6 Things You Should Know About the Navy Cross

By Danielle DeSimone

There are many military medals of America awarded to members of the U.S. Armed Forces, but for the sailors, aviators and Marines of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, one of the most prestigious medals they can receive is the Navy Cross.

Steeped in history, the Navy Cross acknowledges the incredible valor of these military members in their service to this nation. Here are a few things that you should know about the history and modern-day facts about the Navy Cross.

1. The Navy Cross is awarded in recognition of extraordinary heroism.

The Navy Cross medal depicts the relief of a sailing ship on waves, framed by laurel leaves with berries in all four corners; the reverse side crossed anchors and the letters “USN” for U.S. Navy. It hangs on a blue ribbon with a white stripe down the middle. | Photo credit Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Although originally created for those who exhibited “extraordinary heroism or distinguished service,” the open-ended concept of “distinguished service” has since been removed from the criteria to redefine the award’s focus on valor. Today, the Navy Cross is presented to those who distinguish themselves through extraordinary heroism while engaged in action against an enemy of the United States.

Their actions must take place in a situation of great danger, or at great personal risk to themselves. Their actions must also go beyond the usual expectations of bravery in battle.

2. The Navy Cross is second only to the Medal of Honor.

The Navy Cross is the second-highest military decoration that members of the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps can receive, second only to the Medal of Honor. It is the equivalent of the Army’s Distinguished Service Cross, the Air Force and Space Force’s Air Force Cross and the Coast Guard’s Coast Guard Cross.

3. It was created to honor those who served in World War I.

When the Navy Cross was created just after the end of World War I, the Medal of Honor was the only medal awarded for valor at the time. Through an act of Congress, the Navy established both the Navy Cross and the Navy Distinguished Service Medal on February 4, 1919, to properly acknowledge the actions of those who served in WWI.

4. The Navy Cross has broken barriers.

Chief Nurse Lenah Higbee is pictured here in uniform during World War I. She was the second Superintendent of the Navy Nurse Corps, serving from Jan. 20, 1911, to Nov. 30, 1922. | Photo credit World War I Centennial

Several service members have received the award before they could vote or were recognized as equal members of American society. U.S. Navy Nurse Corps Chief Nurse Lenah Higbee – one of the first twenty women to join the Navy Nurse Corps in 1908 – was the first woman to be presented with the Navy Cross after her distinguished service throughout World War I and the Spanish Flu Epidemic. She was committed to caring for members of the U.S. Navy no matter the risk or immense effort that it required.

Doris Miller at the presentation ceremony of his Navy Cross medal on May 27, 1942, a few months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. | Photo credit National Archives and Record Administration

Decades later, on December 7, 1941, Doris Miller – a mess attendant on the USS West Virginia – was collecting laundry when Japanese planes began bombing Pearl Harbor and an alarm went off on the ship. Miller headed to his assigned post, only to find it destroyed by a torpedo; so instead, he headed to the ship’s deck. Here, as the ship came under fire, he carried several wounded sailors out of danger, including the captain of the ship, at great personal risk to himself.

A 1943 original sketch by Charles Alston depicting Doris Miller’s brave actions on the USS West Virginia during the attack on Pearl Harbor. | Photo credit National Archives and Record Administration

As a Black sailor, Miller was relegated to the messman branch and had not been trained extensively in weaponry; but he took control of a .50-caliber anti-aircraft machine gun on the deck anyway and fired it at Japanese aircraft until he ran out of ammunition. He hit several Japanese planes and downed at least two aircraft. For his immense bravery, Miller was presented with the Navy Cross in 1942 and was the first Black sailor to ever receive the medal.

5. It has been awarded to service members outside of the Navy and Marine Corps.

Until 2010, when the U.S. Coast Guard established its own Coast Guard Cross medal, members of the Coast Guard that were eligible received the Navy Cross. Several U.S. Army soldiers have also received the Navy Cross, as well as multiple service members from other countries, including Italy, New Zealand and South Vietnam, among others.

6. The Navy Cross acknowledges immense bravery – and in some ways, immense sacrifice.

The circumstances of the Navy Cross are specific. Service members who receive it must have been in direct combat with the enemy and must exhibit extraordinary heroism at great personal risk to themselves. Because of these circumstances, many of the stories of how service members receive their Navy Crosses are as somber as they are heroic.

Photo credit DVIDS/Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Clarence A. Leake

A Marine stands with Rosa Peralta, the mother of the late Sgt. Rafael Peralta, during a Navy Cross Presentation Ceremony held in Peralta’s honor aboard Camp Pendleton, Calif., on June 8, 2015. Peralta was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions in support of Operation Al Fajr in Fallujah, Al Anbar province, Iraq, on Nov. 15, 2004, where he covered an enemy grenade with his body protect his fellow Marines.

As of 2013, almost 25% of present-day Navy Cross recipients died in combat. For those who return home to receive their medal, the Navy Cross can represent heroism as well as some of the most difficult days of their lives. Many who are awarded the medal request privacy and do not have the announcement made public. Some do not accept the medal at all. Although the Navy Cross recognizes the immense bravery of the sailors and Marines who have earned it, it can also represent those who are willing to give their all to defend this nation – and willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for it.

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