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A Black Hero in the Jim Crow Navy
Dorie Miller saved lives at Pearl Harbor. He’s finally getting his due. By Brent Staples Mr. Staples is a member of the editorial board.
The Black press was at the peak of its influence as the country geared up for World War II — while segregating even the plasma in the wartime blood bank by race. Fire-breathing newspapers like The Baltimore Afro-American, The Chicago Defender and The Pittsburgh Courier were religiously passed from home to home and read aloud in Black barbershops. Even the marginally literate understood that Black men who had volunteered to fight and die for the country were being persecuted on military bases and housed in Jim Crow barracks.
Franklin Roosevelt argued that full integration of the military would harm the defense effort
. The Courier’s acid-tongued editors had no tolerance for this defense of the status quo. In the fall of 1940, the Pittsburgh paper troubled the president’s sleep by publishing an incendiary letter of complaint from 15 sailors serving aboard the U.S.S. Philadelphia. The sailors may have been lured into the Navy with the false promise that they could pursue the same careers as white recruits. Instead, they were assigned to duty as messmen, making beds, shining shoes and serving meals to white officers.
The Navy secretary, William Franklin Knox, openly justified this arrangement on the eve of the war. Speaking to a gathering at the White House, he told a delegation of civil rights leaders that he could not “enlist Negroes above the rank of messman”
because it was impossible to segregate men by race within the intimate confines of a ship. With no way to wall off Black sailors, the argument went, the Navy’s only choice was to confine them to a servant class.
The Philadelphia 15 letter conveyed the anguish of Black seaman who had met this fate — some after leaving college to join up. “Our main reason for writing,” the letter began, “is to let all our colored mothers and fathers know how their sons are treated after taking an oath pledging allegiance and loyalty to their flag and country.’’ The letter spoke of messmen being kicked around and unfairly jailed. The passage that was heard around the world in 1940 — and that is still quoted today — warned Black parents to steer their ambitious sons far clear of the Navy, lest they become “seagoing bellhops, chambermaids and dishwashers.”
The Navy jailed the letter writers and discharged them dishonorably, triggering a tidal wave of protest.
The Navy touched on this largely forgotten history in January when it named its newest aircraft carrier
for the Texas sharecropper’s son who vexed segregationists by becoming one of the first heroes of the war.
Mess Attendant Doris Miller
, known as Dorie, was collecting laundry aboard the battleship U.S.S. West Virginia when the Japanese attacked the American fleet at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. He vaulted to the bridge, where he aided the ship’s mortally wounded captain. He fired on Japanese planes with an antiaircraft gun that, as a servant, he had not been trained to use, and pulled men who would otherwise have died from the burning, oil-coated waters of the harbor. He was one of the last sailors to leave the foundering ship.
Legislation that would have granted the Black messman the Medal of Honor died in Congress. Despite a distinguished service record that would have transformed a white serviceman’s career, Dorie Miller was serving as a cook when he died two years later in the Pacific. He had a premonition of death not long before a Japanese submarine torpedoed and sank his ship, the U.S.S. Liscome Bay. The U.S.S. Doris Miller
— scheduled for delivery in 2032 — is an unmistakable emblem of racial progress. It attaches the Black messman’s name to a class of supercarriers that already honors Presidents Gerald Ford and John Kennedy
. It has the dual distinction of being the first carrier named for an enlisted sailor and the first named for an African-American. That the ship celebrates a descendant of enslaved Americans is especially resonant at a time when the country is poised to rename military bases
that currently honor the very Confederate officers who fought the Civil War with the goal of preserving slavery.
To commemorate Dorie Miller’s story truthfully, America will need to strip away the rose-colored mythology that obscures it. A nostalgia that the cultural historian Robert K. Chester
describes as “retroactive multiculturalism” has transformed the messman’s story from a truthful tale of racial exclusion into a false allegory of triumph over a brand of institutional racism that long outlived him. In truth, Mr. Chester writes, “Segregation remained widespread well into the Korean War, diminishing then chiefly because of manpower shortages.”
Nevertheless, the messman is often cited as evidence that World War II — also known as the “good war” — precipitated a national epiphany on the need for racial equality. One of the best-known purveyors of this myth was Ronald Reagan. One of his favorite 1970s campaign narratives included a thrilling anecdote in which a Black sailor confined to “kitchen duties” ended “great segregation”
by firing a machine gun at the enemy.
