Iron Mike – Gruntworks Contributing Blogger
Circle up fuckheads; it’s story time again. It has come to my attention that today’s culture within the military teaches you that initiative is a bad thing and that it’s better to maintain status quos than dare to rise above yourselves and display the traits that our fighting forces claim to prize. You are beaten down into a conformity beyond what is necessary for good order and discipline by consistent years of commands that are more concerned with checking blocks and keeping issues off their blotter (and therefor off their evaluations) than they are with encouraging individuals to aspire to excellence. This culture of bureaucracy is nothing new to the military either. It was the same shameful mentality that leaders had in 1863, in 1917, and in 1941 with regards to the racial integration of black Americans into the ranks of fighting men. There were generations of leaders who deemed it not worth their time to allow black servicemen to show what they could do. Status quo ruled the day and no one dared allow the system to be bucked, even on the strong chance that it would improve readiness and combat effectiveness as demonstrated by valor of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the Buffalo Soldiers, or the 369th Infantry “Harlem Hellfighters”. I got 3 words for that kind of thinking; fuck that shit. If you aren’t exploring realistic options to improve your force and the men in it, you aren’t fit to lead. However, today’s story isn’t about that. Today’s story is how you should act if you’re stuck under that kind of leadership; in an environment that doesn’t want you to dare to be better than the comfortable low expectations put in front of you to pad some officer or some politicians’ career advancement. Today’s story is about a man who went through life with a chip on his shoulder ready to prove the naysayers wrong and in the moment the nation needed heroes most, stepped up to the plate and took some goddamn initiative. The first black American to earn the Navy Cross for the valor he displayed on December 7th, 1941. This story is about Petty Officer Doris Miller.
I can’t in good conscience solely blame the military for these institutionally codified bureaucratic mentalities. The Military is a mirror of the society it serves… and the American society we live in today is a disgusting bureaucratic nightmare that rewards weakness and complacency. Today’s American culture is risk-averse, competition-free, and prizes remaining in the constant state victimhood over the triumph of adversity. There is nothing noble about being a victim, and victimhood is the mind-state of weakness and learned helplessness. You cannot always control what happens to you, but you can damn sure make the conscious choice whether or not it beats you. Victimhood is a state of mind that keeps people controlled, which is why the powers that be in American society and culture want you to think like a victim; entitled, angry, and without a sense of responsibility. That shit ain’t how real men think though… and Doris Miller is the perfect example of that.
Born on October 19th, 1919 in Waco, Texas to a family of subsistence farmers Doris Miller was never on the right side of the tracks growing up. He worked his whole life on the family farm in a poor rural agricultural community. He even left school before graduation and spent most of his early life helping his father with the family farm and hunting to earn extra money. Just like everyone else I’ve ever met from the Great State of Texas, you have to know how to farm, but book-learnin’ isn’t a requirement. In the 1930’s in the middle of the dust bowl and the Great Depression, Doris had a fair few reasons to be a victim. He was black in the middle of Democrat-run and racially segregated “Jim Crow” Texas; he attended sub-standard segregated schooling; he had a girl’s name (and by all accounts was in a lot of fights as a kid – probably for this reason); his family was poor; and there not a lot of job opportunities for a poor black high-school dropout in the middle of the Great Depression. He did have two major things going for him though, he was 6’3” (over 200 lbs), and he was proud and determined enough not to go his whole life as a victim. In 1939, at the age of 20, he enlisted in the United States Navy – and was made a cook because that was one of the few Navy jobs open to black Americans.
He became a Mess Attendant 3rd Class serving on the Battleship USS West Virginia. Black sailors were not allowed to receive weapons training as it “was outside the scope of duties they may be assigned” according to the Navy at the time so Miller spent his days cooking for the 1,541 men of the West Virginia, clearing tables, washing dishes, and performing room service for the officers’ quarters. After temporary duty on the USS Nevada at Secondary Battery Gunnery School, he returned to the USS West Virginia on August 3, 1940; Miller was promoted to Mess Attendant 2nd Class and the USS West Virginia was transferred from the Atlantic to the Pacific Fleet.
One of the few areas of racial integration in the Navy was in the field of sports onboard ships. Sailors needed diversions to break away from the monotony of life aboard, and boxing was one such activity that was strongly encouraged and popular. Contact sports encouraged competition, physical fitness, and gave even the lowliest Seaman a chance to excel in front of the Captain. Doris Miller, with a lifetime of fist-fights under his belt was not going to pass up the opportunity to compete and win… In the span of a few short fights he made himself the ship’s Heavyweight Boxing Champion, and was recognized by the ship’s Commanding Officer, Captain Mervyn Bennion.
