On the sunny Sunday morning of December 7, 1941, Messman Doris Miller had served breakfast aboard the U.S.S. West Virginia, stationed in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and was collecting laundry when the first of nine Japanese torpedoes hit the ship. In the deadly confusion, Miller reported to an officer, who told him to help move the ship’s mortally wounded captain off the bridge. Unable to move him far, Miller sheltered the captain behind the ship’s conning tower. Then another officer ordered Miller to pass ammunition to him as he started up one of the two abandoned anti-aircraft guns in front of the conning tower. Miller had not been trained to use the guns because, as a Black man in the U.S. Navy, he was assigned to serve the white officers. But while the officer was distracted, Miller began to fire one of the guns. He fired it until he ran out of ammunition. Then he helped to move injured sailors to safety before he and the other survivors abandoned the West Virginia, which sank to the bottom of Pearl Harbor.
Oh, your very last line: "Even better, it makes us people like Doris Miller." Brilliant!
That's the human being I aspire to be -- even in my old age! I will demonstrate, shout out, and stand up to any totalitarian wannabe until my last breath! I did not immigrate to these United States to be engulfed by the fangs of power-hungry, right-wing authoritarians who worship at the altar of trumpism and its evil bigotry.
My thanks to you, dear Heather, for each letter, every sleepless night, and your passion for the Truth.
The dumbest thing Hitler ever did was to keep his word for the one and only time he ever did, and declare war on the United States. Had he kept his mouth shut, FDR could never have gotten a mostly-isolationist Congress to unilaterally declare war on Germany. We'd have fought in the Pacific and send Lend-Lease to the USSR and British, and sometime in 1947-48, after the Soviets crushed the Nazis (let's remember that 80% of the deaths in World War II happened on the Eastern Front), the "iron curtain" would have been drawn along the shore of the North Sea, the English Channel and the Bay of Biscay. And if the Japanese had been smart, they would never have attacked Pearl Harbor and the Philippines, but should have invaded Malaya/Burma and the Dutch East Indies, because that isolationist Congress would never have gone to war to defend the British and Dutch imperialists.
If World War II had to be fought, we're lucky we fought it against right wing morons like the Japanese, the Germans and the Italians.
And Doris Miller was killed almost two years to the day after Pearl Harbor, when the escort carrier USS Liscombe Bay he was then serving on, was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine during the Gilberts campaign. escort carriers were designated CVE (carrier, aircraft, escort), but the crews said it meant "Combustible, Vulnerable and Expendable." They were made by Henry Kaiser from very cheap high-sulfur steel, which caught fire when hit. The ship sank in less than 5 minutes, taking down 70% of the crew with her because they couldn't get out of the below-decks. Ever after, CVE crewmen slept on the hangar deck, or the weather decks of their ship.
The next big nuclear-powered Navy aircraft carrier in the Ford class will be the USS Doris Miller (CVN-81) scheduled to be laid down in 2026, launched in October 2029 and commissioned in 2032. She'll be built at the Newport News Shipbuilding Company in Norfolk VA. The first cut of steel was this past August 25, with six members of his family present. The carrier will be the second ship named for Miller, who won the Navy Cross for his actions at Pearl Harbor; the first USS Miller was a destroyer escort
Thank you again, HCR, for weaving a tiny historical footnote into a grand lesson putting current events into historical context.
Yes, western liberal democracy, hypocrisies and all, is still better than 1930's Axis fascism. And we need to keep in mind that the decidedly un-democratic Soviet Union had as much to do in defeating Germany as the Allied democracies. Maybe more. Had Hitler not invaded the USSR and instead focused his resources on occupying Great Britain, WW II would have taken a different course. But, instead, Hitler demonstrated that it is the arrogance of fascism that is the usual cause of its inevitable downfall.
I'm always impressed, and not a little ashamed as a white person, by the selfless heroism of African Americans and other minorities. In war, and in the daily peacetime battle just to live. Had Doris Miller survived the war, what would he have come home to in 1945, even with his medals and citations? Jim Crow in the South and the same, but more subtle James Effington Crow Esq, up north? What would his bravery, initiative, and intelligence, (on his own he figured out how to operate and anti-aircraft gun unit under less than ideal conditions,) have gotten him back home?
We've come a ways since 1945, but often it's two steps forward, one step back. The one-step-back crowd is in ascension again, and again, it will be their arrogance, and millions of Doris Millers, of all colors, that will be their downfall.
Nothing to do with politics, but a memory came up on my FB page yesterday. On 7 Dec 2016, I had the honor of meeting and speaking with a very special member of the Greatest Generation. They are somewhat revered in our military community, and this Devil Dog was no different. This Marine’s name was Edgar Harrell. He was one of the last remaining survivors of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis at that time. I was in awe. These men, these survivors, went through a hell that most of us cannot begin to imagine while in the water for 4 days waiting for rescue. Mr. Harrell was a quiet man, very unassuming, very polite. Everything that embodies all of the WWII veterans, both men and women, that I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting and talking to. But this was a man that survived one of the most extraordinary events of the war. After delivering the atomic bomb to Tinian, on their way home, they were struck by a torpedo, sinking the Indianapolis, killing thousands, and then were forced to survive dehydration, starvation, sharks, and their own injuries while tied together in the ocean.