The Navy’s chief of operations, Adm. Elmo Zumwalt, was telling a different story at the start of the ’70s: He described the institution under his care as “the lily-white racist Navy.”
Faced with shipboard conflicts
and a recalcitrant management class, Admiral Zumwalt set about trying to root out racism. Amid this turmoil, the Navy gave Dorie Miller’s name to a destroyer escort that was decommissioned
less than 20 years later and eventually scrapped.
The segregation-era military equated heroism with whiteness. The messman would probably not have been decorated at all had not the Black press and the civil rights community hammered down the door of the White House.
The Courier was dogging the military’s every step by the time Pearl Harbor was attacked. The paper’s editors pounced when early reports of the Japanese raid made brief mention of an unnamed Black messman who had performed heroically. A former Courier war correspondent, Frank Bolden, said decades later that the Navy initially claimed not to know the messman’s name
A few months later, The Courier named the mess attendant, describing him as a Texas sharecropper’s son. The paper instigated a campaign in which readers wrote to the president, demanding that he be sent to the Naval Academy for training.
Navy Secretary Knox tried to settle the matter with a terse letter of commendation. Under pressure from The Courier — and a nudge from Attorney General Francis Biddle — Roosevelt belatedly pushed the Navy to award Dorie Miller the Navy Cross.
The campaign to win him the Medal of Honor foundered, partly because Mr. Knox steadfastly opposed it. In recent decades, those who have studied the case have often contrasted Dorie Miller’s valorous actions at Pearl Harbor with the deeds of the 15 white men
who received Medals of Honor for their conduct on that day.
As recently as two years ago, the historians Thomas W. Cutrer and T. Michael Parrish
made the case that “Doris Miller’s exploits aboard West Virginia were at least of equal distinction” to those of the white Navy men. Among those honored posthumously was Mervyn Sharp Bennion
, the dying captain whom the messman aided as the ship was sinking. Bennion was incapacitated during the attack and was awarded the Medal of Honor because he “strongly protested”
being removed from his post.
As Mr. Cutrer and Mr. Parrish write: “every flag or commanding officer who died at Pearl Harbor received the Medal of Honor for doing essentially what he was expected to or, in most cases it seems, for being unable to do very much.” Dorie Miller, by contrast, acted well outside his role as shipboard servant, consistent with the Medal of Honor definition of conduct “above and beyond the call of duty.”
The decision to name the new supercarrier for Miller reflects the Navy’s desire to break with its egregiously racist past. In pursuing this goal, however, the leadership needs to steer clear of the fable that casts the Black mess attendant’s story as one of victory over segregation. The whole, unpleasant truth is that segregation circumscribed the lives of Black servicemembers throughout the so-called good war.
Black Box projects had existed throughout human history. They had been under different names, different types, but always they applied technology to problems. From making arrows in yurts in secret to surprise a foe a tribe had lured into attacking a 'defenseless' encampment to the development of the Goku Class Planet Cracker, mankind had always built a Black Box to further their aims.
Humans excel at three things: Secrecy, Adaptability, and Weaponization.
For most of you, your species took tens of thousands of years to move from a club to a spear, from a spear to a sword, from a sword to a bow, from a bow to a propellant based projectile rifle, and from that to the standard plasma rifle used by most species. Each step took your species tens of thousands of years, hundreds of thousands, and in some cases, for more conservative species, millions of years.
Humans went from the bronze tipped spear to atomic weapons within fifty thousand years.
Many of you will learn in other classes that it was all flukes. Accidents.
They are wrong.
In this class, you will learn how a land dwelling omnivorous primate went from a hunter forced to walk after their prey to a species capable of complex superstructures and faster than light travel in less time than some of you took to go from crude iron to steel.
All of it, every bit of it, relies on human adaptability and their ability to weaponize anything and everything.
Turn or scroll your textbooks to Chapter Thirty Eight: Classified Research and Terran Descent Humanity.
-------------------------- 1986 - TERRASOL RECKONING DEFENSE ADVANCED RESEARCH PROJECTS ASSOCIATION SUBSIDIARY: US DYNAMICS INTEGRATED CIRCUITRY COMPANY CHICAGO FACILITY - AT&T SWITCHING BANK BUILDING 3381A
The door opened and the man who entered stood tall in his Class-A green dress uniform. Medals from Vietnam and other brushfire wars around the globe adorned his chest. His face had pockmarks, all with black specks in the bottom.
