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Memorial Day salute to a Navy legend: Pearl Harbor hero’s story focus of service at Mount Soledad in La Jolla

Vintage planes fly over a Memorial Day ceremony May 27 at Mount Soledad National Veterans Memorial in La Jolla. One highlight of the event: unveiling a black granite plaque honoring Doris ‘Dorie’ Miller, the first African-American awarded the Navy Cross.
Vintage planes fly over a Memorial Day ceremony May 27 at Mount Soledad National Veterans Memorial in La Jolla. One highlight of the event: unveiling a black granite plaque honoring Doris ‘Dorie’ Miller, the first African-American awarded the Navy Cross.
(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

On Memorial Day, San Diego saluted U.S. Navy legend Doris “Dorie” Miller. America’s Finest City may have also given the Texas native and World War II hero a political boost.

Miller’s story was the centerpiece of May 27, 2019 ceremonies at Mount Soledad National Veterans Memorial in La Jolla . Sometimes rousing and often somber, the hour-long affair paid tribute to American men and women in uniform who had made the ultimate sacrifice.

The Marine Band played “America the Beautiful"; World War II-era planes roared overhead in the missing-man formation; and Boy Scouts polished the memorial’s 5,100 black granite plaques that honor veterans living and dead.

“We do it every year,” said E.J. Kovacs-Morgan, an 11-year-old Tenderfoot with Troop 4. “Every Memorial Day.”

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Likewise, every year, the memorial’s caretakers spotlight one notable veteran. This year’s choice was Miller, who was a 22-year-old cook aboard the battleship West Virginia when it was moored in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. That morning, Japanese aircraft struck without warning, bombing and strafing his ship.

Torpedoes had destroyed his battle station, so Miller helped carry to relative safety many wounded men, including the ship’s dying skipper, Capt. Mervyn S. Bennion.

In an after-action report, the ship’s executive office credited Miller with “unquestionably saving the lives of a number of people who might otherwise have been lost.”

As the attack continued, Miller went forward to man a machine gun. Although untrained in this weapon, he learned quickly, firing until he ran out of ammunition.

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“It wasn’t hard,” he said later. “I just pulled the trigger, and she worked fine.”

In 1942, Miller became the first African- American awarded the Navy Cross. The decoration was personally pinned on him by Adm. Chester Nimitz, the Pacific Fleet’s commander in chief.

In November 1943, Miller was lost at sea when a Japanese submarine sank the escort carrier Liscome Bay.

The Navy Cross is a high honor — but not high enough, said Neil O’Connell, a retired Marine Corps sergeant major and president of the Mount Soledad National Veterans Memorial Association.

“His actions,” O’Connell said, “were surely deserving of much more.”

O’Connell noted that Joseph Dioguardi, a former Republican Congress member from New York, and the Texas congressional delegation have urged President Donald Trump to posthumously bestow on Miller the Medal of Honor.

This campaign may soon have some West Coast support from Congress member Scott Peters, D-San Diego. “I’d better look into that and see if I can get in on it,” said Peters, who attended the Mount Soledad ceremonies.

Would he support this cause? “Yes,” he said, “I think so.”

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Doris ‘Dorie’ Miller, a Navy Mess Attendant, was honored during the Memorial Day ceremony May 27 at Mount Soledad National Veterans Memorial in La Jolla. He was the first African-American awarded the Navy Cross.
Doris ‘Dorie’ Miller, a Navy Mess Attendant, was honored during the Memorial Day ceremony May 27 at Mount Soledad National Veterans Memorial in La Jolla. He was the first African-American awarded the Navy Cross.
(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

For most in the audience, World War II was history. For Bill Galbraith and Max Gurney, it was memory.

Galbraith, 95, was an Army paratrooper who survived D-Day. Gurney, 98, was part of the 1943 Allied invasion of Sicily. Both men plan to be in France next month for the 75th anniversary of D-Day, spending time with old friends.

“The French people that we knew then were truly courageous,” Gurney said. “They helped us, and they like us.”

A version of Miller’s story is told in Michael Bay’s 2001 movie, “Pearl Harbor,” in which the Texan is portrayed by Cuba Gooding Jr. The true story may be best known in Texas, where a statue of Miller was erected in his home town, Waco, and his name adorns three schools.

Only one other school in the U.S. has that honor: Doris Miller Elementary in San Diego’s Tierrasanta neighborhood.

“I think his story is more well-known today than ever before,” said Leroy Ellis III, a great-nephew of Dorie Miller, who joined his cousin Thomas Bledsoe at the ceremonies. “It’s known more and more and more.”

More than a thousand people attend the Memorial Day ceremony May 27 at Mount Soledad National Veterans Memorial in La Jolla.
More than a thousand people attend the Memorial Day ceremony May 27 at Mount Soledad National Veterans Memorial in La Jolla.
(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)
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Certainly, the word was spread on Mount Soledad, where an estimated 1,200 turned out for the afternoon event.

The crowd was so large, the memorial’s hilltop parking lots were filled hours in advance. Shuttle buses ferried people up and down Mount Soledad, while scores of hardy souls trekked up the steep slope.

Among them was 81-year-old Mike Miller, a former educator and Marine lieutenant from Pacific Beach (he’s no relation to Dorie Miller). He was slower than some hiking up Mount Soledad, but no one was more determined to reach the summit.

“Not as lean, not as mean,” Miller said. “But still a Marine.”

Peter Rowe is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune.

Marine Corps Recruit Depot Color Guard presents the colors during a Memorial Day ceremony Feb. 27 at Mount Soledad National Veterans Memorial in La Jolla.
Marine Corps Recruit Depot Color Guard presents the colors during a Memorial Day ceremony Feb. 27 at Mount Soledad National Veterans Memorial in La Jolla.
(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)


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