Great­ness un­der fire

Elk­ton teacher pub­lishes book hon­or­ing Pearl Har­bor hero

Cecil Whig - - JUMPSTART - By MAR­CUS DIETERLE mdi­[email protected]­cil­ Vir­ginia, West Vir­ginia USS West USS Lis­come Bay,

ELK­TON — When Ja­panese forces de­scended upon Pearl Har­bor and at­tacked the United States naval base on Dec. 7, 1941, U.S. Navy sailor Dorie Miller took hold of an anti-air­craft gun to de­fend his coun­try.

Af­ter hear­ing about Miller’s heroic act, Dante Brizill, an Elk­ton High School his­tory teacher and the co-co­or­di­na­tor of the school’s Black His­tory Club, de­cided to write a book about the sailor’s con­tri­bu­tion to the de­fense of Pearl Har­bor.

In his book, “Dorie Miller: Great­ness Un­der Fire,” which was re­leased Nov. 26 on Ama­zon ahead of the 77th an­niver­sary of the Pearl Har­bor at­tack, Brizill chron­i­cles Miller’s hero­ism, his back­ground, and the legacy he left for African-Amer­i­cans.

“I feel as though it’s in­spi­ra­tional be­cause it shows a guy who rose above what he was trained to do and rose above the pur­pose the Navy had for black men at the time,” Brizill said. “He ba­si­cally stepped in when his ship was un­der at­tack and ba­si­cally just rose above and be­yond what he was as­signed to do.

‘A date which will live in in­famy’

On that in­fa­mous day, 2,403 Amer­i­cans were killed, in­clud­ing 2,335 mil­i­tary per­son­nel and 68 civil­ians. An­other 1,246 Amer­i­cans were wounded, in­clud­ing 1,143 mil­i­tary per­son­nel and 103 civil­ians, ac­cord­ing to the Pearl Har­bor Visi­tors Bu­reau.

Although his­to­ri­ans have not been able to con­firm the ex­act num­ber of air­craft Miller shot down — var­i­ous records re­port be­tween two to six — Miller helped to keep the num­ber of dead and wounded from ris­ing any higher.

While Miller has been in­cluded in the nar­ra­tive of the African-Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence in World War II, Brizill said the sailor’s story has been largely left out of more main­stream ac­counts of the Pearl Har­bor at­tack.

Miller’s char­ac­ter has been por­trayed in a few movies, per­haps most no­tably by Cuba Good­ing Jr. in the 2001 film “Pearl Har­bor.” Even in that ver­sion, how­ever, Brizill said Miller’s con­tri­bu­tion to the de­fense of the naval base was not fully shown.

Miller, who was 20 years old when he en­listed in the U.S. Navy, was a mess­man sta­tioned aboard the

where he pre­pared and cleaned up af­ter meals. Brizill ex­plained that at the time, black ser­vice­men were pri­mar­ily rel­e­gated to non­com­bat roles and that Miller wasn’t even trained to op­er­ate any weapons on the ship.

“It was a com­monly held be­lief by a lot of se­nior peo­ple in the mil­i­tary at the time that African-Amer­i­cans were not ca­pa­ble of be­ing in skilled po­si­tions that re­quired in­ten­sive train­ing and com­bat,” he said.

The morn­ing of the Pearl Har­bor, Miller was do­ing wakeup and laun­dry du­ties. As the

came un­der fire, how­ever, he grabbed ahold of one of the anti-air­craft guns, shot at the at­tack­ing Ja­panese planes, and was able to down mul­ti­ple air­craft.

Af­ter the at­tack Fol­low­ing the at­tack, Brizill said the mil­i­tary didn’t want to draw at­ten­tion to Miller’s hero­ism.

“At first, the Navy kind of kept his story quiet, but enough peo­ple had wit­nessed his courage to talk about it,” he said. “It spread by word of mouth that this black cook on the ship did some heroic deeds.”

Ac­cord­ing to Brizill, the Sec­re­tary of the Navy was sat­is­fied with giv­ing Miller a con­grat­u­la­tory let­ter, but The Pitts­burgh Courier, an in­flu­en­tial African-Amer­i­can pa­per, and the NAACP ad­vo­cated for Miller to be pub­licly rec­og­nized.

Miller be­came the first African-Amer­i­can to be awarded the Navy Cross, the sec­ond high­est award U.S. Navy per­son­nel can earn, fol­low­ing the Con­gres­sional Medal of Honor.

Ac­cord­ing to Brizill, many peo­ple then and to­day be­lieve Miller should have re­ceived the Medal of Honor. How­ever, ef­forts to award Miller the na­tion’s high­est mil­i­tary honor were de­nied.

It was also com­mon for war he­roes to go on tour and raise bonds for the war. But un­like his white coun­ter­parts, Miller was not al­lowed to do so ini­tially, Brizill said.

Again, the Courier news­pa­per stepped in and ad­vo­cated for Miller to be able to go on tour, which he was even­tu­ally granted per­mis­sion to do.

Af­ter he re­turned from his tour, Miller was sta­tioned on the an es­cort car­rier. Ja­panese forces sunk the ship, killing over 600 sailors, in­clud­ing Miller, Brizill said.

Brizill said Miller’s ex­clu­sion from many pub­li­ca­tions was due in part to Miller’s race, while an­other part was the fact that he lived a short life, hav­ing died two years af­ter the Pearl Har­bor at­tack.

