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A History of the Medal of Honor
When President Lyndon B. Johnson placed the blue ribbon of the Medal of Honor around Capt. Roger H. C. Donlon’s neck on December 5, 1964, the army Special Forces officer became the 3,154th person so honored and the first to earn the medal for service in the Vietnam War.
Since its birth during the Civil War, many men have coveted the medal; only a few have earned it. President Harry S. Truman enjoyed telling recipients, “I’d rather have this medal than be president.” Gen. George S. Patton once remarked, “I’d give my immortal soul for that medal.”
In all, 3,440 recipients have received 3,459 medals. Nineteen Americans have received the august decoration twice.
The Medal of Honor can be earned only by a member of the United States armed forces through a display of the most conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty—in the presence of an armed enemy. There must be a clear risk of life. It must be a deed that would not subject the candidate to criticism if it had not been performed. A minimum of two eyewitnesses must attest to the action. These strict guidelines reserve the Medal of Honor for the “bravest of the brave.”
But it was not always that way.
Civil War navy secretary Gideon Welles was looking for a way to motivate his more reluctant sailors when he hit upon the idea of an honor medal. By rewarding those who exhibited courage in front of the enemy, maybe he could inspire others to new heights of daring. At Welles’s urging, Iowa senator James W. Grimes proposed a congressional bill “to promote the efficiency of the navy.” One clause of the bill authorized the creation of a “medal of honor” for sailors and Marines who distinguished themselves through gallantry in action. The bill—and the Medal of Honor—was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on December 21, 1861.
Not to be outdone, the army convinced Massachusetts senator Henry Wilson to introduce a similar proposal in February 1862. That law was signed into effect on July 12, 1862.
Both medals were originally reserved for enlisted men and limited to the “present insurrection.” Additional legislation the following year extended the life of the medal beyond the Civil War. Also, army officers were made eligible; naval officers remained ineligible until 1915. The army limited its award to heroism in combat while the navy permitted theirs to be awarded for heroism in “the line of one’s profession.”
The original medal was designed by a Philadelphia silversmith firm, Wm. Wilson & Son. The piece was described as:
A five-pointed star, one point down. On the obverse the foul spirit of Secession and Rebellion is represented by a male figure in crouching attitude holding in his hands serpents, which, with forked tongues, are striking at a large female figure (portrayed by Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom) representing the Union of Genius of our country, who holds in her right hand a shield, and in her left, the fasces. Around these figures are thirty-four stars, indicating the number of states in the Union. (“The Medal of Honor of the United States Army,” GPO, 1948)
Both the army and navy medals would be suspended from identical ribbons: a blue horizontal top bar above alternating vertical stripes of red and white, with only the suspension devices differing. The navy’s medal connected to the ribbon with a rope-foiled anchor; the army’s via an eagle, wings spread, astride crossed cannons and cannonball stacks.
The first Medals of Honor to be awarded went to six soldiers from Ohio who survived the legendary “great locomotive chase.” This ill-fated mission to disrupt Confederate rail lines in Georgia in April 1862 ranks as one of the most daring of the Civil War. When six of the survivors were paroled from a Confederate prison in March 1863, they were taken to an audience with Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton in Washington, DC, on March 25.
After listening to the group’s hair-raising tales, Stanton praised their courage and devotion to duty. He then said, “Congress has recently created a special medal to honor the brave defenders of the Union. None have yet been awarded. I have the honor of presenting you the first.” He pinned the first medal to the tunic of the group’s youngest member, nineteen-year-old Jacob Parrott. The others receiving medals that day were: William Bensinger, Robert Buffum, Elihu Mason, William Pittinger, and William H. Reddick.
A few weeks later the navy awarded its first medals. There was no formal ceremony for these heroes, though. Instead, their medals were forwarded to their respective commanding officers, who handled the presentations on an individual basis.
After the Civil War, medals continued to be awarded to soldiers who fought Indians and outlaws in America’s West and to sailors and Marines exploring the far reaches of the globe. Medals went to the brave men who stormed San Juan Hill, who battled the Chinese at Tientsin, and who fought the insurrectionists in the Philippines.
Just after the turn of the century, living recipients of the Medal of Honor—who had formed a Medal of Honor Legion in 1890—became concerned about the growing number of imitation Medals of Honor being issued as membership badges by various veterans groups. At the legion’s urging, Brig. Gen. Horace Porter, ambassador to France and a Civil War Medal of Honor recipient, had the Parisian jewelry firm of Messrs. Arthur, Bertrand, and Berenger prepare several proposals for a new medal for the army. One was approved by the members of the legion and Secretary of War Elihu Root. On November 22, 1904 a patent was issued to protect the medal.
