From the American Revolution and beyond, Black service members have had an irreplaceable role in the trajectory and success of the United States military. Their contributions have helped shape the outcome of individual battles and missions, as well as paved the way for changes regarding equality in the armed forces. Here are three service members who each played unique and incredibly important roles during their time in the service.
Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James Jr.
Pilot and instructor of the famous Tuskegee Airmen, history’s first Black military pilots, Gen. James has an untouchable legacy of accomplishments. From the time he was young, Chappie, a nickname gifted by his brother, had always wanted to be a pilot. At 19, he would become a Tuskegee graduate and respected instructor. In July of 1943, as a Second Lieutenant, he became a pilot and member of the Tuskegee Airmen.
His time as a fighter pilot only bolstered his reputation. During the Korean War, he flew over 100 combat missions. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1950, for his leadership over a flight of F-51 Mustangs (a 1947 re-designation of the legendary P-51) during a close air support mission for U.N. troops, which saved U.S. soldiers from a serious and fatal threat.
Following the Korean War, James quickly began rising in the ranks, and by 1967, as a colonel, he became Vice Wing Commander of the Eighth Tactical Fighter Wing in Thailand, and flew 78 combat missions over North Vietnam. The most notable of which being Operation Bolo, which is considered to be one of the most successful tactical missions against Vietnamese fighter forces during that time.
In addition to all of James’s war efforts, he made an important impact on issues of racial equality, both within and outside of the military. One of his first assignments with the Tuskegee Airmen involved training in B-25 Mitchells at the Freeman Field in Indiana. Here, a group of Black service members were arrested and charged with mutiny and disobeying orders when they entered a “white only” officers’ club. When asked to sign an order supporting the need for racial segregation, James, along with 100 other Black officers, refused to do so. James, who was a Lieutenant at the time, was instrumental in aiding communication between those who were arrested and those in the public, in order to bring attention to what was happening. This incident led to Henry Stimson, the Secretary of War at the time, to ban access to facilities based on race, including officers’ clubs.
In 1975, James became the first Black four-star general in the armed forces. He was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1993. Prior to his death in 1978, he was asked to reflect on his life and service in the United States military, to which he responded, “I’ve fought in three wars and three more wouldn’t be too many to defend my country. I love America and as she has weaknesses or ills, I’ll hold her hand.”
Brig. Gen. Hazel Johnson-Brown
Following President Truman’s ban on segregation and discrimination in the military in 1955, Johnson-Brown joined the U.S. Army, having previously graduated from the Harlem Hospital School of Nursing. She served in the Army from 1955 to 1983, becoming the first Black female Brigadier General in 1979.
Her unparalleled skills as a nurse as well as her leadership capabilities contributed greatly to her successes throughout her career. Her ability to lead was evident when, over time, she was named both Director of the Walter Reed Army Institute School of Nursing as well as Chief Army Nurse in South Korea. She was also named the first Black Chief of the United States Army Nursing Corps, which granted her the distinguished responsibility of not only overseeing 7,000 Army nurses, but also the entirety of eight Army medical centers, 56 community hospitals, and 143 freestanding clinics both in the United States and around the world.
During her time in the Army, she received numerous awards and recognition for her work and contributions. Among them were the Army Commendation Medal, Distinguished Service Medal, Meritorious Service Award, Legion of Merit as well as being named Army Nurse of the Year twice. Her time in the service was spent at a variety of medical facilities, some of the most notable being Valley Forge General Hospital and the 8169 Hospital, Camp Zama, Japan.
Johnson-Brown’s ability to lead and inspire continued in her life as a civilian following retirement. She was a professor of nursing at Georgetown University, as well as George Mason University in Virginia, where she played a large role in developing and implementing the Center for Health Policy, which aimed not only to educate nurses in health policy and policy design, but to also actively involve them in the process.
She was also an advocate for racial equality, and was said by many to have challenged the inequalities she witnessed. In reference to a recent promotion, Johnson-Brown was asked about the potential impact of her race on her advancement, to which she responded “Race is an incidence of birth. I hope the criterion for selection didn’t include race but competence.”
Doris “Dorie” Miller
A perfect example of an unsung hero, Dorie Miller’s bravery and actions during the attack on Pearl Harbor saved countless lives and helped change history. As a means to provide more financial stability for his family, Miller enlisted in the Navy in 1939. He received training in Virginia and was promoted to Mess Attendant Third Class which, due to existing segregation in the Navy, was one of the few ranks afforded to Black service members at the time.
In 1940, Miller was transferred from the USS Pyro, to the USS West Virginia, which was where he was on December 7th, 1941. What was a normal work day for him, which began with gathering laundry, quickly shifted to what would become his defining moment. Upon hearing an alarm sound, Miller then went to his assigned battle station, which had already been destroyed by a torpedo, so he returned to seek reassignment.
Since Miller had the well known reputation of being the ships heavy-weight boxing champion, he was tasked with helping wounded soldiers to safety, which included the ship’s commanding officer, Capt. Mervyn Sharp Bennion, who had been severely injured.
Following that, Miller was ordered to begin feeding ammunition into an unmanned .50-caliber Browning machine gun, despite having never been trained to use them due to his rank. He manned not one but two of these weapons until he ran out of ammunition and the USS West Virginia began to sink. He was one of the last three men to abandon ship.
In recognition of his actions and heroism, Miller was awarded the Navy Cross, by Commander of the Pacific Fleet, Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. At the time, this was the third-highest combat related Naval award, and Miller was the first Black sailor to be awarded the medal. He was also the recipient of a Purple Heart, World War II Victory Medal, Asiatic-Pacifc Campaign Medal and the American Defense Service Medal.
While it has never been definitively proven just how tactically effective Miller’s manning of weapons was, his dedication to protection and service in the face of adversity is what makes him such an integral part of history. Miller continued his service until November 24th, 1943, when he and two-thirds of the crew of the USS Liscome Bay died or went missing following a Japanese torpedo strike. The USS Miller, a U.S. Navy Knox class destroyer, was launched in 1972, with its name honoring Dorie Miller. It was the first Navy carrier to be named after a Black service member.