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75th Anniversary of America's Purple Heart

The Purple Heart celebrated its 75th birthday--sort of--on February 22, 2007. It was on that date in 1932, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the Army chief of staff, revived the Purple Heart established by General George Washington.

The Purple Heart celebrated its 75th birthday--sort of--on February 22, 2007. On that date in 1932, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the Army chief of staff, revived the Purple Heart "established by General George Washington...during the War of Revolution." Since then, probably a million Purple Heart medals have been awarded to American men and women in uniform. But, because Washington's original cloth Purple Heart badge dates to August 7, 1782, today's version arguably has another birthday--its 225th--in August of this year.


Pvt. Joseph Sink, Co. L, 110th Infantry, 28th Division, was awarded this Purple Heart in March 1933. As Sink had twice been wounded--by shrapnel in July 1918 and by a German machine gun bullet in September 1918--his Purple Heart was issued with an oak leaf cluster. Sink's Purple Heart is rare because this large oak leaf cluster was only issued for a short time before the Army switched to the smaller oak leaf cluster still used today. The reverse of Sink's Purple Heart was officially hand-engraved by the War Department prior to being issued to him.

While birthdays are certainly important--when the earlier founding date is taken into account, the Purple Heart is America's oldest military decoration--a date on a calendar isn't necessarily the strongest reason to celebrate this award, which has now become so well known to the public. In fact, there are two better reasons:
•The Purple Heart reflects the ultimate sacrifice that a soldier, sailor, airman, marine or coastguardsman may be called upon to make--to shed blood in defense of the nation.
•It is the only military decoration whose award does not depend on a superior's recommendation or approval.


On August 7, 1782, Gen. George Washington decreed that, "whenever any singularly meritorious action is performed, the author of it shall be permitted to wear...over his left breast...a heart in purple cloth." Washington called his new award the "Badge of Military Merit." Three were awarded to Continental Army non-commissioned officers in 1783. Daniel Bissell, William Brown, and Elijah Churchill had demonstrated great courage: Bissell as a spy who "deserted" from American forces to re-enlist in the British Army to obtain valuable information, and Brown and Churchill under fire in attacks on British troops.

While historians surmise that other awards were made of the Badge of Military Merit, the cloth purple hearts awarded to Bissell, Brown and Churchill are the only confirmed awards of America's oldest military decoration. Only Churchill's badge survives today, and is housed at the New Windsor Cantonment, Vail's Gate, NY. It is a heart-shaped purple-colored piece of cloth, approximately 2 x 2 inches, and is edged with a narrow binding of silver braid. The word "MERIT" is embroidered in the center of the cloth heart.


After the Revolution, the Badge of Military Merit was forgotten for more than 100 years. In the aftermath of the Great War, however, the Army's leadership saw that it needed a new award to recognize meritorious service. This was because the Army had only three decorations--the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross and the Distinguished Service Medal. As only the last-named could be awarded for service, and then only when that service was "exceptionally meritorious" and occurred in a position of "great responsibility," many individuals performing valuable services that fell short of these standards could not be given any form of recognition.

Pvt. Joseph Sink, Co. L, 110th Infantry, 28th Division, was awarded this Purple Heart in March 1933. As Sink had twice been wounded--by shrapnel in July 1918 and by a German machine gun bullet in September 1918--his Purple Heart was issued with an oak leaf cluster. Sink's Purple Heart is rare because this large oak leaf cluster was only issued for a short time before the Army switched to the smaller oak leaf cluster still used today. The reverse of Sink's Purple Heart was officially hand-engraved by the War Department prior to being issued to him.

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Nothing happened until the early 1930s, however, when MacArthur, learned about Washington's Revolutionary War badge. MacArthur had a keen interest in military history, medals and decorations and as the Army's top officer, had the ability to push his idea. Under his prodding, the War Department staff prepared a study on the "new" award.