“He didn’t re­ally get an op­por­tu­nity to pro­mote him­self, to tell his story like you see in th­ese doc­u­men­taries on World War II of peo­ple who are able to be there front and cen­ter,” Brizill said.

Hon­or­ing him on the page When Brizill was in the fifth or sixth grade, he knew he wanted to be a teacher.

“I had a lot of great teach­ers com­ing up in el­e­men­tary school, mid­dle school and high school,” he said. “I wanted to do what they did.”

A self-de­scribed World War II buff, Brizill said he has grav­i­tated to read­ing about his­tory since he was a kid. He added that his grand­fa­thers were both vet­er­ans — one served in World War II, the other in the Korean War — who am­pli­fied his love of learn­ing about his­tory.

When Brizill first learned about Miller, he was sur­prised that he hadn’t heard the story sooner.

One of the things that pushed Brizill to write his book was a doc­u­men­tary made by Na­tional Geo­graphic in 2001 about Miller as part of the 60th

an­niver­sary of the Pearl Har­bor at­tack.

Not only did he en­joy hear­ing Miller’s story, but so did the stu­dents that Brizill shared it with.

Over the past three or four years, Brizill has re­searched Miller’s his­tory with the in­tent to write a book about it.

He said his book is pri­mar­ily tar­geted to­ward mid­dle school­ers, but he has found that adults want to read books like his too.

“Peo­ple want to hear sto­ries like Dorie Miller be­cause most peo­ple weren’t taught about this in school,” he said.

Brizill hopes read­ers, es­pe­cially young peo­ple who are told what they can’t do, find a kin­dred un­der­dog spirit in Miller and are re­minded of what they can do.

“I think our young peo­ple need he­roes,” he said. “They need to hear about sto­ries that maybe aren’t front and cen­ter, aren’t fa­mil­iar. They need to see ex­am­ples of young peo­ple who over­came the odds. They need to see ex­am­ples of young peo­ple that rose above the la­bels that were placed on them.”

As his book en­ters the hands of au­di­ences, Brizill said telling Miller’s story was his way of shar­ing one of the voices that has been hushed by his­tory.

“To in­tro­duce this ex­tra­or­di­nary in­di­vid­ual to a new gen­er­a­tion of kids was a re­ward­ing ex­pe­ri­ence,” he said. “I like to find sto­ries and peo­ple that are be­hind-thescenes a lit­tle bit and bring them to the fore­front.” Legacy for jus­tice

In writ­ing the book, Brizill not only un­cov­ered what hap­pened while Miller was alive, but also the im­pact he had and con­tin­ues to have even af­ter his ul­ti­mate sac­ri­fice.

Brizill ex­plained that the U.S. and its al­lies while were

fight­ing fas­cism abroad, Amer­ica had its own chal­lenges brew­ing at home that made life par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult for black mem­bers of the mil­i­tary.

“In World War II, AfricanAmer­i­cans had to fight two wars: we had to fight racism at home and our en­e­mies over­seas,” he said.

With the coun­try ini­tially be­ing slow to award Miller for his ser­vice, Brizill said it took the hard work of civil rights or­ga­ni­za­tions to push for any level of recog­ni­tion.

“He had some pow­er­ful peo­ple ad­vo­cat­ing for him, pow­er­ful civil rights and African-Amer­i­can or­ga­ni­za­tions ad­vo­cat­ing for him,” Brizill said. “The fact that he got the Navy Cross was be­cause of a pres­sure cam­paign that was put on the mil­i­tary and the pres­i­dent at the time, Pres­i­dent Roo­sevelt.”

A few years af­ter Miller’s story was re­vealed, Pres­i­dent Harry S. Tru­man in­te­grated the armed forces by way of an ex­ec­u­tive or­der.

Brizill said the African-Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence in World War II laid the ground­work for the civil rights move­ment in ‘50s and ‘60s, as or­ga­ni­za­tions launched pres­sure cam­paigns to se­cure the rights for black peo­ple in the U.S.

“When you see AfricanAmer­i­cans in the mil­i­tary to­day that are in se­nior po­si­tions, that are in highly skilled po­si­tions, Dorie Miller’s legacy I think has a lot to do with that,” he said. “He opened doors with his ac­tions on Dec. 7, 1941.”

As the U.S. comes up on the an­niver­sary of the Pearl Har­bor at­tack, Brizill said there is still time for Miller to be fully rec­og­nized for what he gave to this coun­try.

“One of the things I do ad­vo­cate is that it’s not too late for Dorie Miller to be awarded the Con­gres­sional Medal of Honor. I chal­lenge peo­ple in my book to con­tact their con­gressper­son and sen­a­tor to rec­og­nize him and give him the Con­gres­sional Medal of Honor. I think that would be a fit­ting trib­ute for what he did,” he said.


“Dorie Miller: Great­ness Un­der Fire” chron­i­cles U.S. Navy sailor Dorie Miller’s hero­ism dur­ing the Pearl Har­bor at­tack, his back­ground, and the legacy he left for African Amer­i­cans. The book was re­leased on Ama­zon on Nov. 26, ahead of the 77th an­niver­sary of the Pearl Har­bor at­tack on Dec. 7.

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