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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Dorie Miller: First African American to Receive Navy Cross

Born on October 12, 1919, Doris "Dorie" Miller (October 12, 1919 - November 24, 1943) became the first African American to receive the Navy Cross. Miller received this distinction for his act of bravery during Pearl Harbor.

Dorie Miller was the son of sharecroppers Connery and Henrietta Miller. He attended high school in Waco, Texas, and played fullback on the varsity football team. He was expelled from school due to fighting over racial insults directed at him. Dorie Miller enlisted in the United States Navy in 1939 where he became a Mess Attendant, Third Class. A Mess attendant prepares and serves food, and cleans for the sailors. Miller joined the Navy because he wanted to see the world. He was assigned to the USS West Virginia Battleship.

Miller had temporary duty on the USS Nevada battleship, and while there was sent to Battery Gunnery School. Miller returned to the USS West Virginia and became a heavyweight boxing champ in West Virginia, weighing in at 6'3'', 200 lbs. The sailor was then promoted to Cook, Third Class.

When Pearl Harbor was under attack,  Miller's battleship was bombarded by Japanese strikes. Because of his size and girth,  Miller was instructed to transport the injured shipmates to the quarterdeck* for safety. He was also ordered to assist the ship's captain, who was wounded in his abdomen by shrapnel. Captain Meryvn Bennion refused to abandon his post and ended up dying.

Miller's next instructions were to load the .50 caliber anti-aircraft machine guns. He went beyond the call of duty and ended up firing at approaching Japanese planes. The Cook had now assumed a combative role. With the heavy damage inflicted on the USS West Virginia, the ship was sinking and Miller assisted with the evacuations.

 His feats became publicized and the nation became aware of this "Colored soldier's" actions. Of the 1,541 men on the West Virginia, 130 were killed and 52 wounded. Nine Japanese torpedoes struck the USS West Virginia ship, stationed in Pearl Harbor.

Senators James N. Mead (D-NY) recommended that Dorie Miller receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. John D. Dingell, Sr. (D-MI) did the same. The Pittsburgh Courier began a petition to send Milller to the Naval Academy. Many of the sailors received promotions after the attack; Miller did not.

The high ranking official who was against awarding Miller a Medal of Honor was Secretary of Navy Frank Knox. Knox believed that Miller did not deserve it. It was President Franklin D. Roosevelt who approved the awarding of the highest medal awarded in the Navy, the Navy Cross. Dorie Miller received the Navy Cross on May 27, 1942 by Admiral Chester Nimitz.

Admiral Nimitz reading the citation before awarding the Navy Cross  to Miller.

Remarked Admiral Nimitz:
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 such brave acts.

Admiral Nimitz's words did prove true. The Montford Point Marines received their Congressional Medal of Honor. In 2012. So Dorie Miller became the first African American to receive a Navy Cross for his heroism during Pearl Harbor. He had speaking engagements for war bonds and the Negro Press highlighted his deeds.

After the attack Miller was assigned to the USS Indianapolis and then the Liscome Bay. On November 24, 1943, off the Butaritan** Islands in the Pacific, Japanese torpedos struck the Liscome, sinking the ship. Dorie Miller's body was never found.

In 1973, the United States Navy commissioned a new frigate called the USS Milller. To name a vessel after a cook was monumental.  The late civil rights icon, Congresswomen Barbara Jordan (D-TX) was the guest speaker for the commissioning of the USS Miller. The ship saw active duty throughout the world until 1991. In 1995 the US sold the ship to Turkey who used it for parts and target practice until it sunk the ship in 2001.

Congresswoman Barbara Jordan
She was a civil rights and political icon.

Schools, housing and a US postal stamp in 2010 have been dedicated in honor of Dorie Miller's actions. The 2001 Pearl Harbor motion picture featured Academy Award winning actor Cuba Gooding, Jr. in the role of Miller. Miller, like the Montford Point Marines, has a ship dedicated to World War II heroism. He was the first African American to receive a Navy Cross for his actions during Pearl Harbor.

WWII era Navy Cross


*quarterdeck- upper deck of a ship, usually reserved for the officers

**Butaritan is located directly north of the Equator, not too far from the Marshall Islands in the Micronesian Region. It is part of the Gilbert Islands.


