CA-38 HONOR ROLL
The Navy Cross
YEARS of the "Great War" were not easy ones for the men and
women in the naval service. The Herculean task of transporting
and escorting the hundreds of thousands of troops of the
American Expeditionary Force to Europe, the growing pains of
fielding new aviation and submarine elements and the savage
fighting of our sailors and Marines on battlefields across
France all lay at the feet of the naval service. Along with this
came an increase in the size of the naval service to its largest
at that time, and the task of working hand-in-hand with Allied
New to this experience was the European custom of one nation
decorating heroes of another nation. The United States, with the
Medal of Honor as its sole decoration, was caught unprepared not
only for this custom, but also had no appropriate award to
recognize heroism of a level less than that which would merit
the Medal of Honor and no decoration to reward the myriad acts
of meritorious non-combat service that the war would spur.
The U.S. Army shared this dilemma and with the aid of
President Woodrow Wilson and the Congress in early and mid-1918
instituted its Distinguished Service Cross and Distinguished
Service Medal (DSM) with clear guidelines for the award of the
Distinguished Service Cross for combat heroism and the DSM award
for distinguished non-combat duty in a position of great
responsibility. This pair was available in time for awarding
during World War I.
Parallel awards were created a year later for the Navy and
Marine Corps, months after the armistice and amid the massive
demobilization of our forces.
No prouder decorations exist today than the Navy Cross
and the Navy Distinguished Service Medal, but their creation and
early award were fraught with controversy, ambiguity and
As enacted 04 Feb. 1919, the Navy Cross was the naval
services third-highest award and could be awarded for both
combat heroism and for other distinguished service. Many, for
instance, were earned for extraordinary diving and salvage
feats. As originally third in precedence behind the Medal or
Honor and the Navy Distinguished Service Medal, more than one
Navy Cross recipient regarded its award as a "snub" in lieu of
the Distinguished Service Medal.
The same act established the Distinguished Service Medal.
Both decorations could be awarded retroactive to 06 April 1917.
It would be 23 years and a 07 Aug. 1942 action by Congress that
would place the Navy Cross just beneath the Medal of Honor, and
limit its award to combat-only recognition.
The Navy Cross was designed by James Earle Fraser, a
distinguished sculptor, member of the nation's Fine Arts
Commisson and designer of the obverse of the
Medal and an early version of the Navy Distinguished Service
Medal. The Navy Cross' arguable resemblance to Great Britain's
Navy Distinguished Service Cross is noteworthy, but not
elaborated upon in any records. Fraser experimented with the
image of a World War I-era destroyer on the medal, but finally
opted for the more timeless, flowing lines of a 15th-century
caraval or sailing ship.
Subtle variations have marked the evolution of the Navy Cross from 1919 to the present. One constant has been the actual medal, which has been struck from the same die and is of three-part construction: the cross itself and the front and back medallions, which are struck separately and subsequently soldered together. Current forgers almost always strike their fakes in one piece, allowing the studied eye one method of detecting frauds.
The earliest issues of the Navy Cross
(1919-1928) had a very narrow white stripe centered on the blue
ribbon and a planchet of dull, sometimes greenish bronze
(Fig. 1). Some were awarded with the planchet reversed, the
sailing ship being placed on the back and the crossed anchors
and "USN" on the front. A split broach with an open-pin catch
Later issues (1928-1941) had the customary 1/4-inch white
stripe and a somewhat darker, gunmetal bronze finish.
One legendary variation picked up the informal nickname
"Black Widow" (Fig. 2) and was in use about 1941-1942, in
which the medal itself and its wrap broach were over-anodized
and sported a very dark, even black finish. Ironically, many of
the "Black Widow" awards were posthumous.
Midway through World War II, contracts specified the
original dull bronze finish seen in the years since (Fig. 3).
Presently, the Navy Cross is awarded to a person who
distinguishes himself or herself by extraordinary heroism not
justifying the award of the Medal of Honor. To warrant this
distinctive decoration, the act or the execution of duty must be
performed in the presence of great danger or at great personal
The 1942 legislation synchronized the Army and Navy's
"Pyramid of Honor," eliminated the dual combat/noncombat award
of the Medal of Honor and Navy Cross and brought several
previously Army-only decorations into the naval service.
The original positioning of the Navy Distinguished Service
Medal and the heavy hand of civilian officials gave that medal
some awkward early years.
Introduced in the months following the World War I
Armistice, input was sought from the fleet on individuals whose
wartime performance of duty merited award of the new
Distinguished Service Medal.
These recommendations were reviewed by a board chaired by
Rear Adm. Austin M. Knight and its recommendations submitted for
approval to Secretary of the Navy Josepheus Daniels, an entirely
normal flow of events.
Entirely normal, except that Daniels in large part
disregarded the board's findings and was at times arbitrary in
designating who would be decorated. An extreme example pointed
out by senior military leadership was Daniels' insistance that
the commanding officer of each ship sunk by the enemy receive
the DSM, while many officers who commanded ships that sunk enemy
vessels were not considered for a medal.
The Knight board was reconvened by Daniels but its subsequent recommendations fared little better, a situation that prompted a congressional investigation, a degree of bitterness in the senior ranks and the formation of the largely independent Navy Department Board of Decorations and Medals.
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