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This summer, the superflick Pearl Harbor will remember black war hero Dorie Miller, a man, who until now has evoked mostly amnesia. The film will be the biggest acknowledgment his heroism since he won the Navy Cross on May 27, 1942 for his actions during the Japanese bombing of the Hawaiian-based Naval fleet.
Cuba Gooding, Jr. who portrays him, said in a recent Entertainment Tonight interview: "Doris 'Dorie' Miller was just a cook with no formal training on any guns during the attack, he jumped on the double barrel, 50-caliber anti-aircraft machine guns and took down two of the attacking planes."
Accounts of Miller's heroism vary. Gooding refers to the sailor's destroying "two . . . planes" (which may reflect only the number in the film). Other accounts indicate four or several. Some references place Miller on the USS Arizona contradicting those that say he knocked out Japanese planes from a position on the USS West Virginia.
It was almost surely the USS West Virginia. Arizona, bombed and torpedoed to death, went down quickly, taking almost all crewmembers with her.
What's consistent in every version of the story is this: Miller was a young man who was expected to do nothing more complex than fry bacon. Navy policy tended to confine African Americans to menial labor. Since he hadn't been treated nor trained like a soldier, he surprised everyone by acting like one.
Sixty years later, his name has landed in a movie that may be as major a pop cultural phenomenon as Titanic. "It's going to be really very big," Disney spokeswoman Grace Sharnberger said earlier this year when asked about Pearl Harbor. "The people at the studio are quite excited about this movie."
"Pearl Harbor is epic in scope," said Gooding. "I don't think people have ever seen not just what we tried to do, but accomplished on film. The emotions that run so strong in this movie are just amazing. They only showed me a little better than an hour of it and I was just blown away."
Because 2001 is the 60th anniversary of the attack, it is a banner occasion. Not only is it another ten-year marker, but most World War II vets -- who are dying at a rate of 1100 a day -- won't be around to see another decade-point commemoration.
Roosevelt's famous statement calling December 7th, 1941 "a day that will live in infamy" could be amended to "a day that will live in the movies." Virtually history-free young people, not even able to recite the dates of American involvement in World War II, will get a lesson in past events at a matinee. That may be the chief factor in keeping the memory of Pearl Harbor alive long after the veterans are dead.
Dorie Miller, who dragged his dying captain away from the shelling before manning a machine gun, achieved what one history book calls "the only American victory that day." However, he didn't survive the war. In November of 1943, he died during an attack on the USS Liscome Bay.
Had he lived, he would have been 82. Seeing himself portrayed in a blockbuster movie, the man the Navy tried to confine to the kitchen might have been, like his film alter ego, Cuba Gooding, Jr., "blown away."