Sunday, August 25, 2013

Seven Major Events Prior to Pearl Harbor

Japanese pilots before their flight to Pearl Harbor.

There were Seven Major Events Prior to Pearl Harbor that involved both the Japanese and the United States. The time frame was July 1940 through December 1941. Japanese invasions of country after country solidified its reputation as a super aggressive war machine.  President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had promised to keep the United States out of World War II. However, the following seven major events precipitated the attack on Pearl Harbor:                                                                      

  1. July 1940- Japan occupies French colony of Indochina; United States begins an oil embargo against the Japanese. (see map below)
  2. January 1941-Japan makes plans for air attacks on Pearl Harbor.
  3. October 1941- Imperial Japanese Army and Navy military announce that Japan should get ready for war with the United States.  
  4. October 1941- Hideki Tojo becomes Prime Minister of Japan.
  5. November 1941- US instructs Japan to leave China and Indochina. 
  6. November 1941- Japan sends diplomats to find ways to avoid war with the US.
  7. November 1941-  Six Japanese aircraft warships secretly leave Northern Japan and head for Pearl Harbor. 

Some historians argue on behalf of the Japanese. They maintain, "Why did America have an armada in there (Hawaii) the first place? What gives the US the right to take away Hawaii's sovereignty and annex it as an outpost in the middle of the Pacific?"*

Still, another point to consider is that the English, French, Dutch, Portuguese had Asian/Pacific colonies. The Japanese desired the same for its country as part of its increasing nationalism. One reason they regarded America negatively was because of its crippling embargo. Having fuel and raw materials was paramount for its quest for Pacific expansion and necessary for day to day living.

A declassified confidential 26 page memo is housed in the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Library that details an imminent attack in the Pacific. The memo was dated December 4, 1941. An abundance of theories exist on how much and what exactly did the US know before the attack. One thing is certain:  The focus on code breakers after Pearl Harbor was to decipher military code as opposed to diplomatic code.

 Pearl Harbor was a major turning point in American history. The Seven Major Events Prior to Pearl Harbor were pivotal factors that led to the America's entry into World War II. On December 7, 1941, 2400 people died. 1178 were injured. Hundreds of planes were destroyed and eight battleships were demolished. Without hesitation, the US declared war on Japan. Japan, Italy and Germany in turn declared war on the United States. The stage was now set.

Navajo Native American Code Talkers.
Later used in the war and America's best kept secret.
The Japanese were not able to understand their language.


Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Mitsubishi Zero and Early Japanese Victories in World War II

In the early stages of World War II the Imperial Japanese Navy had what was considered the best naval aviation in the world. Their Mitsubishi "Zero" aircraft gave them a superior advantage against Allied nations throughout the Pacific Theater.  From
It is not surprising, then, that Japanese aviators scored victory after stunning victory during the first six months of the war, from the attack on Pearl Harbor, through the sinking of the British men of war Prince of Wales and Repulse, to the fearsome raids on Northern Australia and IJN's* rampage throughout the Indian Ocean in April 1942. 
Source: combined

The Mitsubishi Company was founded in 1873 by Iwasaki Yatoro. It was a family owned business and encompassed the areas of real estate, merchant shipping, iron and steel, etc. During World War I, the Mitsubishi branched into the manufacturing of aircraft, in conjunction with design / engineering specialists from Germany, France and Britain. These joint ventures allowed the Japanese to further perfect their aviation expertise.

However, at the end of World War I, as other countries scaled back their military spending, the Japanese increased production of their planes in the 1920s. Around this time the Navy constructed its first aircraft carriers; the United States had their own as well. Japanese Naval leader Isoroku Yamamoto felt the need to have "long range bombers that could strike Yankee warships."

The following are featured Mitsubishi World War II era Aircraft:

  • Nell (1936)- Struck Chinese targets 1,250 miles away in the Second Sino-Japanese War
  • Betty (1939)- Could fly over 2,00 miles without refueling;  
  • Zero (1939)- Extremely lightweight and nimble. Over 10,000 were built. 

