From Two Tragedies Came a Hero (1941) and a ‘She-ro’ (1946)
The month is December, the years are 1941 and 1946. Sadly, two unforgettable tragedies occurred during both years. But from the ashes emerged two heroes of African descent; Pearl Harbor sailor Doris “Dorie” Miller 80 years ago; the other, Atlanta native Rozena Neal, an all-night elevator operator at the Winecoff Hotel 75 years ago in downtown Atlanta.
Ms. Neal, along with another “sistah,” night maid Alice Edmonds, were working their 10 pm to 6:30 am shifts at the Winecoff the night of December 6th-7th (Saturday night into Sunday morning).
According to written testimony Ms. Edmonds provided investigators looking into the hotel fire obtained by The Inquirer courtesy Allen Goodwin, co-author of the book “The Winecoff Fire – the Untold Story of America’s Deadliest Hotel Fire,” she checked in for work and went about her initial chores of “checking the linen closets and halls for trash and make sure the linen closets were locked from the 16th to the 3rd floors.” At or around 2 am, Ms. Edmonds stepped out to a Hamburger Heaven restaurant just down the street from the hotel to get two hamburgers and coffee (likely sold to her from a back door… remember, this was 1946). Edmonds told the probers that upon returning, she took her food to a linen closet on the hotel’s third floor and then relieved Neal at the elevator while she went to the linen closet to eat her lunch. When Neal returned, Edmonds said she returned to the third-floor linen to complete her meal (which had gotten cold) and then spent the rest of her break reading.
Forty-five minutes later, she noticed smoke coming into the closet, opened the door and panicked as she ran head-on into a gush of flames and smoke. “It stifled me,” Edmonds told investigators. By her account, she ran down the 3rd floor hallway, reportedly yelling “Fire!” It is believed her outburst, likely stemming from fright and the need to find an escape, likely awakened hotel guests, including two soldiers in room 314. “I knocked on the door and two soldiers took me in.” Badly burned, the threesome was rescued by firefighters.
Interestingly, Ms. Edmonds testimony talked about “the hall in front of the elevator (on the third floor) being “full of smoke and flames.” It was a strong suggestion that this is what elevator operator Neal saw that early Saturday morning of December 7th.
Neal supplied her own written testimony to investigators plus words to the Black-owned Atlanta Daily World via reporter Joel W. H. Smith in a December 10 interview. She had responded to the paper’s front age clarion call for Ms. Neal to contact them.
Ms. Neal, who had reported to work Friday night, December 6, told investigators and the newspaper she had carried two hotel guests to the 4th and 5th floors “between 3 am and 4 am.” “Seemed to me,” she testified, “about the 4th or 5th floor, I smelled smoke and when I reached the lobby which was the main floor, I told Mr. (CL) Rowan, the night manager who had also come on duty.” She said Rowan instructed her to go to the 5th floor and find the night bellman who he identified as a Bill Mobley. She didn’t find him.” So, I got back on the car I was operating and went down to the 4th floor (she had looked down the elevator shaft and saw another elevator on the 4th). “While calling (for Mobley apparently) on the 4th floor, I got strangled.” She returned to her elevator car to return to the lobby. Neal passed the third floor and saw through the glass door what could only be described as horror. “The hallway (likely the same one Edmonds described in her own testimony) was in flames. I got so excited, “she told the Daily World’s Smith, “that I kept my hand on the lever and went to the basement. I started yelling fire! I went up some steps which led back to the lobby but couldn’t get through.” After desperately trying to find a means of escape while still screaming” fire”, Rowan heard her cries and unlocked a gate the hotel used to keep guests out the basement. I don’t remember if there was anyone in the bobby or not, “she told investigators. “I screamed the hotel was on fire and went out the door and into the street (Ellis Street near the corner of Peachtree Street). “A woman and man drove up in a car near the corner. I told them the hotel was on fire and to call the fire department,” she further testified.” Neal turned to go south on Peachtree. “ The firemen drove up. I waved my left hand to tell them it was the Winecoff and suddenly lots of people came running. I was directing everybody it was the Winecoff.”
Ms. Neal’s “sheroism” made the front page of nearly every Black newspaper in the country and The Atlanta Journal, the evening newspaper at the time. Believed submitted by Goodwin’s father Allen Senior, a staff writer for the paper, it headlined” Girl Elevator Operator gives first warning.” The article quoted night manager Rowan with crediting the woman he initially identified as “Rosita” with notifying him “the hotel was on fire at 3:40 am.” He notified as many guests as possible by phone while Neal continued to deplete her lungs yelling “fire.” The inferno killed 119 and injured 65. But the efforts of Neal, Edmonds (to a degree) and Rowan saved the lives of 185 of the 304 guests who packed out the Winecoff that weekend.
Despite continued efforts by this writer, The Atlanta Inquirer, Atlanta Voice and radio stations WAOK-WVEE, Ms. Edmonds whereabouts couldn’t be determined. In 1964, homegoing services for Ms. Neal were held at Atlanta’s Wheat Street Baptist Church. According to her obituary, she was buried at the Black-owned South View cemetery with arrangements handled by Haugabrooks Funeral Home on Auburn Avenue across the street from the church.