For those that knew what they were seeing, it was old shrapnel scars with minute grains of steel still embedded in the skin.
"Take a seat," the right hand woman of the trio behind the table said. She was short, her hair in a short pageboy cut, with dark eyes, plain features, a button nose, and a cupid's bow mouth. She was pretty, but silk ribbons are pretty even when wrapped around a hook pointed knife.
The man moved up and sat down in the sole chair, looking at the other two. One the right was a woman with a severe hair cut to her black hair, with gun-metal grey eyes, a wide mouth, and an attractive form that couldn't be hidden by the professional clothing she wore. The shoulderpads made her shoulders look wider than normal.
In the middle was a man, who could have easily been featured in "non-descript male human, Caucasian, middle aged, with spectacles" in a dictionary. He was balding, the hair cut short rather than combed over in an attempt at vanity.
The soldier sat for a long time, waiting. He had to admit, it was the black haired woman on the right that gave him the creeps. The one on the right, he had seen her type before. Most covert action operators suspected that they were grown in a lab or a vat somewhere dark and secret. The man in the middle, he figured for the one actually in charge.
He had that forgettable look about him of a case supervisor for the Central Intelligence Agency.
"Out of three hundred forty-two applicants, you were one of sixty-three who passed initial application examination. Of those, you were one of twenty who passed the physical, intellectual, and psychiatric examinations," the one with the gun-metal eyes suddenly said.
The soldier felt the skin crawl up on his back as she spoke.
"Out of those twenty, you were one of the sixteen who survived the additional testing," she continued. "Of those sixteen, you are one of the nine who passed the CAT, MRI, and PET scan examinations as well as the genetic sequencing."
The one on the right opened a folder in front of her, pushing forward a single piece of paper as the one on the left kept talking. "Of those nine, you are one of the four who passed the bone marrow tests, tissue regeneration tests, and other assorted tests that you are not intellectually capable of understanding the importance of."
The soldier just nodded. Normally he would have bridled up under the insinuation that he was stupid, but something about those eyes, something about that voice.
It wasn't that she spoke in a monotone or threatening tones. Her voice sounded pleasant, like a lady after a couple drinks of scotch, having a pleasant conversation with an old friend. Her face looked
friendly, the eyes were warm, but...
...it reminded him of the Vietnamese women who would smile right before pulling the pin on a frag grenade and dropping it into the jeep.
"Of those four, you are the final to be interviewed," the woman on the left said. She tapped the piece of paper. "It all comes down to the following: By signing this paper you will consent to any and all psychological and physiological medical procedures deemed necessary by the Project Lead."
There was silence for a moment.
"You may ask questions, soldier," the woman on the right stated.
"What kind of procedures?" the soldier asked.
"Surgical procedures," the woman on the left said, smiling. "They are withholding information from you, soldier," her smile got wider as the man in the middle shot her a side-eye glare for a split second.
"What type of information?" the soldier asked.
The gun-metal eyed woman smiled, a seductive, knowing smile that wouldn't look out of place in the bed chamber. "If you sign that paper you will, as I told the three who came before you and found that they were yellow gutless cowards willing to let the Communists win on the science battlefield, you will belong to me. I will own your body and your immortal soul. I will be able to do whatever I will to your mind, your body, and your soul. I will inflict horrors on your body in the name of our country."
The soldier swallowed.
"You will be a new breed of soldier, this I can promise you," she said. Her smile got wider. "And, as I promised them before they showed their true colors, before they laid bare their cowardice, Mommy will always
love you best."
The soldier stared at the paper, feeling his gut clench as he realized what it was.
It was a simple piece of paperwork that turned his deceased body over to US Dynamics Integrated circuitry company, a subsidiary of AT&T and a joint partner with General Atomics Limited.
He looked up, his eyes wide.
"If you don't sign, of course, your body will go to your next to kin to dispose of," the grey eyed woman said.
The soldier knew what that meant.
"Either way, I'm a dead man," he said.
The balding man in the middle nodded slightly. The woman on the right nodded.
"Except, I'm offering you life," the woman on the left promised. "Sign of your own free will and I offer you life."
The soldier swallowed. Stuff like this only happened in movies.
Except... it was happening.
He woke up, feeling that his body was strapped down. His head ached, his vision was blurry.
"How does Mommy's little boy feel?" the grey eyed woman asked.
