T hough often presented as a retirement award to long-serving senior officers, very senior warrant officers and noncommissioned officers, the Legion of Merit was created during WWII as an outstanding service award for allied and foreign military and civilian personnel. After the attack on Pearl Harbor propelled the United States into World War II, both the Army and Navy realized that they had only one decoration–their respective Distinguished Service Medals–to recognize non-combat achievement or service of Australian, British, Chinese, Dutch, French, Soviet, and other foreign military personnel who fought alongside American forces. Since the Army and Navy Distinguished Service Medals were high level awards generally only given to U.S. general and flag officers, these decorations were not going to be suitable as a service award for what was certain to be a large number of deserving Allied and foreign personnel of various ranks.
Created by Congress in 1942 as a high-level service decoration for Allied and foreign military personnel, the Legion of Merit comes in four classes or “degrees.” The degree of Chief Commander–which is a breast badge–is the highest class and was intended for heads of foreign military forces. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek of China was one of the first recipients.
To meet this need for a lesser ranking decoration for non-combat service, Congress created the Legion of Merit on July 20, 1942. The inspiration for the award was France’s Legion of Honor, which had been created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802. This French connection explains the similarity in both name and design between the two medals. Additionally, just as the Legion of Honor may be awarded in grades, the same is true of the Legion of Merit.
The law that Congress enacted stated that the new Legion of Merit was “to have suitable appurtenances and devices and not more than four degrees.” It also indicated that the new decoration would be awarded to Americans and foreigners who, “since the proclamation of an emergency by the President on September 8, 1939, shall have distinguished themselves by especially meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services.” The intent was for the Legion of Merit to be awarded to both military and civil service personnel, civilians and foreigners. If the recipient was an American, the value and significance of his contribution would determine the degree of his award. If a foreigner, then his rank and position would determine the class. But Congress left it to President Franklin D. Roosevelt to work out the precise details on the four degrees, including the criteria for the award of each.
The degree of Commander is the second highest degree and is the only class of the Legion of Merit to be suspended by a neck ribbon. During WWII, it was typically awarded to foreign admirals and generals for their service.
WHO COULD RECEIVE THE AWARD?
President Roosevelt published an Executive Order governing the Legion of Merit in October 1942. It established four grades for the new decoration. The highest grade of Chief Commander was for chiefs of state as well as military and naval commanders in chief of large armed forces. The degree of Commander was reserved for general officers and admirals. The Officer grade was an award for officers of field rank. Finally, the lowest degree, Legionnaire, was for officers below field rank and enlisted personnel. In practice, for example, this meant that the Nationalist Chinese leader Generalissimo Chiang Kai- Shek would receive the degree of Chief Commander while a British lieutenant colonel would receive the Legion of Merit in the grade of Officer.
The degree of Officer is the third highest degree and was awarded to military and naval field grade officers of Allied and friendly foreign countries. Colonels/Captains, Lt. Cols/Commanders, Majors/Lt. Commanders are typical recipients.
From the beginning, the award process for the Legion of Merit was highly unusual. In September 1942, President Roosevelt directed that all proposed awards of the decoration were to be submitted to him for his personal approval. As Roosevelt explained, “during the early awards and until we get the thing running smoothly, I want to keep a personal eye on just what is being done.”
HANDING OUT THE AWARD
By early 1943, however, recognizing that this was slowing down the award process and also preventing otherwise- deserving individuals from receiving the new decoration, Roosevelt relented–at least to some extent–by deciding that “the award of the Legion of Merit to U.S. military personnel in the field” could be made without his involvement.
CRITERIA FOR THE AWARD
While Roosevelt’s decision meant that awards could now be made more quickly, a major problem still remained: deciding on the criteria for the four classes of the Legion of Merit. For Allied and foreign personnel, this generally could be solved by looking at the prospective recipient’s rank and position.
But what about American recipients? Rank could not be used as a criterion because President Roosevelt had repeatedly insisted that the rank of an American recipient would not determine the degree of his award. Rather, the Army and the Navy must consider performance in determining the appropriate grade.
The Legion of Merit (Legionnaire) is the lowest degree and may be awarded to any other Allied and foreign military personnel. It is also the class awarded to all American servicemen and women, who are ineligible to receive any of the higher degrees of the Legion of Merit.
According to Dr. Charles P. McDowell, an expert in U.S. decorations and medals, this proved to be wholly unworkable in practice. Consequently, on May 26, 1943, the War and Navy Departments sent a letter to Roosevelt recommending that the Legion of Merit be awarded in only in the lowest grade of Legionnaire to Americans. The president agreed, and the policy continues to this day: Foreign recipients may be awarded any of the four degrees; Americans only the lowest. But before this change was made, about 20 Americans had received the Legion of Merit in the degree of Officer (making these awards extremely rare!).
