When Japanese aircraft attacked Pearl Harbor on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, Doris "Dorie" Miller was a mess hall attendant who had been busy collecting laundry aboard the USS West Virginia. In the 90 minutes that followed, he later said, he "forgot all about" the fact that black sailors "can be only messmen in the Navy and are not taught how to man an antiaircraft gun." The 22-year-old from Waco, Texas, helped carry injured servicemen, including Capt. Mervyn S. Bennion, to safety before operating an antiaircraft gun "until he ran out of ammunition and was ordered to abandon ship," says the Navy, which is now naming an aircraft carrier after him. In 1942, Miller was recognized for his bravery and became the first African American to be awarded the Navy Cross, the New York Times reports.
"I just pulled the trigger and she worked fine," Miller said afterward, adding that he thought he got one of the enemy planes that were "diving pretty close to us." Miller, who helped pull sailors from the burning water, was one of the last three men to leave the stricken ship, the Navy Times reports. In 1943—after a promotion to cook, third class—he was killed in action in the Battle of Makin when the Liscombe Bay escort carrier was torpedoed. By naming the aircraft carrier for Miller, says Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly, "we honor the contributions of all our enlisted ranks, past and present, men and women, of every race, religion, and background. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. observed, 'Everybody can be great—because anybody can serve.'" (Read more Navy stories.)