"Thirsty," he croaked.
A straw was pressed against his lower lip and he sucked at it greedily.
"Good. You're strong. You'll bounce back quickly," the grey eyed woman said.
"You'll make Mommy proud."
The unassuming man stepped into the lab without knocking, closing the door behind him and walking up to the backlit drafting table the woman was standing at. The blueprint for an integrated circuit was on the table, the lines and annotations so small that the woman was using a large magnifying screen to see it clearly.
"I have questions about this chip," the man said.
"Of course you do," the woman said, looking up. Her eyes were clear and cold, all the warmth that the soldier had seen missing.
"How exactly does it work?" he asked.
"I could explain it to you, but you wouldn't understand anything but the common nouns, adverbs, and conjunctions. You would identify the language spoken as English, but little else," she said, her voice cold and remote. She looked back down. "Go bother someone else. I am busy."
"I would like to remind you that I am the project lead," the man said.
"You are a petty time clock punching functionary better suited to those weaklings in the Pentagon or perhaps lurking about those incompetent morons of the Central Intelligence Agency," the woman said, her voice still cold and dead. "You could be replaced by an abacus and a Korean child."
"I beg your pardon," the man said stuffily.
"And you will not receive it," the woman said. "You are a monkey in the presence of actual humans, humans who do the work and the intellectual heavy lifting while you scrawl your name on useless paperwork to justify your petty ignorant existence."
"I'll have you know I am a graduate of Harvard," the man started to say.
"You have a Master's Degree in Business Management," the woman said, shifting the magnifying screen. "That is as useful to this project as a penniless eunuch is to a Norfolk Fleet Week prostitute."
"I realize you think you are special," he started to say.
"Yes, yes, the CIA recruited me, they can put me right back to working at IBM or General Dynamics," she said. "That is the line you were fed and all you know."
The man put his hands on the table, on the blueprints, and the woman looked up, anger smouldering in her eyes as he spoke. "I understand you think you're..."
"Did they tell you I graduated from MIT?" she broke in.
"Yes," he said.
"Did they tell you I was fifteen? Did they tell you the rest?" she sneered. "Do you know what I learned at MIT, Mister?"
He nodded. "Particle physics, if I am correct."
"No," she said. She laughed, a mocking laugh. "I learned that a tape recorder could graduate MIT with honors," she pushed the magnifying glass aside. "I learned to vomit up whatever answer was handed to me in text books and lectures. That was what they wanted from every student. Not anything else. For my second year I answered every question with what was stated in the lectures or the textbook verbatim, and received top grades."
She looked back down. "Imagine my disappointment to discover that the most prestigious scientific universities on earth were little more than intellectual vomitoriums."
When he opened his mouth she kept speaking. "Do you know what I learned at Texas Instruments after two years of research?"
The man shook his head.
"That no matter what technological breakthrough I might achieve there was always some starched suit executive who would set my patent on the back of the secretary performing fellatio on him and then scrawl his name upon it before filing it, thereby ensuring that he could retire in wealth," she said. She took three steps to the left, pulling the magnifying glass with her. "At Westinghouse I learned that innovation took a back seat to whether or not something was 'economically feasible' as men like you, men who were unable to understand the ramifications of my discoveries, counted their beans."
The sheer vitriol in her tone made the man step back.
"You are unable to understand what makes my manufacturing process, using my quantum matter transmission system, so world changing," she said.
"Try me," the man said, his voice offended.
"This chip is a fifteen nano-meter MOSFET chip, processed not through standard lithographic design, but using quantum matter recombination template systems I have devised for covert manufacturing systems," she stated. She tapped the entire blueprint. "This integrated circuit could fit on the head of a pin and is more powerful than a Cray Supercomputer."
"Then why isn't Cray or IBM using it?" the man asked, pushing up his glasses.
"Because the minute my research is turned over to civilians some Silicon Valley hippy will break his feet off running to the nearest Soviet agent to hand it to them while slobbering all his Red Commie cock," she sneered. "Let the civilians reach this themselves. I have no desire to get on all fours and let them stand on my back. This chip is my design, my fabrication method."
"What does it do?" he asked.
She laughed, again, mockingly. "You didn't understand anything but some of the words themselves," she tapped the blueprint. "This beautiful piece of work is a neuroplasticity mapper and connection recorder."
He frowned. "What does it do?"