It’s amazing what a little recognition can do for someone that wants to better themselves. After being commended for being a champion boxer, Miller took on additional responsibilities – such as volunteering to be the enlisted crew member responsible for ensuring the Duty Officer was awake and ready for work, and he only earned an extra $5 a month for doing that. Your sorry ass is probably skipping PT today, and this guy was getting up every day before 0600 for a month just for 5 extra dollars. In addition to waking the Duty Officer, Miller also shined shoes, did laundry, and made beds for the Officers of the ship. That meant on Sunday, December 7th, 1941 Doris Miller was one of the few crew members awake and in uniform when the Japanese Imperial Navy launched 353 carrier-based aircraft to smash the US Pacific Fleet as they lay at anchor…
As the first bombs exploded and ‘General Quarters’ sounded Miller was already awake and rushed to his battle station as an ammo-bearer for an Anti-Aircraft battery. His job was to run ammunition from the storage locker to the gun crew firing at the incoming planes, however as bombs and torpedoes filled the harbor Miller’s assigned position was already knocked out of action by the first torpedo to hit the ship. Where a lesser man would shirk duty and focus on self-preservation, Miller reported to “Times Square” – the central corridor between fore and aft – and made himself available for duty to Lieutenant Commander Doir C. Johnson, the ship’s communication’s officer. Lt. Cdr. Johnson immediately recognized Miller’s massive frame and instructed him to help move the ship’s badly wounded Skipper from the damaged bridge to a covered position. Then he was ordered by another officer to assist two crewmen with loading two un-manned .50 caliber AA guns just aft of the ship’s conning tower… This was it, the moment he had waited for his entire life, and he was going to do what no one ever gave him the chance to do before; take initiative and rise above.
As planes screamed in, dropping ordnance over the burning ships of the Pacific Fleet, a cook, that had never been trained to operate the glorious M2 Browning .50 Caliber machine gun, racked the charging handle and squeezed the trigger…
Half-inch wide bullets began streaming from the weapon towards any Japanese plane coming close to the West Virginia. The two officers who had tasked the man in a cooks’ uniform to help load ammo to the guns were stunned. Here was a junior enlisted sailor, doing a job he was not trained for of his own accord, and defending a ship where he was not usually treated as an equal. As a series of Japanese dive bombers approached for another pass at the West Virginia, Miller sprayed the incoming aircraft with fire… targeting at least one which exploded and crashed as the sailors on deck cheered. It isn’t known if Miller was the one who brought it down (most of the Fleet was shooting at those planes – and the USS West Virginia did not claim to have downed any in their reports after the battle), but he had demonstrated the valor and ability to defend his ship above and beyond the call of duty. He continued firing until all ammunition was exhausted and the order was given to abandon ship. As the remaining Japanese planes departed from the attack, Miller began assisting rescue crews moving the wounded crew members to the quarterdeck and pulling wounded and stranded sailors from the water as an oil fire started by leaking fuel from the wrecked battleships encircled the men “unquestionably saving the lives of a number of people who might otherwise have been lost.” according to the official ship’s history.
Doris Miller would receive the Navy Cross – the Navy’s second-highest award for valor – for his actions during the attack on Pearl Harbor which would be personally presented to him by Admiral Chester Nimitz in a ceremony on board the USS Enterprise. His citation reads:
“For distinguished devotion to duty, extraordinary courage and disregard for his own personal safety during the attack on the Fleet in Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii, by Japanese forces on December 7, 1941. While at the side of his Captain on the bridge, Miller, despite enemy strafing and bombing and in the face of a serious fire, assisted in moving his Captain, who had been mortally wounded, to a place of greater safety, and later manned and operated a machine gun directed at enemy Japanese attacking aircraft until ordered to leave the bridge”
He went on a War Bond speaking tour and would be the featured speaker for the first graduating class of black sailors at Great Lakes NTS in Chicago. He would go on to serve aboard the USS Indianapolis and then be transferred and promoted to Petty Officer, Ship’s Cook Third Class on the escort carrier USS Liscome Bay. He was the first black American to earn the Navy Cross and the first black hero of the Second World War. The USS Liscome Bay would see action in the Makin Island campaign, and on November 24th, 1943 she was fatally struck by a single Japanese torpedo from the submarine I-175 that ignited the aircraft bomb magazine. Of the 900 men aboard, all but 272 hands went down with the ship; including Petty Officer Miller. He like many other black Americans that served in the World Wars, gave his life for a country that never fully appreciated him. In 1973 a Knox-Class Frigate was named for him, the USS Miller and numerous monuments in his honor have been erected across the country. There is an ongoing effort to petition Congress to upgrade his award to the Medal of Honor.
The lesson in this story is that no matter how hard or how long you get shit on by the powers that be, it’s up to you how it affects you. You have a choice, be a victim or be a victor. It’s easy to be a victim, and these days the instant gratification of victimhood is hard for most people to resist. It’s easy to make excuses. The system is against you. The resources aren’t there. The conditions aren’t right. It’s an easy excuse to quit or to excuse away your own failures. Fuck that. You better make the choice to rise above regardless; reach down the front of your pants and find the balls to endure it. Keep trucking forward with that chip on your shoulder and that hunger deep down to prove all the people shitting on you wrong. Your problems don’t compare to what the generations that came before you went through, and look what men like Doris Miller achieved in the instant they got the chance. To quote the great warrior-poet, Slim Shady: “Look… If you had one shot or one opportunity to seize everything you ever wanted in one moment; would you capture it? or just let it slip?” You have to want it. You have to turn all that doubt and bullshit into motivation to push on to be better than anyone expects you to be. You can pursue personal excellence and inspire those around you to do the same, or you can take the easy road and be a manager who maintains the status quo and nothing more. You have to decide: are you going to be the man who does only what’s required of him and stay safe and comfortable in your mediocrity? Or are you gonna be the man who lays it all out, takes the initiative, and jumps on the .50?
You know what the right choice is. Now start practicing some initiative and get that ass in the gym today. Work some Biceps, Ma Deuce doesn’t play with bitches who limp-wrist her charging handle.