridge to rescue Bennion but the Captain refused to leave his post
Miller was next ordered to help load the two Browning .50 calibre anti-aircraft machineguns but the next time he was seen he was manning one of the guns and firing into the air at dive-bombing Japanese planes.
Miller said later: “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 fifteen minutes. I think I got one of those Japanese planes. They were diving pretty close to us.”
Official documents don’t record anyone on board the West Virginia having shot down any planes that day. Regardless, anyone on board firing at the incoming planes made it more difficult for them to attack effectively.
Miller then helped pull sailors out of the water. Eventually the West Virginia began flooding and all aboard were ordered to abandon ship. Of the 1,541 men on board during the attack, 130 were killed and 52 wounded. The ship was struck by nine Japanese torpedoes.
The original newspaper reports noted that a “Negro messman” had behaved heroically. The editors at the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the country’s most widely circulated “black” newspapers, set about identifying the hero; it turned out to be Miller.
On 1 April 1942 Dorie Miller was commended by the Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox.
Adm. Chester Nimitz presented Dorie Miller with the Navy Cross on 27 May 1942 aboard USS Enterprise for his valor on 7 December, 1941.
His rank was raised to Mess Attendant First Class on 1 June 1942.
Dorie Miller was still serving as a cook two years later when he died after his ship was torpedoed.
Miller was called back on duty in 1943 to serve on the new escort carrier the USS Liscome Bay. The ship was operating in the Pacific near the Gilbert Islands on 24 November when she was hit by a single torpedo fired from a Japanese submarine. The torpedo detonated the bomb magazine on the carrier; the bombs exploded, and the ship sank within minutes. Miller was initially listed as missing; by November 1944 his status was changed to “presumed dead.” Only 272 men survived the attack.
The Navy honoured Doris “Dorie” Miller in 1973 by commissioning a Knox-class frigate, named USS Miller (FF-1091) after him.
In 2020, it was announced that the name Doris Miller was again to adorn a US Navy ship, this time an aircraft carrier, CVN-81, to be built in 2023 and launched in 2028.
Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly 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 on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Molly Crawford)
Speaking at the announcement in January, Democrat representative Bernice Johnson said: “Though he is deserving of even higher official recognition, including the Medal of Honour, the naming of this vessel on Martin Luther King Day could not be more fitting.”
Today there is a Dorie Miller park in Hawaii and several schools and buildings are named in his honour. He was also one of four Naval heroes featured on US postal stamps in 2010.
Looking towards the Arizona Memorial from the Missouri, Pearl Harbor.