During World War II, Job Maseko, a South African war hero, sunk an enemy ship with an improvised bomb hidden in a milk container. Maseko, a member of the South African Native Military Corps (NMC), was awarded the Military Medal for his “meritorious and courageous” action, which he described as demonstrating “ingenuity, resolve, and full disregard for personal safety.”
The Military Medal, however, turned out to be “simply a consolation reward.” Maseko was recommended for the highest military honor — the Victoria Cross — but it was rejected by his South African commanders, according to Somerset resident Bill Gillespie, who heard the story of Maseko’s gallantry through his father.
Gillespie and Maseko’s family have recently started a campaign to get Maseko a Victoria Cross posthumously. Campaigners claim the honor was refused to the Second World War soldier because he was black. He died in 1952 after being struck by a train. “I am incredibly proud of what he accomplished, but I am also saddened. We believe he would have received the [highest] honor if he had been a white soldier,” Maseko’s niece Jennifer Nkosi Maaba told the BBC.
Maseko was working as a delivery driver in Springs when he volunteered for service in the South African Native Military Corps during WWII (NMC). He was sent to the 2nd South African Infantry Division after finishing basic training in North Africa. Members of the NMC performed responsibilities in the Division that did not require them to be issued weaponry, according to the Military History Journal of South Africa. They were made to wield traditional weapons such as spears for guard and ceremonial duty while serving as military cooks, drivers, stretcher-bearers, engineers, and bomb loaders. Due to South African race regulations at the time, they were unable to carry firearms.
Maseko served as a stretcher carrier for the allied forces in North Africa, where he provided medical assistance to the wounded. When his commander surrendered to the Germans at Tobruk in June 1942, he became a prisoner of war. He was forced to work on the ports at Tobruk, unloading supplies.
Maseko, a former miner, made an astonishing bomb on July 21 using a condensed milk tin, cordite, and a long fuse. He loaded the little tin with gunpowder and placed it in the hold of a German ship near some petrol drums. According to the official citation that came with his Military Medal, the ship sank following the explosion.
Job planted his home-made bomb deep in the hold on the evening of June 21, 1942, just before they were set to leave the already overloaded ship, according to Gillespie. He lighted the fuse and dashed to the dock to join his buddies. An enormous explosion erupted. The ship appears to have sunk nearly instantly.”
Maseko, who would eventually escape from the prisoner of war camp and rise to the rank of lance corporal, was supposed to get the Victoria Cross, but instead received the Military Medal, according to Neville Lewis, the first official war artist for South Africa during WWII.
That, according to campaigners, is exactly what happened. “I despise all forms of unfairness. “I believe this situation needs to be addressed,” Gillespie added.
Maseko was probably not awarded the Victoria Cross for other reasons, according to Keith Lumley, the head of the Victoria Cross Trust, which preserves the remembrance of persons who have received the honor. Lumley was reported by the BBC as saying, “There’s no doubt that what Job did in terms of the ship sabotage was exceedingly dangerous and would’ve probably led to his death had he been found.”
“However, because it was not seen, it does not appear to have to the level of a VC at this time. While there’s no denying that he did what he did, no one witnessed it. From what I’ve read, I get the impression that his Military Medal was a representation of his actions.”
Maseko’s award does not appear to be being “upgraded” by the UK Ministry of Defense. According to a representative for the BBC, “we cannot consider retrospective awards since we are unable to establish the facts or compare the merits across cases that occurred so many years ago.”
Maseko not only received the Victoria Cross, but he also became a destitute man in South Africa after the war, living under apartheid.
According to South Africa’s Military History Journal, he was buried with borrowed money in the Payneville Township Cemetery in Springs after his death in 1952.
His legacy, on the other hand, lingers on in his hometown, the Kwa-Thema township in Springs, where a significant road and a primary school are named after him. He is also commemorated by a big mural with his portrait.