By December 1931, the Army was ready to revive the "Badge of Military Merit" (the staff study recommended that the new award retain its original name) as a decoration for both wartime and peacetime meritorious service. The plan was for the new badge to be announced on February 22, 1932, the bicentennial of Washington's birth.

In December 1931, MacArthur made two important changes that would forever alter the story of the Purple Heart. First, he directed that the name of the new award would be the "Purple Heart." Second, and more important perhaps, MacArthur changed the definition of meritorious service so that it included combat wounds. This meant that any soldier wounded by the enemy had, by definition, performed meritorious service. This was no accident: MacArthur agreed that the Purple Heart should be an award for merit, but he also wanted the revived award to be something entirely new and different. As he explained in a letter written some 10 years later, the new Purple Heart, unique in several ways: first, it is the oldest in American history, and antedates practically all the famous military medals of the world; second, it comes from the greatest of all Americans, George Washington, and thereby carries with it something of the reverence which haloes his great name; and third, it is the only decoration which is completely intrinsic in that it does not depend upon approval or favor by anyone. It goes only to those who are wounded in battle, and enemy action alone determines its award. It is a true badge of courage and every breast that wears it can beat with pride.

On February 22, 1932, in General Orders No. 3, MacArthur announced that "the Purple Heart, established by Gen. George hereby revived out of respect to his memory and military achievements." While General Orders No. 3 did not define the award criteria for the Purple Heart, regulations published by the Army that same day spelled out who could receive the new decoration: "any person who, while serving in the Army...performed any singularly meritorious act of extraordinary fidelity or essential service." The following sentence, in parentheses, was added to the definition: "A wound, which necessitates treatment by a medical officer, and which is received in action with an enemy of the United States, or as a result of an act of such enemy, construed as resulting from a singularly meritorious act of essential service." In short, a wound received in combat qualified as a meritorious act--and this was the beginning of the link between the Purple Heart and wounds or injuries received in combat.

The reverse of an officially machine-engraved Purple Heart issued to Sgt. Wilbert H. Fredrichs, Co. K, 163rd Infantry, 41st Division. He was shot in the chest and killed on March 16, 1945, during an assault on Japanese forces in Mindanao, Philippines.

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Starting in 1932, hundreds of soldiers began applying to the War Department for Purple Hearts. An applicant had to show that he had served with the Army, and had performed some qualifying meritorious act or been wounded in combat. The Army interpreted its regulations to mean that any individual who had been assigned to the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I was eligible. For that reason, a small number of marines and sailors received the new medal.

The reverse of a privately hand engraved Purple Heart issued to T/Sgt Werner Waser. This is a highly unusual piece because the recipient had so much detail engraved on his medal--a real help to the collector or researcher!

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Gen. John J. Pershing, the commander of all U.S. forces in Europe, had also created and awarded a small number of "Meritorious Service Citation Certificates" to soldiers for their meritorious service in Europe during World War I, and so the Army also allowed these men to exchange the certificate for the Purple Heart. Several hundred Purple Hearts were awarded on the basis of these merit certificates.

The overwhelming majority of medals went to those who had been wounded in combat. In 1932 alone, some 25,000 Purple Hearts were awarded and, by 1938, more than 60,000 had been issued.


In contrast to today, when Purple Hearts go to the next-of-kin of soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines killed in action, posthumous awards were originally prohibited--the Purple Heart was for the living only. Why no awards for the dead? Part of the reason was that the Army was afraid that it would have too many applications for the Purple Heart. As every Purple Heart being issued was being hand-engraved with the recipient's name, this fear of a heavy workload makes some sense.

As MacArthur later explained in 1938, however, this was not the chief reason. Rather, as Washington had established the award to "animate and inspire the living," the Army did not want the Purple Heart "to commemorate the dead." In MacArthur's view, to make the decoration a "symbol of death, with its corollary depressive influences, would be to defeat the primary purpose of its being." Thus, the thousands of Purple Hearts issued during the 1930s all went to men who were alive.

