Lance Corporal Job Maseko died without a penny to his name.

He once was a gallant South African hero who braved the chaos of World War II even after he was caught and became a prisoner of war. Although he didn’t go unnoticed and was awarded the Military Medal, his family and supporters believe that he should have been given the highest military award of the British honors system, and that’s what they are pushing for. Moreover, they do not want his name and contributions to be lost in the many pages of history.

A Prisoner of War

Before serving in the war, Job Maseko was a miner working in Springs, South Africa. When the war broke out, he was among the roughly 80,000 black South Africans who underwent basic training before being sent to North Africa as part of the Native Military Corps (NMC.) The NMC was a non-combatant force attached to white South African units as laborers, the purpose of which was to maximize the white service members in combat instead of fulfilling non-combatant roles and duties. As for Job Maseko, he was tasked to be a stretcher-bearer in North Africa, whose task was to help transport wounded soldiers away from the battlefield with hails of bullets.

Job Maseko, painting by Alfred Neville Lewis (1895 – 1972)

Members of the NMC were not given firearms, but they were allowed to carry traditional weapons as guards or in a medical role. In June 1942, Maseko’s commander surrendered with his men to the Germans in Tobruk, where they became prisoners of war. The Germans segregated the white and black servicemen: the whites were sent to the European camps while the black servicemen were used as laborers. There, Maseko was assigned to work on the docks unloading and offloading his German cargo ships.

Maseko, who did not enjoy being a POW, devised a plan by applying the techniques that he learned while working in the gold mines of South Africa. And so he began his act of resistance.

Prison Break

Using a tin filled with gunpowder from ammunition, he created a small bomb and placed it in the hold of a German cargo ship alongside the cans of gasoline. He lit his improvised bomb’s fuse as the prisoners of war carried the final loads off the ship before fleeing the scene. The explosion caused the ship to sink, in the confusion Maseko managed to escape and walked through the desert for three weeks until he reached allied lines at El Alamein.

For his actions, Maseko was awarded the Military Medal. According to his citation,

In carrying out this deliberately planned action, Job Masego displayed ingenuity, determination and complete disregard of personal safety from punishment by the enemy or from the ensuing explosion which set the vessel alight.

When the war was over, even when Maseko and the others risked their lives, they were only given bicycles and boots and a suit if you were lucky. The white soldiers, on the other hand, received houses and lots.

Mkosi Maaba, the niece of Job Maseko, thought he deserved so much better than that,

He deserves more than a pair of boots and a bicycle for his bravery… He deserves the Victoria Cross (VC) because his courage put South Africa’s military prowess on the map.

Almost a VC

Military Medal, George V version. (Hsq7278CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Bill Gillespie, son of a South African who served during World War II, is one of those who are pushing for Maseko’s Military Medal to be upgraded to the Victoria Cross. He agrees that the reason he was given the Military Medal and not the VC was because of his race. He said, “I’m absolutely certain of that…the Military Medal was just a consolation prize.”

And Gillespie could be right if we’re going to base on what war artist Neville Lewis claimed, that Maseko was supposedly nominated for the VC, but an officer downgraded him to the Military Medal because he was black.

News article featuring a book written about Job Maseko. (Langley Kirkwood)

The Victoria Cross Trust, on the other hand, might have an explanation for why he did not receive the highest honor.

There’s no doubt that what Job did in terms of the sabotage of the ship was exceptionally dangerous and would’ve probably have led to his death had he been caught… However at the moment it doesn’t seem to quite hit the level of a VC because it wasn’t witnessed. While there’s no doubt that he did what he did… but nobody actually saw him do it. I just get the sense from what I’ve read that his Military Medal was a reflection of his actions.

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In an article written by BBC, the UK’s Ministry of Defence believed that it was unlikely that Maseko’s award would be upgraded. According to the article,

While acknowledging the bravery of all African servicemen and women in World War Two, a spokesperson told the BBC in an email that ‘we cannot consider retrospective awards because we are unable to confirm the circumstances or compare the merits between cases that took place so many years ago.’

Maseko tragically died in 1952 when he was hit and killed by a train. He was so poor at that time that the money used for his funeral was borrowed money.