By William “Duke” Smither
“If the muse were mine to tempt it
And my feeble voice was strong,
If my tongue were trained to measures,
I would sing a stirring song.
I would sing a song heroic
Of those noble sons of Ham,
Of the gallant colored soldiers
Who fought for Uncle Sam!…”
(From “The Colored Soldiers,” a poem, by Paul Lawrence Dunbar, 1872-1906)
(***Note: Date-adjusted post below, reprinted from 2011 “Backstreet Djeli Blog)
Word of Honor
“I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”
That’s the oath I recall when raising my right hand in front of “Old Glory” to join the Navy some three months out of high school. It’s not a black oath. It’s not a white oath. It’s not an oath of any other hue which adorned the racial quilt of our nation, back then. And, it’s certainly not a Republican oath, a Democratic oath or a so-called Conservative’s oath or a Liberal’s oath, as a few of our ‘retail’ politicians would have you believe, today.
Rather, it’s the oath of any American, enlisting in the Armed Forces of the United States, who swore to defend our country “against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” For me, that was during September 1961, fresh from my own battles with Old Jim Crow, on the leading edges of school desegregation in Kentucky, 20 years in the wake of the bloody carnage at Pearl Harbor.
That’s the first thing I remember from the day I enlisted in the Navy. It’s almost a blur, now. But, the second thing I recall, immediately following the swearing-in ceremony, was a couple of officers- as if on cue- simultaneously saying “Remember December 7, 1941” – not mentioning anything about Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor!
The Waters of Pearl
Pearl Harbor… That’s what’s on my mind, this morning, December 7…, 77 years in the backwash of the bloodbath which later launched the United States smack-dab into World War II (the Japanese also attacked the Philippines, Wake Island, Guam, Malaya, Thailand, Shanghai, and Midway).
Today, it’s now early in the morning and, ironically, nearly the same time, 07:55 a.m., that an emboldened Japanese raiding force of 353 planes, launched from six aircraft carriers, viciously attacked the naval base at Pearl Harbor, in Hawaii. I remembered that much from my history classes.
In the aftermath of the two-hour attack, all eight U.S. Navy battleships, and the pride of the Navy, were damaged. Four were sunk. History also records that three cruisers, three destroyers, an anti-aircraft training ship, and one minelayer were either damaged or sunk. Plus, 188 U.S. aircraft were destroyed and 2,402 Americans were killed. Another 1,282 were wounded. Dead bodies floated or bobbed in the water. The stench of burning flesh and acrid smoke-filled the air, according to various eyewitness accounts. By comparison, Japanese recorded losses included only 29 aircraft and five “midget” submarines. Some 65 servicemen were recorded as killed or wounded.
Earlier that morning, “Dorie” Miller (“Dorie” was a nickname for the birth name of “Doris”), on board the U.S.S. West Virginia (BB-48), was collecting laundry when the “General Quarters” call, to “man your battle stations” went out. He wasn’t in my history books. I first heard about “Dorie” from some of the black WWII and Korean War veterans in our neighborhood.
“Dorie” was the 21-year-old African-American sailor, a mess cook, from a farming family in Waco, Texas, who shot down four attacking Japanese planes while the West Virginia was still burning from a torpedo attack.
It was severely damaged by two armor-piercing bombs dropping through the deck. Between five and seven 18-inch torpedoes were launched into her port side, causing explosions and severe flooding below decks, before sinking to the bottom of the harbor. However, she was later raised, repaired and returned to service (in July 1944). Of the 1,541 men on the West Virginia, 130 were recorded as killed and 52 were wounded.
The “Raging Bull”
According to history’s archives, “Dorie” was called the “Raging Bull,” in high school, because he was “emotional” and liked to fight. At the A. J. Moore High School, in Waco, he was a 200 pound+ fullback on the football team. But, fighting with other students about his race got him kicked out of school. He enlisted in the Navy, on September 16, 1939, and was later assigned to the U.S.S. Pyro (AE-1), an ammunition ship, before transferring to the West Virginia and later becoming the ship’s Heavy Weight Boxing Champion. After a temporary assignment at a Secondary Battery Gunnery School on another battleship (the U.S.S. Nevada, BB-36), he returned to duty on the West Virginia.
