"First your country, then your rights." W.E.B. Du Bois, 1918
Even though it was often only in a limited capacity, African Americans have long served in the American military with honor and pride. World War II provided a backdrop through which real change was affected towards the treatment of minorities in the American military. A few of those changes came from the time of Pearl Harbor, to the time the above photograph was taken--a period of not quite two years. At the beginning of the war, African Americans were only allowed to serve as messmen in the U.S. Navy. Men like Doris "Dorie" Miller (October 12, 1919 – November 24, 1943) afforded American military commanders, politicians, the media, and the public, a new look at the minority in the military.
Doris Miller was a messman enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He is remembered for his heroism on that schocking day on December 7, 1941, when war forcefully came to America. Miller served on the West Virginia when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The ship's captain, Captain Mervyn Bennion, was injured when the ship was torpedoed. Miller attempted to drag Bennion to safety, although Bennion refused to leave the bridge. Miller and another sailor put Bennion in a less exposed position from where Bennion served the ship until claimed by death. After getting Bennion to safety, Miller was directed to help man the vessel's guns, despite having no training. Undaunted, Miller immediately began to fire upon the Japanese aircraft. When it became apparent the West Virginia would be claimed by the ocean, the inexhaustible Miller helped move wounded sailors to positions of safety.
Although the bravery of men like Miller showcased the contributions the African American population could make, change came slowly, but a need for resources hastened matters. Advances that occured after the attack on Pearl Harbor, include the Tuskegee Institute's starting a black air training program on July 19, 1941, this occured only eighteen days after the U.S. Army integrated its officer candidate school on July 1, 1941.
Only after political and media pressure, did Doris Miller become the first African American to receive the Navy Cross. It was presented to Miller by Admiral Chester Nimitz on May 27, 1942. Soon after Miller received the Navy Cross, the Marine Corps opened enlistment to African Americans on June 1, 1942. African American servicemen also now had more, but still limited, options when choosing an occupation.
On July 20, 1942, African American women were accepted into the Women's Army Auxillary Corps (WAC). Meanwhile, Miller was promoted to Mess Attendent First Class on the ill-fated USS Indianapolis, but he was first ordered home to make a War Bonds tour. One of the talks he gave was to the first graduating class of Black sailors at the U.S. Naval Training Station in January 1943, the same place the photograph of Company 1481 was taken.
On June 1, 1943, the Army Air Corps formed the third black air unit, the 477th bomber group. A month later the 99th Pursuit Squadron downed their first enemy air craft. The USS Leanoard Roy Harmon became the first naval vessel named for an African American on August 31, 1943. Leonard Roy Harmon (January 21, 1917–November 13, 1942) was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross for his efforts aboard the USS San Francisco during the battle of the Guadacanal. He willingly place himself between enemy gunfire and his shipmates in order to protect them.
The basic training group photograph of Company 1481 was taken on November 11, 1943, two days before Harmon's act of heroism and eleven months after Miller's tour of the Naval Training Station in Great Lakes, Illinois, where Miller would have addressed young recruits such as these. P.E. Nickels was probably the training instructor.1 Although these sailors probably never met Miller or Harmon, their paths might have been slightly less rocky due to men like them.
After finishing his war bond tour, Miller reported to the ship the Liscome Bay which took part in the Battle of Makin Island. On a bleak Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 1943, thirteen days after the photograph of Company 1481 was taken, the Liscome Bay was struck by a torpedo and sunk. 272 men were rescued. Miller, who had survived Pearl Harbor, was not among the survivors.
1. Many thanks to Together We Served who tried to help id this photograph.