March 7th marks 71 years since his passing!
There is no aspect of history where Black people were not present and accounted for. We were here from the genesis, and we will be here when it all passes away. We built worlds with our ingenuity and even in spite of colonialism, imperialism, racism, etc., we continued to thrive and contribute to countries that didn’t acknowledge our contributions. Nowhere is that truth more prevalent than in war. While Black people were fighting and dying in wars we did not start, our heroes became unsung, our stories were buried and, if not for building our own oral monuments, they would’ve been completely erased. Such is the case with Job Maseko, the World War II hero who sank a German ship using a bomb he made from a milk can.
Maseko may not be a name you’ve heard before, but it’s important that you get familiar. According to War History Online, Maseko was one of 80,000 Black South African soldiers who fought with the Native Military Corps (NMC) during World War II. The NMC soldiers were not actually on the frontlines fighting, BBC reports. In fact, they didn’t even have firearms, but were instead labeled as non-combatants and responsible for working as laborers, guards, or in a medical capacity. Maseko worked as a stretcher-bearer in North Africa, serving as a transporter for soldiers who were wounded on the battlefield.
In June of 1942, that all changed when Maseko’s commander surrendered to German soldiers at Tobruk. At that very moment, Maseko went from a non-combatant to a prisoner of war (POW). German officials then separated the soldiers by race, white servicemen sent off to camps in Europe while Black soldiers were forced to stay in Africa and perform labor. Maseko was sent to work the docks, loading and unloading German ships. After a month in captivity, Maseko quickly realized that if he was ever going to get free, he would have to do it himself. Utilizing skills he learned while working in the gold mines in South Africa, he concocted a small bomb from a milk can filled with gunpowder. Positioning it inside a German cargo ship next to gasoline, he lit the fuse, blowing up and sinking the ship. In the commotion, Maseko escaped, trekking through the African desert for three weeks before reaching freedom in Egypt’s El Alamein.
Maseko was later credited for his bravery, awarded the Military Medal with a citation that read “In carrying out this deliberately planned action, Job Maseko displayed ingenuity, determination and complete disregard of personal safety from punishment by the enemy or from the ensuing explosion which set the vessel alight.”
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However, back in South Africa, his treatment didn’t seem fit for a veteran hero. While white South African soldiers were given houses and land, Black soldiers like Maseko were given a bicycle, boots, or a suit. A decade later, Maseko was dead, tragically killed by a train, his funeral funded through borrowed money from the community. His story would resurface years later, many wondering why Maseko wasn’t supported more for his bravery and why he didn’t receive Britain’s highest awards, the Victoria Cross (VC), despite being nominated for it. Reports show that his honor was downgraded from a VC to a Military Medal because he was Black. Now Bill Gillespie, the son of a WWII South African Soldier, is campaigning for Maseko to be posthumously given his flowers and have his honor upgraded.
“I’m absolutely certain of that..the Military Medal was just a consolation prize,” said Gillespie.
While VC officials today argue that Maseko’s actions were exceptional, they just don’t quite meet the criteria for the VC award; both Gillespie and Maseko’s family strongly disagree.
His niece, Jennifer Nkosi Maaba, said the lack of recognition for her uncle’s contributions nearly eight decades later is bittersweet. “I’m very proud of what he did but at the same time, there’s sorrow. If he were a white soldier, we believe he would’ve received the [higher] award…He deserves more than a pair of boots and a bicycle for his bravery…He deserves the Victoria Cross because his courage put South Africa’s military prowess on the map,” she explained.
Today the descendants of Maseko and Gillespie are still keeping the fight strong. In his hometown of Springs, South Africa, there is a primary school named in Maseko’s honor and a mural celebrating his life and legacy. We remember him for all his contributions to Black history. Rest in power Mr. Maseko. Because of you, we can!
Meet Job Maseko, the WWII hero who sank a German ship using a bomb he made from a milk can/Photo Courtesy of South African war artist Neville Lewis