There is probably no holiday celebrated nationally or locally that’s better suited than Veteran’s Day for pondering American military awards for valor. One of the oldest is the Purple Heart.
Why It’s Awarded
While the actual wording of the reason why the Purple Heart is awarded has changed over the years, today’s metals are awarded to service members killed or wounded in any action against an enemy of the United States, according to The Purple Heart. The most recent wording of citations makes individuals killed or wounded due to an international terrorist attack or while serving on a peacekeeping force also eligible for this recognition. As a result, Purple Hearts were awarded to military members who served on peacekeeping missions in Lebanon, Haiti, Somalia and Bosnia-Croatia.
The Military Order of the Purple Heart reports that 1.7 million medals have thus far been awarded. The largest number of citations – 964,409 – was issued during World War II. There were 250,000 recipients during World War I and 136,936 during the Korean Conflict.
The military awarded 200,676 medals during the Vietnam War and 590 during the Persian Gulf effort. An estimated 7,903 service members have received Purple Hearts in Afghanistan and 35,367, in Iraq.
History of the Purple Heart
The Purple Heart awarded today traces its origins to a medal known as the Badge of Military Merit. It was first awarded by George Washington in 1782. Recipients were cited for unusual gallantry, extraordinary fidelity and essential service.
The badge was a purple cloth heart with silver braid edging. Those who received it were supposed to wear it over the left breast of their uniforms. Historians believe that three Badges of Military Merit were issued and that two of them still exist.
The modern Purple Heart medal originated in 1932, which was the 200th anniversary of Washington’s birth. It was retroactive for any soldier wounded during the Civil War. Ten years later, the Army estimated that around 186,000 living veterans were eligible to receive the medal retroactively.
The Navy did not authorize awarding of Purple Hearts until 1942. However, sailors as well as Marines injured prior to 1932 were eligible for a retroactive award. Records suggest that around 12,000 received wounds from the time of the Civil War until 1932.
In April of 1942, during World War II, the War Department authorized the posthumous award of Purple Hearts retroactively to injuries sustained on or after December 7, 1941. However, it also eliminated the use of this medal as an award for merit. The Navy followed suit in December of 1942.
As the war progressed, it fell to hospital and unit commanders to obtain Purple Hearts for service members who weren’t fatally wounded. The War Department retained the responsibility of notifying next of kin when the individual didn’t survive.
During the Vietnam era, Purple Heart awards fell into two categories. The main group went to individuals stationed in Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos. The second included service members hurt during the attack on the USS Pueblo, in the Dominican Republic or in Cuba.
Types of Medals
All Purple Heart medals awarded after 1932 were manufactured in one of six basic styles. The Army awarded five different styles, while the Navy used four.
Historians and collectors of these medals often find it difficult to pinpoint the origin of a Purple Heart in front of them. Much of the problem lies with the various engraving styles used to date the medals.
While some medals were engraved by hand, others underwent large blackened or small blackened machine engraving. For just two months in 1945, medals were pantograph stamped. Some later medals were engraved using script.
Medals currently issued use a san-serif type with only capital letters that are 1/16 inch high. The manufacturing process utilizes non-blackened machine engraving.
For service members celebrating Veteran’s Day after misplacing their Purple Hearts, the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis will issue replacement medals upon request.