Why they were true heroes

The Navy Cross is the military’s second-highest decoration. It is awarded to individuals who demonstrated great courage in the face of danger, especially during war battles. The Cross is awarded primarily to members of the United States Navy, Marine Corps, and the Coast Guard. The Navy Cross is equivalent to the Army Distinguished Service Cross, the Air Force Cross, and the Coast Guard Cross.

Recipients earn the award for participating in combat action against a U.S. enemy, engaging in military operations with an opposing foreign force, or for serving with an allied force engaged in conflict in which the U.S. is not a belligerent party.

There have been many heroes who have received the high honor since its approval in 1919. This includes these three distinguished Navy Cross recipients, who were particularly worthy of their recognition.

Doris “Dorie” Miller, the first African-American recipient

Doris “Dorie” Miller was inarguably worthy of receiving the Navy Cross for his heroic efforts during World War II. Serving as an American Messman Third Class in the U.S. Navy, Miller is best remembered for what he did during Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. During the attack, he manned several anti-aircraft guns and attended the wounded.

Miller’s fearless actions merited him the Navy Cross. He was presented with the high honor by Adm. Chester Nimitz, commander of the Pacific Fleet. Miller became the first African-American to ever receive the Navy Cross. News of his honor and brave acts were publicized throughout the African-American community. To this day, his story has inspired generations of men and women to follow in his footsteps.


According to the citation on his Navy Cross, “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.”

Miller was killed nearly two years after Pearl Harbor when his ship, the USS Liscome Bay, was torpedoed and sunk during the Battle of Makin. He was just 19 years old.

Lenah Higbee, the first female recipient

Strong, brave military nurses tended to wounded soldiers in horrific circumstances throughout World Wars I and II. Lenah Higbee, one of the first 20 female members of the U.S. Navy, was one of those brave nurses.

During World War I, she served as a Superintendent of the Navy Nurse Corps and she helped treat injuries that were so severe “that (the nurses) never imagined it possible for a human being to be so fearfully hurt and yet be alive.” Because of the gentle, heroic way she treated wounded Navy men, she was the first woman to receive the Navy Cross.

Higbee was awarded the high honor for her “distinguished service in the line of her profession and unusual and conspicuous devotion to duty.”

Higbee served as a pioneer in the field of military nursing. To this day, women desire to follow in her footsteps.

Christopher Adlesperger, a modern hero

During the battle for Fallujah in 2004 (during the Iraq War), Marine Lance Cpl. Christopher Adlesperger was responsible for destroying the final point in the battle. While exposed to machine-gun fire and grenades, Adlesperger attacked the enemy with rifle fire. He suffered a fragmentation wound, but he kept fighting to save his fellow Marines. He immediately became a hero.

Adlesperger was killed in action one month later during a house-clearing mission. He was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross in 2007.

“Disregarding his own wounds and physical exhaustion, Private First Class Adlesperger rejoined his platoon and demanded to take point for a final assault on the same machine gun position,” his citation reads. “Through his actions, Adlesperger destroyed the last strongpoint in the Jolan District of A1 Fallujah and saved the lives of his fellow Marines.”

Adlesperger was a hero, and he certainly influenced other Marines. He helped save numerous lives without worrying about his own safety. That’s the testament of a true hero.

A deeper dive – Related reading from the 101:

From Medal of Honor to Silver Star recipients, learn about some of the military’s most decorated servicemen.

Some recipients of the Medal of Honor aren’t very well-known in American history. Learn about their heroic acts.