On U.S. Navy warships, everyone is assigned to a “battle station,” usually consistent within the duties of their rate or ancillary duties within other responsibilities. In Miller’s case, partially because of his additional gunnery support training, he was assigned to an anti-aircraft battery magazine, toward the middle of the ship. But, his battery had been torpedoed and put out of commission. He then went on deck to help with the wounded, before grabbing a nearby 50-Caliber “Browning” anti-aircraft machine gun, knocking out four Japanese planes, before running out of ammunition and being forced to abandon ship, according to naval records.
As I have mentioned many times before, the deeds of so-called minority soldiers, sailors and airmen have too often been suppressed, distorted or simply buried within the reams of military campaign documentation- or, not even documented- for racist reasons, pure and simple. But, on May 27, 1942, then-Admiral (later Fleet Admiral) Chester W. Nimitz, Commander-In-Chief, Pacific Fleet, personally recognized and commended Miller, as he presented him the “Navy Cross,” now the highest decoration bestowed by the Department of the Navy and the second highest award for valor (the Medal of Honor is the highest).
During the ceremony, Admiral Nimitz pointed out that, “This marks the first time in this conflict that such high tribute has been made in the Pacific Fleet to a member of his race and I’m sure that the future will see others similarly honored for brave acts.” With these words, “Dorie” Miller became the first African-American to receive the “Navy Cross.” In addition to the Navy Cross, Miller later received the Purple Heart Medal; the American Defense Service Medal, Fleet Clasp; the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal; and the World War II Victory Medal.
He later served aboard the USS Liscome Bay (CVE-56), an escort carrier, and was on board during Operation Galvanic, in the seizure of Makin and Tarawa Atolls in the Gilbert Islands. At 5:10 a.m. on November 24, 1943, at age 24, while cruising near Butaritari Island, Miller’s ship was hit by a Japanese submarine torpedo. The aircraft bomb magazine detonated a few moments later, sinking the warship within minutes. Of the 918 sailors on board, only 272 survived. Initially listed as “missing,” Miller was officially presumed dead on November 25, 1944.
On June 30, 1973, the U.S.S. Miller (FF-1091), a sleek, 3963-ton Knox-class frigate (destroyer escort) was commissioned, named in honor of “Dorie” Miller. It was decommissioned in 1991.
“Black Tears, Red Blood…”
But, today, this December 7, it’s the “Black Tears” of all of Pearl Harbor that’s on my mind. The “Black Tears” is the term Pearl Harbor survivors gave to the eerie seepage of oil from the U.S.S. Arizona (BB-39) which retains the right to fly the American flag as if she is still actively commissioned. It’s part of the Pearl Harbor Memorial, the resting place of 1,102 of the 1,177 sailors killed, during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Oil leaks from the hull rise to the surface at an estimated rate of a quart per day.
Upon their death, survivors of the attack (arguably, now an unknown quantity, with most probably in their 90s), may have their ashes placed inside the Arizona, along with their comrades of that day. According to Pearl Harbor Memorial information, other veterans, who served on board at other times, may have their ashes scattered in the waters above the ship.
A Day of Infamy
Meanwhile, may the sacrifices of all of our nation’s veterans, as well as their families, never be forgotten. May God continue to bless the lives of Pearl Harbor Survivors– as well as their families. And, as suggested on the day of my enlistment (oath of 57 years ago), may this nation never forget this special date, December 7, 1941, the “date which will live in infamy,” as President Franklin D. Roosevelt so eloquently put it within his address to a Joint Session of Congress, the next day.
On this day, December 7, 2018, within the increasingly perplexing decisions of our increasingly “retail,” special-interest driven politicians, at least, let us please remember the words and wisdom of our first president, George Washington: “The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive the Veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation.”
And, may we always remember the “Black Tears” and “Red Blood” from the hallowed social, cultural and ethnic quilt of our nation, of December 7, 1941, as we pray for God to heal our divisions and encourage our hearts on this special “Day of Infamy,” 2018.