 Here are the specifications on the Mitsubishi Zero:

  • 332 MPH
  • range of 1,930 miles
  • 29 feet and nine inches long
  • wingspan of 39 feet 

The Zero had a crew of one, and was armed with machine guns and bombs. It utilized lightweight aluminum for its maneuverability. Unfortunately, this top secret aluminum lacked armor to protect the pilots, and did not have self-sealing fuel tanks. Allied pilots later learned to exploit this weakness by double teaming Zero planes in dogfights or striking during the "dive" or "climb".

Moreover, many of the military decisions of World War II came from the leader of Japan, General Hideki Tojo. Tojo was the Prime Minister of Japan from (October 1941- July 1944). He was an aggressive Army General who became Minister of War in July 1941 and Prime Minister in October 1941.

According to, the delicate manners of Japanese diplomats dispatched to Washington during the period before the Pearl Harbor attack were indeed very deceptive. There was also a perception that the Mitsubishi aircraft were a poor imitation of Western aviation. The Japanese military prior to Pearl Harbor was not considered a formidable opponent. Yet all those assumptions quickly changed the morning of December 7, 1941. The Allies had no aircraft match until 1943.

And when I asked my Dad about enemy planes in the Pacific, some seventy years later, he just didn't say planes, but automatically included the name "Mitsubishi."


*IJN: Imperial Japanese Navy

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Indigenous People of the Pacific and Some History

When I mentioned to my dad about the policy behind the 51st Defense Battalion being sent to the Marshall Islands, he chuckled. He had no idea, but he was not surprised about the genetics reasoning. Nonetheless, some of the fiercest fighting in World War II took place in the Pacific Theater, and during the early years of WW II, the Japanese were winning. All Allied soldiers were needed to stop the Axis powers, and our civilian population did their part with war bonds, conservation, and support.

Montford Point Marines on the beaches of Peleliu. Although not assigned to combat, these soldiers pitched in to help.

The Pacific enjoys many romantic connotations to many present day Americans. It represents a tranquil vacation paradise, and to a key television demographic of 18-49, the frequent isolated locale of the CBS reality competition show Survivor.

Furthermore, the Pacific Ocean represents one third of the earth's surface. It was explored by Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan, who named it for its peaceful, tranquil waters. Magellan was the first to circumnavigate the globe. Legends and folklore add to the allure of the Pacific, along with its distinctive cultures, traditions, and various languages/dialects.

Many of the Survivor locales were in the Pacific. Can you guess how many?

There are three distinct classifications of the indigenous people that reside in the Pacific:  Micronesians, Melanesians and Polynesians. These distinctions were classified in 1822 by French explorer and naval officer Jules Dumont D'Urville. Like many categorizations based on explorers of centuries past, some of them are flawed. Nonetheless, these classifications are still used.


Micronesia- Greek word, meaning small islands

Melanesia- Greek word, meaning, Black islands, named after its inhabitants

Polynesia- Many islands.

Judging from the map a majority of the islands are small and numerous. Additionally, the classification system does not take into account migration from remote small islands to larger cities, crossing geo-cultural regions and intermarriage.

Young children from the Solomon Islands.

If you look at many of the pictures of some of the Pacific Islanders, you might notice that there is a segment of dark skinned people with blond hair. The blond hair is not from European blood, or hair coloring but rather an amino acid change in the TYRP1 gene. This change is unique to this group of people.

American soldier with Micronesian infant. The dying baby was  holed up in a cave with a Japanese soldiers.
Photo taken by famed Time photographer Eugene Smith 1918-1978.

Prime Minister Tojo sought complete domination of the Pacific. They believed that the natives were of a lesser race. Country after country fell to the Imperial Japanese. Power and the need for raw materials fueled their zeal for occupation. Despite the origins of its name, the Pacific was not a peaceful place during World War II.

Notes: Peleliu is a part of Palau. (See above map.) An intense battle lasted two months and resulted in a US victory. The Marines suffered heavy losses on this island. A tactic by the Japanese at this time was to hide out in caves to inflict massive casualties.