Now, 75 years later, does Atlanta native Rozena Neal deserve the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her “she-roism”?
Was Dorie Miller racially cheated out of a Congressional Medal?
The Congressional Medal of Honor, the military’s highest, has a history dating back 160 years and commencing under the Presidential administration of the so-called great emancipator Abraham Lincoln. It was not actually laced around the neck of any soldier until 1863 (politics!). The most recent figures show that since that time, 3508 have since been adorned. Of that number, however, only 84 have belonged to African-Americans soldiers and sailors, less than 2.5%.
Black soldiers have received the Medal of Honor in all of this country’s major conflicts and world wars… but not World War II. In 1992, the Department of Defense commissioned a study conducted by HBCU Shaw University of Raleigh, North Carolina about the absence of Medal of Honor winners in WW2. Five years later, President Bill Clinton awarded medals to seven of the 10 Black soldiers nominated to have their distinguished service cross certificates updated. Dorie wasn’t one of those selected. Interestingly, an account of the Shaw University study, headed by author-professor Daniel Gilbrean, was compiled in a 272-page book “The Exclusion of Black soldiers from the Medal of Honor in World War II” (available on Amazon). Gilbrean is listed as an author along with four others. The study concluded. among other things, that there was “strong evidence of racism” over the omission of Black servicemembers as Medal of Honor winners. In 1942, former President Dwight Eisenhower, then a ranking Army general, ordered a “review of recommendations for the medal who didn’t get it.” Four did as a result. None were Black. Black journalists and Civil Rights activists of the day smelled racism and cried out. Nothing was done.
The book from the Shaw study appeared to pinpoint Black soldiers in the US Army. But what about other branches like the Navy? After all, the first servicemembers involved in war activity prior to an official declaration on December 8 was the Navy via the Japanese attack the day before. Eventually, a number of white sailors were awarded the Medal of Honor. Those figures didn’t include any Black recommendations. That alone was part of the reason Ron Tarburton got involved 30-odd years ago in researching former Medal of Honor recipients and over 20 years focusing on the omission of Miller for consideration of any sort. “I’ve got the info I need to verify Miller for Medal of Honor “he told The Inquirer in a recent phone interview from his Florida headquarters.
Tarburton noted the glaring omission by the Navy of Miller’s specific actions on board the USS West Virginia the morning of December 7. His findings are backed by the ship’s “after action” report from officers and men aboard ship. According to the document which can be found on-line at usswestvirginia.org, Miller is specifically mentioned in comments from several. Lieutenant Fred White, said this: “… aided by Miller, Doris, Mess Attendant second class, U.S. Navy, was instrumental in hauling people along through oil and water to the quarterdeck, thereby unquestionably saving the lives of a number of people who might otherwise have been lost…” Tarburton got deeper. “Miller was working a side job cleaning officers’ dress whites when he heard the on-deck bugle. He then headed toward his duty station but couldn’t get there. His route was blocked by back-to-back torpedoes hitting the ship. Enroute, he heard the sounds of guys trapped and drowning. He makes his way to where they are and pulls out between 15 to 20 men and drags them to safety.” Miller was also credited by White in assisting the West Virginia’s mortally wounded commander to safety and commandeering an anti-aircraft machine gun…” D. Miller, M.Att. 2C. (Mess Attendant – Second Class) and I manned #1 and #2 machine gun forward of the conning tower. The “machine gun” to which White referred was a 50-caliber Browning anti-aircraft machine gun that history claims Miller was never trained on. Some historians dispute that. “It wasn’t hard,” Miller reportedly told a Naval biographer. “I just pulled the trigger and she worked fine. I had watched the others with these guns. I guess I fired her for about fifteen minutes. I think I got one of those Jap planes. They were diving pretty close to us.” Miller’s Navy Cross citation mentions the firing but little else. His Navy cross was reportedly an upgrade to a lower award he was initially given for his action but not justified. Tarburton said that it “was unusual and contrary to military practices” and “to be honored without specific citations of the acts of heroism and bravery inscribed on the documentation for the award.”
There was none. Taburton and other researchers have contended for years that along smacks of racism. “Dorie got screwed over,” he told The Inquirer.
For his actions, whether spelled out or not by the Navy, Miller was honored numerous times by his hometown of Waco, Texas and even the Navy itself. According to former New York Congressmember Republican Joseph Dioguardi, who in 1987 was invited by the late Mickey Leland a Texas Democrat and former Congressmember to lend support in getting a Medal of Honor for Miller, the Pentagon blocked their heavily supported legislation because, in Dioguardi’s words, “Miller already been honored enough, and the most prestigious award would be overkill (sic).”
Clarence “Tiger” Davis, an ex-Air Force Vietnam veteran and former member of the Maryland legislature, is creating an ad-hoc committee to push for Miller’s Medal of Honor before the Joe Biden administration and current Secretary of defense Lloyd Austin. he has invited as potential members and supporters retiring Texas Congressmember Eddie Bernice Johnson, a native of Waco and friend of Miller. ‘I’m an organizer “ Tiger told The Inquirer by phone. “ We’re going to make this work. We’re going at this full throttle.”
Last updated on December 16, 2021