The new design retained the chief feature of the old medal, the five-pointed star. At its center appears the head of Minerva surrounded by the words UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. An open wreath enameled in green encircles the star. Green oak leaves fill the prongs of the star. Above the star is a bar bearing the word VALOR. Atop the bar sits a gold eagle, wings spread.
The medal’s new ribbon was a light blue watered silk material spangled with thirteen white stars, representing the original colonies. At first the medal was pinned to the left breast of the recipient’s uniform. Later a neck ribbon was added.
The navy elected to retain its original design. They did change the suspension ribbon to the light blue of the army in 1913 and to the neck ribbon in 1917. In 1919 the navy adopted a gold cross pattee (the cross’s arms are narrower at the center than at the ends) design for a second Medal of Honor to be used to reward combat heroism; the original design would be used for noncombat heroism. The two-medal system proved too confusing, however, and the practice was dropped in 1942. The navy went back to the original design to recognize both combat and noncombat heroism, and noncombat heroism continued to be recognized with a Medal of Honor through the Korean War.
Because of claims from the Medal of Honor Legion alleging abuses in the awarding of the Medal of Honor, in 1916 the army convened a special board to review all of its Medal of Honor awards.
Out of all the medals awarded by the army up to that time, the Civil War alone accounted for 1,519 medals—nearly half of all those awarded—under rules that were much less strict. Many of the medals awarded for Civil War service were based on sketchy information—often submitted by the intended recipient himself. A large number of Civil War medals were awarded for deeds that would not be considered worthy today. However, the army had no other medals that could be used to recognize heroism, regardless of its degree. It was the Medal of Honor or nothing. Too often, it was the Medal of Honor.
Following the board’s recommendations, the army rescinded 911 Medals of Honor for not being merited. The board further recommended the creation of additional medals to properly recognize heroism in its varying degrees. Not all displays of bravery warrant a Medal of Honor—the board recommended that it be reserved for only the most outstanding displays of bravery. New eligibility rules would clearly spell out the criteria for each new medal.
During World War I the army created several new decorations. The Distinguished Service Cross would rank immediately below the Medal of Honor, honoring deeds of a lesser degree. Below the DSC was the Silver Star. Originally a small device attached to the ribbon of the campaign medal during which it was earned, it became an actual medal with a suspension ribbon in 1932. The navy created the Navy Cross to be on par with the DSC and also used the Silver Star. These new decorations assured that only the top heroes of the American Expeditionary Force would receive the Medal of Honor.
As a result of the board’s insight, the Medal of Honor was elevated to the pinnacle of a so-called “pyramid of honor.” Since then the Medal of Honor has become the most prestigious of all decorations. A strict review process ensures that the medal will not be conferred upon unworthy candidates. The standards are so high that over 55 percent of the medals awarded since World War I have been posthumous. During the Korean and Vietnam Wars nearly 70 percent of the awards were posthumous. Those who wear the Medal of Honor are a special breed.
Only 124 Medals of Honor were awarded for World War I (all figures are as of January 1, 2004): 96 in the army (including a late award in 1991), 21 in the navy, and 7 to Marines (five of those Marines also received the army medal for the same deed; these men are also counted in the army’s total). For the first time, posthumous awards accounted for a large percentage of the total—thirty-two recipients died performing the act that earned them the medal.
It was during World War II that the Medal of Honor truly came into its own, achieving the prominence it holds today. To ensure that only the most deserving acts of heroism received the top medal, the different service branches created internal decorations boards to review award recommendations. Each recommendation had to pass several levels of scrutiny. The higher the proposed award, the longer and more thorough the process. Recommendations for both army and navy Medals of Honor went all the way to Washington, DC, where senior, combat-tested officers reviewed the required documentation. They or any intermediate board could downgrade a recommendation for the Medal of Honor to a lesser award.
So exacting were the standards that only 464 medals were awarded for World War II: 324 army (this total includes late awards made en masse to 7 black WWII veterans in January 1997 and to 22 Pacific Islanders in June 2000), 57 navy, 82 Marines, and 1 lone Coast Guardsman. For the first time posthumous awards outnumbered living awards—only 211 of the 464 men survived to have their medals placed around their necks.