The Purple Heart

By Borch, Fred L. | VFW Magazine, September 2010 | Go to article overview

The Purple Heart


Borch, Fred L., VFW Magazine


Everything You Need To Know About America s Oldest Military Decoration

In February 1932, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, then- Army chief of staff, announced that the War Department was reviving Gen. George Washington's Badge of Military Merit as a new decoration: the Purple Heart. Since then, more than one million Americans have been awarded this unique medal.

It traces its origins to Aug. 7, 1782, making it America's oldest military decoration and, except perhaps for the Medal of Honor, is the best known military medal.

Unusual Features

The Purple Heart is today awarded only to those in uniform who are killed or wounded in combat or similar hostilities. But its original intent was to be an award for wartime meritorious service - with the definition of meritorious service including wounds received in action against the enemy.

This explains why the reverse of the Purple Heart medal contains the words "For Military Merit." It also explains why several thousand Purple Hearts were awarded to soldiers who had been awarded a Meritorious Service Citation Certificate in WWI usually for doing outstanding work as staff officers or NCOs).

These "Purple Hearts for merit" did not cease until 1942. With the creation of the Legion of Merit as a new award for meritorious achievement or service, the Army decided that the Purple Heart would be awarded exclusively to those killed or wounded in combat.

Prior to this decision, however, about 270 Purple Hearts had been awarded for merit in 1942. Two of the best known recipients are Army Brig. Gen. Frank D. Merrill who received his Purple Heart for leading Merrill's Marauders) and Army Air Forces Gen. George C. Kenney who received his Purple Heart for inventing the bomb that could be dropped by parachute in an attack on Japanese aircraft) .

Unlike today, the 1932 criteria for the Purple Heart also prohibited posthumous awards. This was MacArthur 's decision: he believed that the Purple Heart should inspire the living, and that awarding it to the dead would have a "depressive" influence.

It was not until early 1942 - after Pearl Harbor - that the Army reversed MacArthur's decision and began awarding posthumous Purple Hearts. The first went to soldiers killed during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

There was another feature of the original Purple Heart criteria that was unusual: there was no restriction on retroactive awards. Consequently, any soldier who had been wounded in action in an earlier war might apply for the Purple Heart.

As a result, at least 14 Union Army veterans are known to have applied for - and been awarded - Purple Hearts for wounds received during the Civil War. One of these recipients was Oran Randlett who, having been wounded at Chancellorsville in 1 863 and Cold Harbor in 1864, was awarded a Purple Heart with oak leaf cluster in 1933.

Evolving Eligibility

The Purple Heart's award criteria underwent major changes at the outbreak of WWII. In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order giving the Navy the authority to award the Purple Heart to sailors, Marines and Coast Guardsmen. (Prior to 1942, Marines and sailors could only be awarded Army-issued Purple Hearts - and only if they had been wounded while serving alongside soldiers in combat.) This same executive order also permitted posthumous awards retroactive to Dec. 6, 1941 .

Some 846,000 Purple Hearts would eventually be awarded to GIs wounded or killed between 1941 and 1945. The record for the most Purple Hearts to one individual was set during this period, with Brig. Gen. Robert T. Frederick receiving an unprecedented eight Purple Hearts including three Purple Hearts on one day - June 4, 1944).

Only two other servicemen have equaled this achievement. Col. David H. Hackworth received four Purple Hearts for action in Korea and four in Vietnam. Col. Robert Howard was awarded eight Purple Hearts during his Vietnam service. …

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