Naming the Future Doris Miller (CVN-81)
Note: I submitted this letter to Proceedings, the monthly magazine of the United States Naval Institute, for inclusion into their “Comment and Discussion” section.
In the May issue of Proceedings, a retired Lieutenant Commander characterized Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly’s January decision to name CVN 80 in honor of Cook 3rd Class Doris Miller:
“Naming an aircraft carrier for Doris Miller is another politically motivated travesty in the naming of ships. There is no doubt he was a genuine hero and deserved to have the frigate USS Miller (FF-1091) named for him, an escort ship type whose names almost all honored naval heroes. But naming a carrier for him only adds to the general confusion we see in naming carriers in the past few decades. We seem to have no guiding theme except politics.”
Miller distinguished himself heroically during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor while assigned to USS West Virginia. For his bravery under fire in taking over a machine gun mount and shooting at Japanese planes, Miller was awarded the Navy Cross, personally, by Admiral Nimitz.
This is the response I submitted but it was not included in the June issue’s “Comment and Discussion” so I’ll post it here.
(See L. Moyer, p. 88, April 2020 and
R. Alley, p. 8, March 2020)
I disagree with retired LCDR Phillips’ characterization of then-Acting Secretary of the Navy Modly’s decision to name CVN 80 in honor of Petty Officer Doris Miller as a “politically motivated travesty.” While Commander Phillips does accurately point to the ever-changing ship-naming conventions, he misses a few key points.
When Congress authorized the funding of a Navy in 1794, the authority for naming ships was given to President Washington, who personally selected the names of the first six frigates from a list of 15 names he was presented with. By act of Congress in 1819, ““all of the ships of the navy of the United States, now building, or hereafter to be built, shall be named by the Secretary of the Navy, under the direction of the President of the United States.” 1In the decades since, ship-naming conventions have varied. In the 20th Century, the naming conventions tended to remain consistent within ship types. For example:-Battlehships were named for states.-Cruisers were named for cities or U.S. Territories.-Essex-class carriers were named for battles or historic ships.-Submarines were named for creatures of the deep.-Destroyers and destroyer escorts were named for naval heroes.Per the 2018 GAO report to Congress regarding ship naming:
-The first Ohio replacement ballistic missile submarine (SBNX) has been named Columbia in honor of the District of Columbia, but the Navy has not stated what the naming rule for these ships will be. Previous SSBN naming conventions included famous Americans and states.
-Virginia-class attack submarines are being named for states.
-Aircraft carriers are generally named for past U.S. Presidents. Of the past 14, 10 were named for past U.S. Presidents, and 2 for Members of Congress (both were staunch segregationists)
-Destroyers are being named for deceased members of the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, including Secretaries of the Navy.
-Littoral Combat Ships (LCSs) are being named for regionally important U.S. cities and communities.
-Amphibious assault ships are being named for important battles in which U.S. Marines played a prominent part, and for famous earlier U.S. Navy ships that were not named for battles.
-San Antonio-class amphibious ships are being named for major U.S. cities and communities, and cities and communities attacked on September 11, 2001..
-John Lewis-class oilers, previously known as are being named for people who fought for civil rights and human rights.
-Lewis and Clark-class cargo and ammunition ships were named for famous American explorers, trailblazers, and pioneers.2
It seems to me that the ship-naming conventions are largely intact. However, there have been numerous ships named as political favors. Convention was broken when SSBN 730 was named for longtime Senator Henry M. Jackson (D-WA) vice a state like the other SSBNs. Convention was also broken when CVN 70 was named for Representative Carl Vinson (D-GA) and CVN 74 named for Senator John C. Stennis (D-MS). Same thing happened with naming LPD 26 for Representative John P. Murtha (D-PA), though complaints about the matter seemed to be within Congress along party lines.
So why the uproar now over naming a CVN for Doris Miller? He distinguished himself in action on 7 December 1941 and was awarded the Navy Cross. For these actions to happen to be recognized in a segregationist Navy serving a segregationist country was almost unheard of. Yet, Petty Officer Miller rose to the occasion, continued serving in ships, and ultimately gave his life in action serving a nation that still saw him as inferior (certainly the case in his home state of Texas, where Jim Crow laws were in effect).
Given that Congressman Vinson and Senator Stennis were staunch segregationists who opposed racial integration of institutions, including the Navy, perhaps it is far past due to name a national asset such as a carrier for a Sailor who disregarded the harsh reality in which he lived to voluntarily expose himself to enemy fire to defend his ship and shipmates. This naming of a carrier will serve to remind Americans of how bad things used to be and how we should be proud of the diversity today’s Navy enjoys. The media rarely mentions ships named for other figures in the Civil Rights Movement. Military Sealift Command ships such as USNS Carl Brashear, USNS Medgar Evers, and USNS Cesar Chavez don’t get press coverage; aircraft carriers do. When this ship is commissioned in several years, Petty Officer Doris Miller will again be mentioned widely in the press. This is more than just naming a ship for Doris Miller.
-CDR Harrison Bergeron, USN
1Report to Congress on U.S. Navy Ship Naming Conventions. USNI News, 14 Aug. 2018, https://news.usni.org/2018/08/14/report-congress-u-s-navy-ship-naming-conventions. Accessed 12 May 2020.