The Legion of Merit is one of our most beautiful decorations. According to records maintained in Washington, D.C. with the Commission of Fine Arts, the initial design for the medal was based on drawings “made by…officers in the War Department” who took their inspiration from the Great Seal of the United States. Although the sculptors made some artistic changes in their final plaster models of the obverse and reverse of the new decoration, the Commission of Fine Arts essentially approved the Army’s original concept.
This officially named “Legion of Merit” (Legionnaire) is typical of the beautiful hand engraving found on World War II-era awards. This example was awarded to Col. Alexander M. Neilson for his service in the Philippines in 1945.
The obverse of all four degrees is the same: a whi te enamel star whose five arms are edged with purple-red enamel. In the center of the star is a circle of clouds surrounding a blue disc containing a constellation of 13 white stars–representing the original 13 colonies. Between each of the five arms are two crossed arrows pointing outward. These gold arrows represent the protection afforded by the armed forces to the United States. The entire design rests on a green enamel laurel wreath, the symbolic award for achievement.
This exceptionally rare certificate shows that Maj. David Markovich Kotliarsky, Red Army, was awarded the Legion of Merit (Legionnaire) in May 1946–more than a year after combat ended in Europe.
The reverse of the Commander, Officer, and Legionnaire classes also are the same. The Chief Commander grade is not, as it has only the four words, “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.” The reverse common to the three lower degrees, however, has the inscription, “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” and “ANNUIT COEPTIS MCDDLXXXII.” These two Latin words, which are taken from the Great Seal, mean “He (God) has favored our undertakings.” The Roman numeral is the date 1782, the year General George Washington created the Badge of Military Merit, America’s first military decoration and the forerunner of today’s Purple Heart. This also explains why the ribbon for the Legion of Merit–purple-red color edged with white–is so similar to that of the Purple Heart.
With their common obverses and reverses, the four classes are chiefly differentiated by how they are worn. The highest degree of Chief Commander is a breast badge. It is pinned to the left breast. Because it is usually only given to top foreign military officer or a military heads of state, it has been very sparingly awarded. Although the Chief Commander badge is not suspended by a ribbon, one does exist so that when a recipient does not want to wear the badge, he may wear this ribbon bar in lieu thereof.
The Commander Degree is worn around the neck on a long length of ribbon. A foreign officer who is equivalent to the Army or Air Force Chief of Staff or the Chief of Naval Operations would wear this degree, although many lesser ranking general and flag officers received this award during WWII. As with the Chief Commander badge, if the recipient doesn’t want to wear the Legion of Merit (Commander) around their neck, a ribbon may be worn instead.
The third degree, Officer, is denoted by a gold 11/16th inch miniature of the medal on the suspension ribbon. Today, recipients of this degree are typically admirals and generals, although some field grade officers may receive it.
Finally, the lowest degree, legionnaire goes to all American recipients and may be awarded to any foreign military personnel as well.
AWARDED FOR MERITORIOUS CONDUCT
Although the original intent was for the Legion of Merit to be an award for both civilians and military personnel, it has become a military-only award, and is awarded by the Army, Navy and Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard under their own regulations. Under today’s award criteria–used by all the services–an individual must have demonstrated “exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services and achievements.” This has meant recipients must be in a key position and be a senior officer, senior warrant officer, or very senior non-commissioned officer.
As a result, few Legions of Merit go to Americans for achievement. The majority that are awarded tend to be in recognition of retirement. In the Army, for example, statistics maintained on the Adjutant General’s Military Awards Branch Web site demonstrate that roughly 85 percent of the awards are for retirement. In 2005, the most recent year available, the Army awarded 2,453 Legions of Merit for retirement versus 21 for achievement and 401 for service.
The only major difference between the services in their award criteria for the Legion of Merit is that a Navy, Marine Corps or Coast Guard recipient may receive the decoration with the Combat Distinguishing Device. This “V” device does not necessarily mean that the recipient committed an act of personal heroism. Rather, a Combat Distinguishing Device on a Legion of Merit denotes that the award was for an act or service while “exposed to personal hazard due to direct hostile action.”
The Army awarded more than 20,000 Legions of Merit to U.S. personnel during WWII, some of which were officially engraved prior to their presentation. The first Commander award went to Brig. Gen. Amaro Soares Bittencourt of Brazil.
WWII certificates for the Legion of Merit measured 10″ x 12″ (as compared with today’s is 8″ x 10-1/2″). An exceptionally rare certificate (pictured at left) to Maj. David Markovich Kotliarsky, Red Army, shows that he received the Legion of Merit (Legionnaire). Note that the award was made on May 22, 1946—more than a year after combat had ended in Europe. As relations between the United States and the Soviet Union were already poor (Winston Churchill had denounced the Soviet’s “Iron Curtain” in a speech on March 5, 1946), it seems unlikely that Maj. Kotliarsky ever wore his Legion of Merit.
Today, the Legion of Merit continues to be used to reward deserving foreign military personnel for their services, with most current awards going to individuals on duty as military attaches in the United States. But the Legion of Merit also remains a prestigious award in the U.S. Armed Forces. It is prized by those U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen who receive it.