Former Maryland state Del. Clarence “Tiger” Davis (left) and the Rev. Elwood Gray, retired pastor of Peace in the Valley Baptist Church, attend the 23rd annual Buffalo Soldier Banquet. (Courtesy photo)
Former Maryland state Del. Clarence “Tiger” Davis (left) and the Rev. Elwood Gray, retired pastor of Peace in the Valley Baptist Church, attend the 23rd annual Buffalo Soldier Banquet. (Courtesy photo)

On December 7, 1941, Doris Miller was serving as a cook third class aboard the battleship West Virginia when the Japanese launched an attack on Pearl Harbor.

Even though Japanese torpedo bombers would sink his ship, Miller manned an anti-aircraft machine gun for which he had no training and shot down four to six Japanese planes.

While Miller survived the attack, 23 months later, in November of 1943, Miller would be killed while serving aboard an escort carrier in Liscome Bay after it was sunk by a Japanese submarine during the Battle of Makin in the Gilbert Islands.

While Miller was awarded medals for his action and two ships have been named after him, the Rev. Elwood Gray, retired pastor of Peace in the Valley Baptist Church in Silver Spring, Maryland, said Miller was never awarded the nation’s highest honor for heroism, though he made the ultimate sacrifice, dying in the line of duty.

“Doris Miller took a machine and lost his life and they still refused to give him the Congressional Medal of Honor,” said Gray, an Army veteran who knows too well about how African Americans are often slighted from getting awards they justly deserve.

“My father, for being in combat, received a bronze star in WWII, but after doing research he should have received the Silver Star,” Gray said. “There was blatant racism during WWI. Remember Woodrow Wilson was president and he showed ‘Birth of Nation’ at the White House.”

For the past five years, Gray has worked with ROTC units at Howard University, Morgan State, Towson State and George Mason, as they research service records of members of the military in order to get their just rewards.

“These students are doing what we call presumptive research,” Gray said.

Last week, Gray was recognized for his work during the 23rd annual Buffalo Soldier Memorial Dinner, held at Morgan State University.

Former Maryland State Delegate Clarence “Tiger,” Davis, a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Vietnam Veterans of America, and regional coordinator for the National Association for Black Veterans, moderated the event.

The Buffalo Soldiers were African American servicemen who mainly served on the Western frontier following the American Civil War. In 1866, six all-Black cavalry and infantry regiments were created after Congress passed the Army Organization Act. Their main tasks were to help control the Native Americans of the Plains, capture cattle rustlers and thieves and protect settlers, stagecoaches, wagon trains and railroad crews along the Western front.

American Minority Veterans Research Project and the National Association of Black Veterans sponsored the event.

Little-Known Black Military History

In February 1945, the U.S. Army sent 855 Black women from the Women’s Army Corps (WACs) to England and France to clear the backlog of mail.

The 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, known as the Six Triple Eight, was the only all-Black woman battalion to serve in Europe during WWII.

“When they sent the sisters over to England they straightened the entire thing out,” Gray said.

By war’s end, the Six Triple Eight had cleared over 17 million pieces of backlogged mail ensuring the troops stayed in touch with their loved ones back home. The last of the women returned home in March 1946, but they too were never fully recognized until recently. In March 2022 the Department of Defense announced the Six Triple Eight would receive a Congressional Gold Freedom.

“We honored Army Col. Edna Cummings because she led the effort to get women of the Six Triple Eight the Congressional Gold Medal,” said Davis. “This is real Black history and not just hero worship.”

Gray said researchers have also found that before the Normandy invasion, “there were Black soldiers with boots on the ground,” who worked with the French Army because they were not acknowledged or valued in the U.S.

Helping Veterans Bounce Back

The faith leader and researcher said his group is working with the Veterans Administration to restore three row houses in the 2600 block of West Fairmount in West Baltimore that will serve poor veterans in need of housing.

“These are our soldiers,” Gray said. “As I drove through Baltimore and looked at how some people were living, my heart was broken. We have to go into the community and help the people to help themselves.”

Hamil R. Harris

Hamil Harris is an award-winning journalist who worked at the Washington Post from 1992 to 2016. During his tenure he wrote hundreds of stories about the people, government and faith communities in the...

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