By Rear Adm. Rick Williams, Commander, Navy Region Hawaii and Naval Surface Group Middle Pacific
Living and working at a place like Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam is like being immersed in history. The base is filled with memorials, streets, facilities and parks with names of heroes who have been immortalized.
One such place is the Doris Miller Park neighborhood.
In December 1941, Doris “Dorie” Miller was a 22 year-old mess attendant assigned to the USS West Virginia. At the onset of the attack on Dec. 7, he ran to his battle station, the anti-aircraft battery amidship, only to find that the battery had been disabled by one of the nine torpedoes that nearly destroyed the venerable battleship.
The young and physically imposing Sailor spent the next few minutes carrying wounded shipmates to safer havens on deck when he was ordered to the bridge to help move the commanding officer, Capt Bennion, who had been mortally wounded moments before.
As the attack wore on, Miller, who had no experience with the weapon, quickly took charge of a 50-caliber anti-aircraft gun and fired furiously at the attackers until his ammunition was exhausted and he was ordered to abandon ship.
Miller’s actions were recognized by many of the senior officers who were present on the West Virginia that morning, and he was subsequently presented with the Navy Cross for his extraordinary courage in battle.
What is not widely known is that Miller later paid the ultimate sacrifice with his life when he was lost with 645 other Sailors aboard the Liscome Bay in November 1943.
As an African-American in the Navy in 1941, Doris Miller’s options were limited. Most African-Americans in World War II were restricted to serve in support capacities ashore or in small harbor or coastal craft. The same limited mentality pervaded the other services as well.
Unfortunately, discrimination was present in our Navy until 1970 when Chief of Naval Operations Adm. “Bud” Zumwalt issued equal opportunity directives for fair advancement, treatment, and benefits for all Sailors.
It is estimated that African-American men and women make up 17 percent of our armed forces today as enlisted and officer, from seaman to admiral, with equal opportunities in whatever field or service for which their skill set suits them.
Imagine if the same mentality of 70 years ago persisted today and we lost that 17 percent due to racial bias. The thought is staggering. We still need to ensure we have strength through diversity.
Our nation’s armed forces are stronger when the best and brightest of our people are allowed to integrate into the team and use their God-given talents, intellect and diversity to strengthen the whole.
The Navy has taken concrete steps to gauge the fleet’s diversity climate through the Command Managed Equal Opportunity (CMEO) program and annual climate surveys. Congress has mandated through the National Defense Authorization Act that commanders become more accountable for those surveys, and I am committed as your region and MIDPAC commander to demand full participation from every tenant command and personally read each survey with the intent to identify problems and complaints and take steps to improve deficiencies.
In short, those surveys are a direct line from every Sailor to me, and I take that responsibility seriously. Our Sailors will continue to see their leadership become more informed on issues of equal opportunity and engaged in eliminating unfair treatment.
I am reminded that one of CNIC’s guiding principles is to “Live a Culture of Continuous Improvement,” which encompasses the sharing of lessons and thoughtful critical introspection.
Annual commemorations like February’s African-American History Month are important because, like the physical reminders around this base, they remind us of legacy and lessons learned. It is also important that we take part in the many events in February that celebrate diversity within our culture. This diversity makes us stronger.
Miller exemplified the spirit of the warfighter. He was ready to fight and, when the situation was critical, he seized the moment and took the fight to the enemy.
We are all grateful and inspired by the example of Doris Miller and other African-Americans who rose above the racism and the limitations that were placed on them to serve their country. Let’s learn from our past and seize the opportunity today to fully integrate and harness the talents of warfighters like Doris Miller.