Oceania: Includes the tropical islands of the Pacific and also the countries of Australia and New Zealand.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Why the 51st Defense Battalion Were Sent to the Marshall Islands to Fight

"There were these guys from Chicago...they dated the young women from the islands. They had wigs and high heels sent in for these women to wear," my father explained when I was older. "All you could see were these women trying to walk around in those high heels, because they weren't used to wearing them."


I pictured these young ladies teetering awkwardly in platform sandals in the sand. No nylons because nylons were rationed, the materials were needed for the war effort.  Some of American women's hosiery back then had seams on the back of their legs. Resourceful females would take eyebrow pencils, brown gravy, charcoal, etc. and draw makeshift lines on the back of their legs to give the allusion of seams. Special flesh colored make up was applied to look like nylon.
Seamless hosiery. Nylons were needed to make parachutes.

The Marshallese were Micronesian in origin and migrated from Asia several thousand years ago. They were an island group that was (2,500) miles from Hawaii. Its inhabitants lived on the outer islands and atolls. The islanders survived on subsistence farming and fishing. Many had no electricity.


Marine Major General Charles F.B. Price, in command of American Forces in Samoa had already warned against sending the African Americans there. He based his opinions on his interpretation of the science of genetics. The light skinned Polynesians, whom he considered "'primitively romantic" by nature, had mingled freely with Whites to produce a very high class half caste, and liaisons with Chinese had resulted in a very desirable type of offspring. *

Two Montford Point Marines Black Depot companies that were originally supposed to be sent to Samoa were sent elsewhere due to Major's genetics reasoning. The "infusion of Negro blood" was not desired.

Based on the Major's belief system, which incidentally was common during this time period, the 51st Defense Battalion were thought to be better suited in the Marshall Islands, since the darker population of Micronesians would not be intimidated by the intelligence of the African American Marines sent there. Major General Charles F.B. Price also postulated that  "the level of physical and mental standards among the Black islanders would be raised."

These considerations were similar to the displeasure of African American soldiers socializing with French women during World War I. In this case the policy was instituted to prevent liaisons with the lighter hued Polynesians in the Pacific. Hence the deployment to the Marshall Islands, where the natives had darker pigmentation.

Residents of the Bikini Atoll during evacuation. The island became the site of Post WWII nuclear testing.


Monday, August 12, 2013

A Time of Both Starvation and Gratitude

"I haven't heard from you in a while, where have you been?," Dad inquired.
 "The last time we spoke you had company,  I didn't want to be rude," I answered.
 "Oh yeah, that's right..."

Dad talked about the fluctuating weather and the fact that the Veterans Benefits Administration were assisting him with his eyeglasses and prescriptions. I replied that was excellent, because I have heard and seen so many reports of Veterans not receiving anything but broken promises and neglect. However, news outlets recently stated that the backlog of Veterans Disability claims has decreased.

He then shared more information on his time on the Marshall Islands during World War II. Here was a story I never heard before:

"When you saw the graves of the people that lived on the Marshall Islands you never saw anyone that lived past the age of thirty. They had a diet that was mostly fish and coconuts-- They didn't grow any crops or plants. A large ship from Britain would come to the island and fill the ship with coconuts every so often and sail off."

During World War II, American bombing effected the land's population. The Marshall Islands were a Japanese Colony;  native Marshallese suffered from lack of food and sustained various injuries. And since the Marshall Islands was a battleground with Japan, many of the trapped Japanese soldiers died of starvation. They were not willing to surrender. "We would hear them at night time looking through the garbage for food," Dad recalled.


Like many people throughout the world, the story of the Montford Point Marines does not register, because it is an unknown story about who these brave African American men were. But if you were a member of the White 7th Defense Unit on the Marshall Islands in the middle of World War II, you knew who they were. The Montford Point Marines's 51st Defense Battalion had arrived to relieve them and you were glad to see them....


Wednesday, August 7, 2013

"Honor Comes From Death, Disgrace Comes From Surrender"

How do you get young Japanese men willing to die for their country during World War II? What makes a soldier, later known as a holdout, refuse to give up, even decades after war's end? What would be the explanation for extreme brutality and loss of significant lives in the Pacific?