She laughed. "As far as you and monkeys like you are concerned?" she laughed, a mocking thing. "It reads minds."
The soldier set the pistol on the table, opening the folder as he pulled the pen-like object out of his pocket. Press the button at every page, then turn the page. When you are done with the file, press the bottom button, that will ensure that everything is recorded and returned here,
the grey eyed woman's voice was in his head.
At each piece of paper he pressed the button and the device made a high pitched whine as it flashed. He had no idea that the LED was flashing nearly two thousand times a second. His head started to ache partway through, but he kept doing it.
When he reached the end he shifted his grip on the pen-like object and pressed the bottom button.
He felt something strange in the back of his head, beneath the surgical scar. Like something had broken, snapped like a candy-cane in the back of his head. There was a strange sucking feeling and his vision went gray.
He was dimly away of the long wire of thermite surgically implanted igniting, since pinpoint explosive charges had turned his heart to slurry.
There was little of his body left but charred meat.
The soldier opened his eyes, looking up at the light touch on his forehead.
Gun-metal gray eyes stared into his.
"There's my boy," the woman smiled.
The man stalked into the woman's lab, again not bothering to knock. He walked around the table where she was looking at a dense ladder like diagram.
"That experiment was unethical and immoral," he said. "You killed
"I temporarily disrupted his status," she sneered. "He only missed the few seconds of his death he would have been conscious for."
"And what did it prove?" the man asked.
"That every single page was implanted directly into his long term memory, that the memories were processed at the speed only the human brain can reach, and that he was able to perfectly recall them," the woman stated. "Just as the system was designed to do."
"Then what was the purpose of killing him?" the man asked.
She tapped the blueprint. "To ensure the system works like I envision it," she said. She looked up at the man, who almost stepped back at the burning passion in her eyes. "This completely changes everything. Espionage, warfare, space exploration. Everything."
She smiled. "Oppenheimer stated that he had become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds," she said. Her smile got wider. "I have conquered death and become God."
The man shook his head. "No. I'm shutting this down."
She stared at him for a long moment. "So in the end, you're just another small minded coward, willing to roll over and stick your ass up in the air for the first Commie to wander by? Willing to sell out America and our allies, what little good they are since their strength was spent in the trenches of Verdun."
"I have grown tired of your mouth, woman," he snapped. "You will speak to me with respect."
"While you shut down my project, my work, and scurry back to the CIA to take credit?" she laughed. "Going to make a stop at the San Francisco bath houses and pass on all my work to some Soviet operative too?" she moved up to him, looking up at his face. "You think you can shut me down?"
"That is within my authority," he started to say.
The stylus punctured his suit, his shirt, his skin, sliding smoothly into his chest, until the sharp tip touched his heart.
He fell to the floor, looking up, unsure of why his legs had buckled, how he had ended up on the floor.
"Small minds have held humanity back since time began," she said, lifting up the stylus. She licked the blood from the end. "What do you know, I just made the world a better place."
Her laughter chased him into darkness.
The Third Republic Combined Military officer walked into the underground room. He had been surprised to find out that the facility existed, buried under the ground, deep inside a mountain. He had been more surprised to find out that the facility had survived the decades, much less the Mantid Attack.
There were virtually no scientists left, the majority of them, hell, the majority of humanity obliterated by the Mantid's surprise attack.
To find out that one remained, and an expert at that, was a gift from fate itself.
He stopped at the cryo-tube and looked down at it.
Inside was a woman. Her hands crossed over her ample chest. Her face remarkable young for having been frozen at fifty three years old. Her hair was black, in a severe cut that had a measure of authority to the officer.
He tapped the data display, surprised it lit up. He checked the file. She had been deemed too dangerous to imprison and too politically sensitive to allow to live.
But her intellectual capabilities, her knowledge, was too vital to destroy.
So the ancient governments of Earth had frozen her, entombed her below granite rock where the continental plates had buckled in epochs gone by.
He looked at the flashing icon. STABLE
He turned to the other men, wearing heavy power armor.
"Prepare her for transport. Send her to Darkside Station. Remind her, when you thaw her out once you get there, that she's a prisoner and only compliance will earn her any privileges," he said.
The others, technical officers, began moving over and preparing the cryopod for transport.
Three strokes of luck.
Finding a mountain of technical data.
Discovering Darkside Station.
He tapped the dataslate, removing her name.
He typed in a single word. DETAINEE