I especially like it when something happens in the news that connects long-abandoned synapses in my brain, and old stories come rushing back to me. Such happened Friday, the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese in 1941.
My Uncle Thomas, as well as my dad and my Uncle Robert, all served in the Navy during WWII. Dad was actually too old for the Navy, and got into it by joining the Coast Guard, which was under the aegis of the Navy during the war. He spent his tour on ice breakers in the Aleutians and Greenland, with a brief stint, just as the war was ending, in Tripoli. (No ice to break there!) Uncle Robert served on submarines. Uncle Tom was assigned to a battleship, the USS West Virginia.
When I was a kid, my dad and uncles didn’t talk much about the war. The Bowlers were a taciturn bunch when it came to war stories. There was a story or two, but usually we heard the same ones over again. One story was about the time my dad’s ship torpedoed a whale. Apparently the radar they had to detect submarines wasn’t quite as sophisticated as it is in the movies, and when they saw a large object advancing on them, the order was given to fire. After the smoke cleared, the blubber began to float to the surface.
The story I was reminded of on Friday, however, concerns my Uncle Tom. Tom was on the USS West Virginia moored at Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The family story was not particularly graphic, or perhaps I was too young to comprehend either the significance of the attack, or the brutality of it.
What stuck in my mind was the story of Uncle Tom’s rescue, and how it changed the way my Irish Catholic blue-collar working class grandparents viewed one of the most divisive social issues of the day.
It may seem impossible to generations subsequent to WWII, but it was then quite common to view blacks in the U.S. as an underclass to be feared, pitied, and often hated. Remember, it wasn’t until 1965 that there was a Civil Rights Amendment, and some black Americans still struggle sociologically and economically. The U.S. unemployment rate is almost 8%, but for blacks it is over 13%.
Uncle Tom was on the West Virginia when it was hit by aerial torpedoes in the attack of December 7, 1941. I can’t remember exactly how it happened, but somehow Uncle Tom ended up in the water, unconscious. He was one of the lucky ones. Many sailors were caught in the lower compartments of the ship and died. But according to the family story, my uncle was rescued from the water—which was burning with spilled oil from the USS Arizona—by a black man who was a cook on the ship. This act of bravery had a lasting effect on my grandparents, especially, and gave the rest of the family a new appreciation for people of all colors.
Fast forward to December 2011. I was reading an online magazine, The Root, a black-interest site owned by the Washington Post. Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the editor-in-chief. There was a story about a black man, Doris “Dorie” Miller, who was a hero at Pearl Harbor on the USS West Virginia.
It was just after breakfast had been served when his ship was struck. Miller, Ship’s Cook, Third Class, headed for his battle station, but it had been destroyed. He then went to an area where he reported for duty. He first helped to move the captain, who was alive, but whose wounds were mortal. The captain remained on the deck, continuing to give orders, until he died. Then Miller manned an anti-aircraft machine gun, until the ammo was depleted.
From there, Miller helped to move sailors through the burning water to safety. It was largely through his bravery—and the quick thinking of Lt. Ricketts, whose maneuvers saved the ship from capsizing—that so many men were saved from the West Virginia. Miller was later reassigned to an escort carrier, the Liscome Bay, and was killed in 1943 when that ship was struck by a torpedo and sunk. Miller was awarded the Purple Heart Medal, the American Defense Service Medal—Fleet Clasp; the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, and the World War II Victory Medal. He was the first African-American to be awarded the Navy Cross.
When I read the story in The Root, the old family story came back to me. “This is the hero!” I thought, the guy who saved my Uncle Tom. The story I remembered from those many years ago was true, and here were the details. There were many heroes at Pearl Harbor, but this was our personal hero, the man who saved Uncle Thomas.