Bushido code
Answers to these pertinent questions lies within the medieval Samurai Warrior class and the strong code of Bushido. The Samurai Warrior class dominated the Japanese government and cultural landscape of the nation for centuries. Samurais occupied the upper echelon of Japanese society, and were admired for their  superior fighting methods that insured a safe and peaceful Japan.  However, this ruling class was abolished and Emperor Meiji became Supreme leader in 1868. Efforts then began to modernize Japan, but the Bushido belief system remained in place, since members of the samurai had a role in forming the government.
The Bushido code advocated a lust for battle and under no circumstances should a soldier surrender. To serve dishonorably would be a travesty and major repercussions would transpire.

Shinto Religion
Additionally, the Shinto religion held 1) that the Emperor was divine and should be worshiped. 2) Japan was not merely land but created by a Sun Goddess. 3) Japan must rule and "extend its reach and enlightenment to less fortunate races." All members of Japanese society were expected to be adherents to this philosophy.


Military Code
The strict military code for the Japanese Navy and Army issued in 1872 barred escaping or surrendering from the military. These were grounds for death along with disobeying military orders and conscientious objectors.
 Punishment was granted to a soldier's immediate and extended family members, just as during the Edo* period:  The crime extended to five generations and punishment to five affinal** relationships
Unsurprisingly, the first lesson that a Japanese student soldier learns is how to use his own rifle to kill himself if he was trapped in a trench or cave. These statements were attributed to Irokawa Daikichi, a historian drafted from the University of Tokyo to become a student soldier at Tsuchiura Naval Base. In the 1972 novel, Zone of Emptiness, author Noma Hiroshi recounts how the professional soldiers resented the student soldiers because of their perceived status in receiving higher education. The superiors believed that any corporal punishment would toughen the student soldiers.

A culture of extreme brutality was encouraged within the military itself. If a Japanese colonel was displeased with one of his majors it would not be unusual for the colonel to strike the offending major a blow across the face to reinforce his reprimand.The major chastised in this way would be expected to strike one of his captains who had incurred his displeasure. The brutality would be passed down the line from the Japanese officers to their own enlisted men who would then be expected to beat each other up. At the end of this chain were men perceived to be the lowest of the low, enlisted Koreans and Taiwanese, who receive the worst beatings. - From Pacific

So, allegiance came from a combination of the Bushido culture and Shinto religion. Add this to a strong military history that advocated corporal punishment and you have a lethal cocktail for a massive war machine. There simply were no alternatives. Japanese soldiers were told that "Honor comes from death, disgrace comes from surrender."

   *Edo:  former name of Tokyo, also known as the period between 1603-1868.
**affinal: in-laws, relatives by marriage

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Dad and Enemy Planes

 I asked dad how the 90 mm anti-aircraft was operated. It was the weapon that dad was assigned in the Marshall Islands during World War II. My father stated that four men were needed to use the 90 mm. He was seated on the right side and was responsible for turning the machine to the left. The movement of the weapon began when corresponding bulbs were matched. The bulbs indicated that the approaching enemy plane had reached a certain altitude or height. The Battery Sargent would give a signal and then, reported my dad, the plane would burst, after entering gun fire.

Members of the 51st receiving training at Montford Point.

"Were you scared, Dad?" I asked, knowing the of history of Japanese fighter pilots. It was said that German soldiers were told to kill, but Japanese soldiers were told to die.

"Hell nawl," my Dad quickly replied. "We ain't see nothing, you're looking into a scope, you just saw dots. We shot at Mitsubishi planes."

Dad was twenty years old at this time. He was the same age if not older than many of the Japanese pilots that were members of the Japanese Navy and Army.

But these Japanese pilots by World War II's end were trained to do one thing--fly Mitsubishi A6M2 planes nicknamed the "Zero" and the "Personal Flying Coffin" into targets. As the word coffin implies, these were Suicide Missions.

In previous posts I talked about what events and people caused my father to join a segregated branch of the armed forces, that initially did not want Negroes. Now it is time to discuss the reasoning behind a Japanese man for joining their Imperial military.

A sign post in the Marshall Islands. Dad's two islands are on the bottom, left.


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