IAGenWeb.org Iowa in the Great War

About the Navy Cross


Navy Cross

     The Navy Cross is the second highest decoration for valor in war and evolved from the Certificate of Merit of 1847. This certificate was intended to be conferred only on private soldiers; NCOs received commissions for outstanding service and heroism; officers received brevet promotions. Authority to award the Distinguished Service Cross is held by the Commanding General of a US Army Force serving in the rank of General and the Chief of Staff, Army and may not be further delegated. Successive awards are denoted by Oak Leaf Clusters.

    THE 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 counterparts.

     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.

      The Navy Cross was established by Act of Congress (Public Law 253, 65th Congress), approved on February 4, 1919. The Navy Cross has been in effect since April 6, 1917.

    The Navy Cross was designed by James Earl Fraser (1876-1953), a distinguished sculptor, member of the nation's Fine Arts Commission and designer of the obverse of the Victory 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.


      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 confusion.

      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 may be awarded to any person who, while serving with the Navy or Marine Corps, distinguishes himself in action by extraordinary heroism not justifying an award of the Medal of Honor. The action must take place under one of three circumstances: while engaged in action against an enemy of the United States; while engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing foreign force; or, while serving with friendly foreign forces engaged in an armed conflict in which the United States is not a belligerent party. To earn a Navy Cross the act 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 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. Additional awards of the Navy Cross are denoted by gold stars five-sixteenths of an inch in diameter.