The Purple Heart is one of the most important military decorations the United States awards. Nowadays, it is awarded to those wounded or killed during their service in the US military, and the purple heart-shaped badge signifies both sacrifice by and gratitude toward the soldier. Backed by charities and foundations, the decoration acknowledges those who gave their most during their service. But the story of the medal itself is not as straightforward as one might think.
Outlined with bronze edges, the purple heart on the front shows the relief bust of George Washington in his uniform as General of the Continental Army, and on the reverse side bears the inscription: “For Military Merit”. This is no mere gimmick, though, because the origins of the Purple Heart date back to the American Revolutionary War in the 1770s and 1780s, when George Washington was that general. Back in those days, as the 13 soon-to-be ex British colonies were fighting for their independence, medals and awards were still usually reserved for Generals and high officers; men who had won decisive battles or captured a fort or a major city during their campaigns. It was almost unheard of that a non-commissioned officer or even a common soldier would receive a medal or some sort of federal recognition. But the war for independence was also a war fought based on certain principles of theoretical equality. Fighting experienced and professional British Redcoats was one thing, but endless forced marches through swamps, storms and winters had left the army demoralised, sick and close to starvation.
Badge of Military Merit
Legend has it that Washington wanted to give something back to the common men who endured all this for their cause, but the continental congress had little time to be bothered with such things. Eventually in 1782, Washington officially introduced the ‘Badge of Military Merit’, a purple heart-shaped piece of cloth, outlined by a silver braid. Throughout history, going back even beyond the Romans, the colour purple was associated with royalty or nobility. It was supposed to highlight the contribution of the individual soldier and would visually stand out when it was worn on a uniform.
Washington wrote: “The General ever desirous to cherish a virtuous ambition in his soldiers, as well as to foster and encourage every species of Military Merit, directs that whenever any singularly meritorious action is performed, the author of it shall be permitted to wear on his facings over the left breast, the figure of a heart in purple cloth or silk, edged in narrow lace or bringing. Not only instances of unusual gallantry in battle, but also extraordinary fidelity and essential service in any way shall meet with a due reward.”
At least three people were awarded the Badge of Military Merit – they were men who had distinguished themselves by heroic deeds in service of the colonies. All three of them, a spy and two war heroes, were non-commissioned officers. In a way, it was the Medal of Honour of the American Revolutionary War.
The Badge of Military Merit is officially regarded as the first American military decoration, although two years earlier, the Continental Congress had created the ‘Fidelity Medallion’ for the men involved in the capture of the British officer, John André, who was executed as a spy. Since it had never been awarded again after that, it is officially seen as a one-time commemorative medal.
However, the Purple Heart might have shared the same fate as the Fidelity Medallion, and it fell into obscurity for quite some time. From the disbanding of the Continental Army in 1783 until the American Civil War in 1861, no official federal military decorations were awarded. Of course, during the Civil War and up to the end of World War I, there were several other awards created and dedicated to heroism and sacrifice, but the Purple Heart remained nearly forgotten.
Soon after the euphoria over the 1918 victory in the First World War had subsided in the states, disgruntled veterans took to the streets, and a nation-wide debate about veterans’ compensation and military pensions began. Already in the 1920s, American Generals were talking to Congress about reinstating the Badge of Military Merit as way of rewarding disgruntled or disillusioned veterans, but it was not until 1931, when the 200th anniversary of George Washington’s birthday was around the corner, on February 22 the following year, that none other than renowned Great War General Douglas MacArthur, who was Army Chief of Staff at the time, turned his words into action.
Backed by and together with the Washington Commission of Fine Arts and the heraldry specialist Elizabeth Will, they created the modern Purple Heart. The medal – bearing the Washington family coat of arms – was not yet, however, primarily intended as a chevron for the wounded, but instead was still seen as a combat decoration for those who had done great deeds under fire. MacArthur insisted that he himself be awarded the first Purple Heart for his service during the Great War. He had it engraved with a #1.
In December 1942, a year into America’s participation in the Second World War, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorised the award for all branches of service by Executive Order. He declared that the decoration would also be retroactively awarded to those men and women that had died since America’s entry into the war, beginning with the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Among the first recipients was a woman, Lieutenant Annie Fox, who received it for her heroic actions in keeping a field hospital running during Pearl Harbor, saving many lives.
By 1944, though, the purpose of the Purple Heart had changed. With the high casualties of the war, the Purple Heart became the official decoration for those members of the armed forces who were wounded or killed. To be eligible for the Purple Heart, “a wound had to be received by the actions of an enemy that necessitates medical treatment by a medical officer.”
The story could end here, but the identity of the Purple Heart would continue to change and unfold.
The changing identity of the Purple Heart
In November 1952, President Harry Truman declared that the medal should be extended to those wounded or killed since April 6, 1917, the day of the US entry into the First World War, and under President John F. Kennedy, there were several propositions brought forward that would open the Purple Heart to civilians who were wounded while working for the armed forces.
This was later gradually limited by different editions of the yearly National Defense Authorization Act, which removed most civilian claims and restricted it back to the armed forces.
To this day, Kennedy is the only US president who was awarded the Purple Heart for his service in the Second World War. He was the commander of a torpedo boat near the Solomon Islands. His boat came under fire from a Japanese destroyer, and Kennedy injured his back but still dove into the water to save his badly burned crew members.
Suddenly the core principles of the Purple Heart were no longer as clear as they had been back in 1942. What defines an enemy attack? What is terrorism and what is simply a criminal act? And what is a wound exactly? A clear cut from shrapnel tearing through flesh? What about psychological wounds such as PTSD? In 2009, the Pentagon decided not to award Purple Hearts for veterans with PTSD. Their reasoning is that the loss of a limb or a combat wound is permanent, while PTSD is treatable.
Whether or not you agree, and despite all those questions, the Purple Heart has taken its place as one of the most prestigious and important decorations of the American military, ranking right behind the Bronze Star, and over the many decades, from its humble beginnings in 1782, to WWI, to the Second World War, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, to the conflicts of post 9-11 and the War on Terror, over 1.8 million Purple Hearts have been awarded.
Purple Heart Day
The United States celebrates Purple Heart Day on August 7. It’s a day to acknowledge and remember the sacrifices made by those recipients, men and women, during their service. The Purple Heart is there to remind the nation about what it takes to defend or to fight for your country, and it is for the rest of that nation to acknowledge that.
Purple Heart recipients are automatically eligible for medical care and the support of veteran associations, regardless of the severity of their injuries, the length of their service or their income. They also receive higher priority access to medical care and other benefits, such as paying less for medical bills, being preferred for college access or federal hiring, and even cheaper groceries.
Many Purple Hearts have, however, been lost, or have been sold by veterans who hit hard times after their service. Some were simply stolen. There are still many descendants trying to fight for an ancestor’s right for the Purple Heart, and documents are still being put together to fix the ‘tattered narrative of the Purple Heart’, as veterans call it.
Food for thought…
As the US was preparing for Operation Downfall – the invasion of the Japanese mainlands – in 1945, American Generals estimated that it would cost them anywhere between 400,000 and 4-million casualties, so they began stockpiling Purple Hearts, up to 500,000 of them, until the plans for invasion were called off. Those stockpiled Purple Hearts had been used since then, but finally, 45 years later in 1990, the news broke that the American military was manufacturing new ones.
This news reminded the American people that new conflicts were on the horizon, and that every one of those military conflicts fought with troops on the ground will result in casualties. Those casualties, the wounded and dead, are the recipients of the Purple Heart.
If you’re interested in a more visual interpretation of the above story, watch our Sabaton History episode, Purple Heart – US Military Decoration: