T he Silver Star is the third highest combat gallantry award in the United States’ military “pyramid of honor”–only the Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Service Cross (Army), Navy Cross (Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard) and Air Force Cross (Air Force) outrank it. The decoration has a unique history.
The Silver Star began as a small silver “citation star” in 1918 and then was transformed into a full-sized medal in 1932. On January 12, 1918, while fighting raged in France between the Allies and the Central Powers, the Army announced the creation of a new Distinguished Service Cross and Distinguished Service Medal. This same announcement also stated that, in addition to the two new medals, “other citations for gallantry in action published in orders issued from the headquarters of a force commanded by a general officer will be indicated in each case by a silver star three-sixteenths of an inch in diameter worn upon the ribband of the…corresponding ribbon [of a campaign medal]. This was the origin of the Silver Star–although not quite what we think of today!
The Silver Star medal emerged as a full-sized medal in 1932 after Gen. Douglas MacArthur, then Army Chief of Staff, directed that the small star be “hung” from a pendant and a red, white and blue ribbon. In the Army and Air Force, additional awards of the Silver Star are indicated by bronze oak leaf clusters; the recipient of this Silver Star had twice been awarded the medal for gallantry in action. Fred Borch
Interestingly, Congress passed legislation about six months later in July 1918, authorizing both of these new Army decorations under U.S. law. As this new legislation also included the same language about the small citation silver star, from a legal perspective this new Federal law superseded the Army’s regulatory attempt to create a silver star.
When the War Department implemented this new Federal law in 1918, a soldier was entitled to wear the silver citation star if he or she had performed:
? any individual act of combat gallantry;
? recognized in a citation;
? published in orders issued by the headquarters of a force commanded by a general officer; and
? who had not been awarded a higher decoration for the same action.
Any soldier who had received a qualifying citation in WWI simply attached the small star to the ribbon of his World War I Victory Medal. Because the legislation was retroactive, soldiers cited for gallantry in earlier armed conflicts such as the Indian Wars, War with Spain, Boxer Rebellion, and Philippine Insurrection, also were authorized to affix the small star to the corresponding ribbons of the campaign medals for those wars.
This rare officially hand engraved Silver Star was issued to a Soviet soldier for gallantry in action in WWII. Fred Borch
Unfortunately for the Army, many soldiers and veterans complained bitterly (from the beginning) about the size of the citation star. They insisted it was hard to see and did not adequately recognize the nature of heroism in combat. What these men wanted was a full-sized medal for gallantry. In response to this ever louder chorus, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, then Army Chief of Staff, directed that the silver citation star be “hung” from a pendant and a red, white and blue ribbon. On July 16, 1932, the Army announced that a new Silver Star medal was available for issuance to those who were entitled to wear the silver citation star.
NOT JUST AN ARMY MEDAL
The Silver Star remained an Army-only decoration until WWII. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, however, the Navy realized that sailors and Marines also deserved to be eligible for this gallantry decoration. On August 7, 1942, Congress gave the Navy its own authority to award “a silver star medal of appropriate design and ribbon” to all naval personnel, retroactive to December 7, 1941. Not surprisingly, the Navy adopted the existing Silver Star and began awarding it to sailors, Marines, Coast Guardsmen and civilians in naval service who had performed acts of combat heroism.
After the Silver Star medal was created in 1932, the War Department calculated that about 5,800 soldiers, sailors and marines–mostly veterans of World War I–were eligible to apply for the new medal, and several thousand were awarded between 1932 and 1940. For combat heroism in WWII, the Army awarded about 73,600 Silver Stars. About 10,000 Silver Stars went to soldiers for gallantry in action in Korea and roughly 21,600 for Vietnam. The Army also has awarded Silver Stars for El Salvador, Grenada, Panama, the Persian Gulf War, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
This officially machine engraved Silver Star was posthumously awarded to Sgt. Thomas W. Bates for gallantry in action in Korea in 1952. Fred Borch
As for the Navy, a small number of sailors and marines received Army Silver Stars for their gallantry while serving in the American Expeditionary Force in World War I. After obtaining its own authority to award the Silver Star in 1942, the Navy awarded about 9,600 Silver Stars for gallantry in WWII.
The first Navy Silver Star was a posthumous award to Clarence J. Ashenbrenner, a shipfitter on the cruiser USS Marblehead. Coast Guard personnel, served as part of the Navy during WWII, received a total of 64 Silver Stars. The Navy awarded several hundred Silver Stars for the Korean War, with most going to marines. The Navy has also awarded Silver Stars for gallantry in action in Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq.
After becoming an independent service in 1947, the Air Force had its own authority to award the Silver Star, and made about 150 awards for Korea. Silver Stars have also been awarded to airmen for heroism in Vietnam, Persian Gulf War, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq.
The record for the most Silver Stars belongs to recently deceased Army Col. (Ret) David Hackworth, who received a record 10 decorations: three for combat gallantry in Korea and seven for heroism in action in Vietnam
Today’s Silver Star decoration is a gilt five-pointed star, 1-? inch in diameter. In the center of the medal is the original silver star, which is centered in a laurel wreath. The larger and smaller stars symbolize the United States; the wreath is the symbol of achievement.
The reverse of the medal has the words “FOR GALLANTRY IN ACTION.” There is sufficient blank space to engrave the recipient’s name.
Since its transformation into a full-sized decoration in 1932, thousands of Silver Stars have been awarded to soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen and Coast Guardsmen–and the decoration will continue to be prized by all those who receive it.