Living in Newport News’ Southeast Community, Darnell Prigmore sort of knew that the familiar Doris Miller Community Center on Wickham Avenue was named for a Navy hero, but he didn’t learn Miller’s whole story until he got curious about the name of a Ford-class carrier that he and his team at Newport News Shipbuilding are working on.
Michael Lawrence, a shipfitter who has worked on every one of the shipyard’s carriers since 1990, got curious too. So did a younger colleague, welder Jessica Rosser, whose mom is a regular at the community center.
They started digging into the story this Black History Month because the carrier Doris Miller will be the first named for a Black American, and the first named for an enlisted sailor.
Miller’s is the story of a Texas farm kid who joined the Navy in 1939, serving as a mess attendant and cook, some of the few jobs open to Black sailors at the time. It is the story of the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, and the klaxons sounding battle stations as Japanese dive bombers, torpedo planes and fighters descended from all directions on the U.S. fleet in Pearl Harbor.
It is the story of a sailor who “despite enemy strafing and bombing and in the face of a serious fire,” carried his mortally wounded captain to safety and then fired a machine gun he’d never been trained to use to defend his ship.
“I just pulled the trigger and she worked fine. I had watched the others with these guns. I guess I fired her for about 15 minutes. I think I got one of those Jap planes. They were diving pretty close to us,” Miller said later.
It is, finally, the story of a sailor awarded the Navy Cross, the Navy and Marine Corps’ second highest honor for gallantry — and who returned to war, serving on the escort carrier USS Liscome Bay when it fought in an operation that took back Makin and Tarawa atolls in the Gilbert Islands. On the day after that victory, he was one of 646 sailors who lost their lives when a Japanese submarine attacked and sank Liscome Bay.
“What struck me? His tenacity — and his dedication,” said Prigmore, a team leader who works to incorporate automated welding processes into construction applications that will be used on the carrier Doris Miller.
“He went back to serve, and it cost his life,” Prigmore said. “I’m an Air Force brat … I’ve got brothers in the Army. We’re a military family. I know what it means that he went back.” Growing up in and around Air Force bases, he said he was shielded somewhat from racism, but family stories about the realities of life in West Virginia in the 1950s and before gave him a hint about what sailors like Miller had faced.
For Lawrence, thinking about Miller’s story is a reminder of heroism.
“He did his duty, he did it for the team,” Lawrence said. “At the shipyard we talk about hard stuff done right … that’s what he did.”
When Rosser learned about the Navy’s decision to name the carrier after Miller, instead of a president or prominent political figure or famous battle, as it had for almost all its carriers since World War II, she started looking into his story — then sat down with her mom to share it.
“It’s not something we really learned about in school,” she said “But you don’t have to have a big title or a big job to save lives or to serve our country … that’s what he did.”
“Some people say this should have been done a long time ago, but I think the timing is just right,” she said. “The way some people now think about the Black man, I think this ship will show them they’re all wrong.” (Miller’s unusual first name is the result of a midwife’s unshakable conviction that his mother would deliver a daughter instead of a son who would be fullback on his high school team and heavyweight boxing champion on his battleship.)
And for Rosser, as a young Black woman in a trade — welding — that’s long been the province of men, and mostly white men, there’s inspiration thinking about Miller’s heroism, actions that were above and beyond what a segregated Navy thought he and his fellow Black sailors could do.
“He makes me think I can do anything; become a superintendent maybe, maybe someday, even more,” she said.
At 27, with just seven years at the yard and two carriers — USS Gerald R. Ford and the John F. Kennedy — under her belt, she’s already a foreman. It matters that this carrier is named for someone who looks like her.
“This is more personal for me than any ship I’ve ever worked on before,” she said.