The Navy Cross: Five Facts About This Prestigious Medal

Navy Cross Medal

The Navy Cross was established by an act of Congress on February 4, 1919 and is presented to “any person who, while in the naval service of the United States, since the sixth day of April, nineteen hundred and seventeen, has distinguished, or who shall hereafter distinguish, himself by extraordinary heroism or distinguished service in the line of his profession, such heroism or service not being sufficient to justify the award of a medal of honor or a distinguished service medal.”

On August 7, 1942, Congress limited the Navy Cross to combat-only recognition and elevated its status to just below the Medal of Honor.  It is the second highest award for valor presented to members of the Navy.

Here are five facts you should know about the Navy’s second highest award for valor, the Navy Cross.

1. The Navy Cross was called the Distinguished Service Cross
James Earle Fraser is credited as the primary designer of the Distinguished Service Cross, as the Navy Cross was originally called. Fraser was also the designer of the World War I Victory Medal.

Variations have marked the evolution of the Navy Cross from 1919 to the present. The original medal was a three-part construction: the cross itself and the front and back medallions, which were struck separately and subsequently soldered together. Since World War II, however, the Navy Cross has been struck in one piece.

Today, the Navy Cross shows a sailing ship on waves surrounded by laurel leaves and berries on four corners. The flip side of the Navy Cross has crossed anchors and the letters “USN.” It hangs on a blue ribbon with a white stripe down the middle.

2. The Navy Cross was created to recognize sailors in World War I
As previously mentioned, the Navy Cross was created just a few months after the end of World War I. Up to that time, the Medal of Honor was the only medal awarded for valor.

In February 1919, the Navy, through Congress, established both the Navy Cross and the Navy Distinguished Service Medal to properly recognize the actions of those who served in World War I.

USN sailor Doris Miller a black American in uniform with navy cross pinned

3. The Navy Cross was earned by a mess attendant
On December 7, 1941, Doris Miller, an African American mess attendant serving aboard the USS West Virginia, earned the Navy Cross for valor during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He was the first black sailor to earn the award.

On the morning of the Pearl Harbor attacks, Miller was tending to his duties below deck when the ship’s alarm sounded. Miller went to his battle station, only to discover the area destroyed. In response, he ran to the ship’s deck and as the ship continued to come under fire, Miller carried several sailors to safety, including the ship’s captain.

Witnessing the attack, Miller decided to man a .50-caliber anti-aircraft machine gun on the deck of the West Virginia. He manned the gun until it ran out of ammunition, downing at least two Japanese planes and hitting several more.

It should be noted that Miller was never trained on the weapon and because he was black, he was limited to kitchen and waiter-type duties by the Navy. Miller was killed in the Battle of Makin two years later while aboard the Liscome Bay.

His Navy Cross citation reads: “For distinguished devotion to duty, extraordinary courage and disregard for his own personal safety during the attack on the Fleet in Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii, by Japanese forces on December 7, 1941. While at the side of his Captain on the bridge, Miller, despite enemy strafing and bombing and in the face of a serious fire, assisted in moving his Captain, who had been mortally wounded, to a place of greater safety, and later manned and operated a machine gun directed at enemy Japanese attacking aircraft until ordered to leave the bridge.”

4. The Navy Cross is hard earned
The Navy Cross may be awarded to any member of the U.S. Armed Forces while serving with the Navy, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard (when a part of the Department of the Navy) who distinguishes themselves in action by extraordinary heroism not justifying an award of the Medal of Honor. The action must take place under one of three circumstances:

  • In combat action while engaged against an enemy of the United States; or,
  • In combat action while engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing foreign force; or,
  • In combat action while serving with friendly foreign forces, who are engaged in armed conflict in which the United States is not a belligerent party.

The act(s) to be commended must be performed in the presence of great danger, or at great personal risk, and must be performed in such a manner as to render the individual's action(s) highly conspicuous among others of equal grade, rate, experience, or position of responsibility. An accumulation of minor acts of heroism does not justify an award of the Navy Cross.

Four US Army special forces operators kneeing in combat gear

5. The Navy Cross has been awarded 41 times since 9/11
Publicly, the U.S. Department of Defense recognizes that the Navy Cross has been earned by 41 individuals for actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the number is likely higher given the covert nature of special operations.

Some of those special operations eventually became well known when they were shared in books written by Marcus Luttrell, a former Navy SEAL who fought in Afghanistan. Luttrell is also a Navy Cross recipient and his book was made into a movie, Lone Survivor, starring Mark Wahlberg.

Aubrey McDade, pictured second from left in the above picture, rescued three wounded Marines during a firefight in Iraq in 2004. Two Marines survived and McDade was presented the Navy Cross while he was a drill instructor in 2007.

The Navy Cross has been around for more than 100 years. It has been presented to thousands of recipients and sadly, many of them, did not survive and received the award posthumously. But the award stands as proof that all recipients earned the Navy Cross by highly conspicuous heroism while engaged against an enemy.

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