Anyway, I got way off my topic. I apologize. The reason this memory is so special this year is that Mr. Harrell passed away several months ago. At his passing he was the last survivor of the Indianapolis. Now, they are gone, their voices are silent. We must carry those voices on, so that they never truly die. Veterans like myself, and in my community, pass these stories on, and keep telling them. It’s our way of letting them live on through us. There’s a saying. “A hero never dies until their name is spoken for the last time.” Edgar Harrell’s name will be spoken by me to keep his memory and experiences alive time and again. Til Valhalla Marine.
On December 7, 1941, we had invited, for Sunday lunch, Nancy Alvord, whose husband was a pilot on an aircraft carrier stationed in Pearl Harbor.She was devastated by news of the Japanese attack. She did not know that aircraft carriers were out of Pearl re-enforcing American islands. Six months later, her husband, and all but one pilot in Torpedo Squadron 8, were lost at Midway.
Before December 7th there was a strong isolationist movement, America First, headlined by Charles Lindbergh. It promptly dissolved and later Lindbergh, the Spirit of St. Louis pilot, served his country in the Pacific. America joined together to fight a war for democracy.
In sharp contrast, today we are nearly two years into our pandemic war in which we have already suffered far more than twice the deaths from WW II. At the outset, Trump not only failed to mobilize America for this war, he also deliberately deceived Americans about the nature of this war. He spearheaded a campaign both to minimize this war and to mock one of our citizens’ first lines of defense—wearing masks.
Even now Trump’s sycophants are saboteurs in this pandemic war. The anti-vaxers and anti-maskers are headed by some Republican governors and politicians. Federal efforts to enforce vaccination are blocked in court by Republican politicos. The stalwart efforts by the Biden administration to turn the tide in this deadly pandemic war are being stymied and virus infections and deaths are on an upward trend.
I experienced WW II where a united America won a war against tyranny. Why can’t we unite and win the fight of a pandemic war that is already far more costly to our citizens?
We live in a home built in 1922. Franco confiscated it in 1936. Down the street is a school that was a women's college. Franco turned it into a women's prison. In one of our parks there is a memorial to Anne Frank and a tall metal piece of iron work with the years that Franco was in power. Here in Spain, the older remember. Spain is a young democracy with 5 main political parties. Spain is watching the U.S.. Vox - an extreme far right party - is now the third largest party. What happens in the U.S. will have a global effect. Why are so many American's silent? Why are there seemingly so few calling out the lies? The deceit? The corruption? Why are so few writing to papers to demand they actually print ¨all the news that's fit to print¨?
Thank you, HCR. Sadly, a real danger is apathy. The majority of Italians and Germans were not Fascists or Nazis, just ordinary people who thought "This will pass". Suddenly, those ordinary people wake up to find out it's too late. We need to raise awareness wherever we can, encourage people to vote, use the system against those so determined to break it..Before it's too late
That 18 states have passed 33 laws that restrict voting for poor districts and communities of color, and give elected officials the power to certify votes- or decertify results that disadvantage the GOP- is absolutely cause for alarm.
On the other hand, these actions should inspire hope because they reveal that the GOP is deeply afraid of losing power and relevance in a country whose culture, values, and demographics are changing in ways they cannot stop.
The reactionaries in the GOP want the rest of us to believe their dominance of our politics and ultimately, our government, is inevitable. This is a deliberate strategy to instill two equally corrosive emotions in a democracy, fear and apathy.
Today's GOP is behaving like a rabid animal that has been cornered, fighting for their survival and infected with the virus of hate. Their strategy to take over America from the local level up should be considered dangerous and the authoritarian impulses that currently animate the party must be put down.
The best way to do that is use all the weapons at our disposal-- the ballot, strategic demonstrations, sending money to support candidates like Stacy Abrams to blunt the impact of dark money, and boycott companies who contribute to candidates who support the Big Lie and advance restrictive voting agendas.
Doris Miller's example shows us that we're only doomed if we fail to act. And the time to act is now.
My father used to talk about Mussolini, Stalin, and Hitler. When he came from Poland as a young Jewish refugee in 1937, he wanted to give back to America for granting him freedom. After Pearl Harbor occurred, my dad saw the famous “Uncle Sam Wants You” sign so he enlisted in the Army. His goal was to be sent back to Europe to fight the Nazis but the Army sent him to Papau New Guinea to fight the Japanese. I have a little of his memorabilia but he didn’t keep much. He never spoke about what happened when he served or who he fought with. I wish he had because I always wondered if he was alongside men like Doris Miller. I imagine he did but that generation never really revealed much. They fought and then they came home to a ticker-tape parade because they all saved democracy from fascism. Can we do it again? This time we are trying to save what we have from our own people. The task at hand, is pretty darn scary but I have no intention of backing away or down.
And Japanese Americans served too, courageously and valiantly despite our horrific treatment of them during a very stressful time (see Daniel Brown’s “Facing the Mountain”). Thank you for another thoughtful and important message.
Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that Heather has shifted somewhat over the last period of time. She is now consistently widening her viewpoint beyond just our national perspective. Not long ago she crafted a piece that highlights Putin and Russia’s menace. Today the centerpiece is Pearl Harbor, and the similarities between Mussolini’s Italy and NSDAP Germany to Trump + today’s Republican Party.
I love you Heather. ❤️❤️
Because Heather likes history, even though I am not a historian I will add some substance.
The fasces is a Roman symbol, and perhaps older, of unity and strength. A “fasces” is a bundle of sticks. You can break one stick. Perhaps you can break two sticks together, but it’s harder. If you put enough sticks together and bundle them, they can no longer be broken. In other words, in unity there is strength. (perhaps also E pluribus unum)
So at its core, the essential tenet of “fascism“ could be used as a symbol of democracy. In fact, it has. If you look on the back of any Roosevelt dime, you will see a fasces. In unity there is strength. If we don’t hang together, surely we will hang together (if we don’t act as a team, we will suffer the dire consequences). FDR’s America followed by the Marshall Plan was our commitment to democracy expressed globally in WWII. That legacy ran wide and deep, and the consequences of that commitment will be felt for a long time to come.
Any pure and good concept can be abused. A would-be dictator can convince a people to be unified, for example, behind an unjust cause. Or he can direct that unified national team spirit in nasty directions. Let’s work together, like the fasces. (Mussolini) Let’s join together and find joy in our work. (Arbeit macht frei). Socialism and communism are also in this camp.
The problem is not the pure concept. The problem is letting one person, or an elite (oligarchic) group of people, decide what is best for the rest. It is the hierarchy that is the danger. It is placing a certain class or group of people in a superior position to another group that is the danger. Heather says it several different ways, including:
“Now, once again, democracy is under attack by those who believe some people are better than others.”
So while I understand the demonization of the word “fascism” as a shorthand label for Mussolini’s Italy, I encourage us to look deeper to find the true roots of the problem.
Heather expresses it beautifully in this article, and that’s why I’m stating my love for her.
People joining forces for the common good is the underlying principle of fascism, communism, socialism, et al. The principle is at worst neutral, and at best brilliant. And then, as in all things beautiful, it gets corrupted by greed and self-aggrandizement. Republicans, the extremist wing, obviously know better than we do what’s best for us as a society. Whites first. Males superior. Straights over non-straights. Reactionaries from the past, a past that we know does not work.
Others: Putin’s band of reactionaries wanting to recreate Tsarist Russia. China’s Orwellian society. The USA’s capitalist economic system that puts laborers at the bottom, underpays them, and allows an elite few to exploit their work by becoming billionaires.
"I hear a lot these days about how American democracy is doomed and the reactionaries will win. Maybe. But the beauty of our system is that it gives us people like Doris Miller.
Even better, it makes us people like Doris Miller."
Challenge accepted. Thank You.
Inspiration is what we need. Thank you Heather. What a gift to us. 🙏❤️ “When the going gets tough, the tough get going”. How many times I heard that as a child. We, all of us together, can do this. Much respect to Doris Miller and John Lewis. I’m in it until the end.
In a country of Ted Cruzes and Josh Hawleys, be a Doris Miller.
Thank you for this powerful letter, written on what for me is always a complicated commemoration. My late father was white, and his father served as a chaplain in Europe during World War II. My mother, who became a naturalized US citizen in 1961 (several years after moving here with my dad), was born in Japan. When the Japanese military attacked Pearl Harbor, both my parents were just 10 years old, but living in vastly different worlds. My dad told me as the war progressed, he used to keep a map and put a thumbtack on places where the good guys scored another victory. My mom, the youngest in a relatively big family, saw her brothers go fight in a war that, I think, permanently scarred my oldest uncle. When he finally came back, he swore he'd never kill another living thing.
I hear the call to action in this piece and yet I find myself very unclear about what effective action looks like at this time. In a future article, please outline what history tells us effective organizing against the sort of institutional sabotage we are seeing. What are the ways ordinary citizens can resist the moves of State Legislatures to disenfranchise voters? What kinds of protests move the needle on public opinion? Short of civil war, what are the arenas in which conflict can be decisive in favor of democracy?
Like most if not all of Heather’s readers, I think our democracy is in jeopardy. As much as I hope she will continue to enlighten us with an aggregation of current news stories and historical perspective on them, I hope we can now move on to finding ways we can mobilize to stem the tide of autocracy. I’ve read some good ideas in these comments. Perhaps we could start a cumulative list and then commit to taking grassroots action, each of us as we are willing and able. Here are some suggestions, some of which have certainly been suggested before: donate to progressive political candidates at every level of government, volunteer for their campaigns, donate to the League of Woman Voters, apply to be an election judge, make sure everyone you know gets to the polls and votes in every election (even elections for dog catcher), call and write your elected representatives, write to your local newspaper, show up at demonstrations against hate and for good causes, attend school board meetings. Please add suggestions and please commit to taking at least one action to support democratic institutions every week or at least every month. We can do this!