Jan. 21 (UPI) -- Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly named a future Ford-class aircraft carrier the USS Doris Miller during a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day ceremony honoring African-Americans of the Greatest Generation.
The Monday ceremony took place at Hawaii's Pearl Harbor, where on the morning of the 1941 attack that propelled the United States to enter World War II, a third-class mess attendant named Doris Miller manned a machine gun to fire at attacking Japanese planes before helping his ship's commander and others safely evacuate.
Miller, who served at a time when African-Americans could not man guns, later became the first black recipient of the Navy Cross.
"When Uncle Doris decided that he was going to step up to the machine gun and shoot, it was a 'why not me?' moment," said Henrietta Blednose Miller, one of Miller's nieces, who attended the ceremony. "As we go through life, we're all going to be confronted with 'why not me?' moments whether they are small or big, but with each one, you will be affecting someone if you take an action at that moment. At the time [Uncle Doris] did what he did, he did not realize how proud he was going to make this family."
A Navy destroyer that was retired in 1995 was also named for Miller, but the future USS Doris Miller is the first aircraft carrier ever named for an African-American and the first to be named for a sailor for actions while serving in enlisted ranks.
"All of my life I've heard about how great Doris Miller was," said U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, R-Texas, who represents the district in Texas where Miller was born. "[He] was my childhood hero. It was the spirit of Dorie Miller that made me appreciate being an American more than anything else because, in the days of real segregation, a black man from my home town had stepped up to help save America. Dorie miller started the civil rights movement and perhaps even gave Martin Luther King, Jr. the spirit to lead us into the era of which he did."
Modly also remarked on Miller's legacy as someone who broke barriers within the military, and on the contradiction U.S. troops faced as they fought for justice overseas but faced segregation and discrimination in their own ranks.
"Seventy-five years ago our nation bound together to secure victory against an existential threat, but also to secure opportunities for broader liberty and justice for the entire world. But we were not perfect in our own pursuits of these values here at home," Modly said. "That contradiction is an undeniable part of our history, one that cannot be glossed over or forgotten."
The USS Miller is the fourth in the USS Gerald R. Ford class of carriers, the third of which, the USS John F. Kennedy, was christened in November and launched briefly in December but is still undergoing construction and testing.