Cumberland Times-News

March 1, 2014

Maybe his name will be on the list some day

Jim Goldsworthy, Columnist
Cumberland Times-News

— Even if you have no idea who Doris “Dorie” Miller was, you may have seen him portrayed an old movie. The audience wasn’t told who he was, but some of us recognized him.

I looked for him on a list of new Medal of Honor recipients and was disappointed not to find him there.

However, when I read a little more, I understood the omission. In a few days, President Obama will award the Medal of Honor to 24 Army veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

These are men who may have been denied the medal when they should have received it because they were of Hispanic or Jewish heritage. Miller was black, and he was a Navy man.

Only three of the 24 are still alive. All are Vietnam veterans: Staff Sgt. Melvin Morris of Cocoa, Fla., who was commended for courageous actions on Sept. 17, 1969; Spc. 4 Santiago J. Erevia, May 21, 1969; and Sgt. First Class Jose Rodela, Sept. 1, 1969. Erevia and Rodela are residents of San Antonio, Texas.

Most accounts did not list the names of the posthumous recipients:

Vietnam War:  Sgt. Candelario Garcia, Spc. 4 Leonard L. Alvarado, Staff Sgt. Felix M. Conde-Falcon, Spc. 4 Ardie R. Copas and Spc. 4 Jesus S. Duran. Alvarado, Conde-Falcon and Copas were Killed In Action.

Korean War: Cpl. Joe R. Baldonado, Pvt. Miguel A. Vera,  Cpl. Victor H. Espinoza, Sgt. Eduardo C. Gomez, Pfc. Leonard M. Kravitz, Master Sgt. Juan E. Negron, Master Sgt. Mike C. Pena,  Pvt. Demensio Rivera and Sgt. Jack Weinstein. Baldonado, Vera, Kravitz and Pena were Killed In Action.

World War II: Pvt. Pedro Cano, Pvt. Joe Gandara, Pfc. Salvador J. Lara, Sgt. William F. Leonard, Staff Sgt. Manuel V. Mendoza, Sgt. Alfred B. Nietzel and 1st Lt. Donald K. Schwab.

Each of them had already received the Distinguished Service Cross, America’s second-highest military award.

Dorie Miller was serving on the battleship USS West Virginia while it was stationed at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Like most African-Americans in the Navy at that time, he was a mess attendant.

His job was to cook and serve food to the officers and crew, clear the tables, wash dishes and clean bedrooms and bathrooms for officers. He earned an extra $5 a month providing wakeup services to duty officers and for doing their laundry, shining their shoes and making their beds.

In essence, he was a janitor, busboy and bellhop in a Navy uniform. Blacks weren’t trusted with important jobs in the Navy of 1941.

During the Japanese attack, Miller carried several wounded shipmates to safety, including the ship’s captain, moving him to a more sheltered position when refused to be evacuated from the bridge. Capt. Mervyn Bennion died at his post, acting in all respects as the ship’s commanding offer until his last breath.

Miller then helped load anti-aircraft guns and wound up manning one of them, even though he hadn’t been trained to do so. He may or may not have shot down one of the attacking planes. After the order was given to abandon ship, he rescued other sailors from the oily, flame-covered water.

U.S. Sen. James Mead of New York introduced a bill that would have awarded Miller the Medal of Honor, but he wound up receiving the Navy Cross, which at the time was the third highest medal a sailor could receive.

This actually was remarkable, because it was the first time an African-American serviceman ever received that high a decoration.

Miller was killed in November 1943 when his ship, the escort carrier USS Liscome Bay, was torpedoed and sunk by a Japanese submarine during the battle of Tarawa.

Numerous efforts have been made to have Miller’s Navy Cross upgraded to a Medal of Honor, but they so far have failed.

Miller’s portrait did appear on a recruitment poster under the words, “above and beyond the call of duty,” he was depicted in action during the movies “Tora! Tora! Tora!” and “Pearl Harbor,” a commemorative postage stamp bearing his picture was issued by the Postal Service, and a Knox-class frigate, USS Miller, was commissioned in his honor.

One of America’s surviving Medal of Honor recipients from World War II, Walter Ehlers, died the same week the new recipients were announced.

Staff Sgt. Walter Ehlers was 23 years old on June 9, 1944, when he assaulted two German machine gun nests, killed seven German soldiers, silenced a mortar position and carried a wounded buddy to safety after having been shot in the side by a sniper.

It was said that Ehlers used to tell folks he didn’t wear the Medal of Honor for himself, but for all of the others — those who didn’t come home — his brother Roland, included.

Medals of Honor have been awarded to several men who were associated with our area: Robert W. Hartsock (Flintstone), J. Edward Kelley (Keyser, W.Va.), William Edward Shuck Jr. (Ridgeley, W.Va.), James A. Graham Jr. (who attended what is now Frostburg State University) and Ellis R. Weicht (Everett, Pa.).

Here’s another one most people probably don’t know about, and he’s part of the answer to a trivia question: Which Union regiment received the most Medals of Honor during the Civil War? The First West Virginia Volunteer Cavalry Regiment — 14.

One of the 14 went to First Sgt. Francis M. Cunningham, who captured the 12th Virginia Infantry’s battle flag during hand-to-hand combat, despite being wounded, at Sayler’s Creek in Virginia on April 6, 1865. You ask, “So what?”

Well, it was common for men who captured enemy colors to receive the Medal of Honor, because that was a major accomplishment.

A regiment’s flag was a rallying point during battle and a source of inspiration to the men.

Being assigned to carry it was an honor and required great bravery from a soldier who would die rather than retreat — if he did, the entire regiment might break and run with him — or allow it to be captured. Soldiers who came forward to take the colors from a fallen comrade were equally revered.

Such men did not have a long life expectancy. In an environment rich with targets, they were among the most prized. They also were among the most well-guarded, and to capture a regimental flag required courage of the highest order.

Cunningham also is one of our own, because he was born Dec. 31, 1837, in nearby Somerset, Pa. He died May 11, 1919, and is buried in Sugar Grove Cemetery, Ohiopyle, Pa.