The War Department anticipated that most applicants for the new medal would be veterans who had been injured in World War I. In fact, thousands of men who had been wounded in 1917 and 1918 did apply but, as the award criteria did not restrict the Purple Heart's award to any particular conflict, men who had served as far back as the Civil War requested the Purple Heart.

At least 12 Purple Hearts went to Civil War veterans wounded between 1861 and 1865. A small number also were awarded to soldiers who had been wounded in the Indian Wars (1865 to 1898), Spanish-American War (1898), Philippine Insurrection (1899-1913), China Relief Expedition-Boxer Rebellion (1900), and Punitive Expedition into Mexico (1916).


On April 28, 1942, the Army reversed its "no posthumous award" policy that had governed the Purple Heart for the first 10 years. The reason for this change was simple: A desire to recognize the sacrifice of soldiers and airmen who had given their lives in opening days of hostilities with Germany and Japan. The first posthumous Purple Hearts ever awarded went to those killed during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

About 200 Purple Hearts also were awarded for meritorious service in the early months of the war, but this practice came to a halt with the creation of the Legion of Merit in 1942. The Army's leadership realized that awarding the Purple Heart for merit was no longer necessary and so it announced that in September 1942 that the Purple Heart was now exclusively an award for soldiers wounded or killed in action with the enemy.

In December 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order that, for the first time, gave the Department of the Navy its own authority to award the Purple Heart to sailors, Marines and Coast Guardsmen wounded or killed in action after December 7, 1941. Prior to Roosevelt's action, the Purple Heart had been an "Army only" award--and the Navy showed little official interest in obtaining its own authority to award the Purple Heart. As hostilities in the Pacific grew, however, and Navy and Marine Corps personnel suffered ever greater losses, the Navy reversed course. Roosevelt's executive order also meant that all personnel were on an equal footing when it came to the Purple Heart--as the executive order paralleled the Army's existing award criteria for the medal.


More than 500,000 Purple Hearts were awarded to Americans during WWII, and the same award criteria resulted in thousands more awards during the war on the Korean peninsula that lasted from 1950 to 1953. By the 1960s, however, the nature of warfare--or at least American involvement in it--had changed. U.S. involvement in Vietnam began in 1959, when the first Americans arrived as part of Military Assistance Advisory Group in Saigon. As these soldiers began suffering casualties in the early 1960s, however, the Army realized that the Purple Heart could not be awarded to them.

This was because the existing award criteria required that an "enemy" inflict the wounds or death--and the Viet Cong did not qualify. To correct this shortcoming, President John F. Kennedy signed an executive order on April 25, 1962.

The order expressly provided that the Purple Heart could be awarded to any member of the U.S. armed forces wounded or killed "in any action against an enemy of the United States." But the order also provided that the Purple Heart could be awarded to any soldier, sailor, airman, marine or Coast Guardsman who was injured "as the result of an act of any hostile foreign force." These words not only covered the on-going hostilities in Vietnam but, the drafters of this language must have thought, certainly must be sufficiently expansive to permit the award of the Purple Heart to any service member harmed while fighting under circumstances not yet foreseen.

Unfortunately, the "any hostile foreign force" language did not anticipate two new casualty categories that had emerged by the 1980s: those Americans wounded or killed while serving on overseas peacekeeping missions, and those individuals harmed as a result of international terrorist attacks. While a few individuals had been injured while carrying out peacekeeping duties, the Army was most interested in recognizing the sacrifice made by soldiers killed or wounded in the vicious terrorist bombing attack in Germany in 1972 and terrorist assassination in France in 1982. With this as background, President Ronald Reagan's executive order of February 23, 1984, made perfect sense--a change to the Purple Heart's criteria to keep pace with the evolution of modern warfare. As a result, any soldier, sailor, airman or marine who is wounded or killed after March 28, 1973, while on an overseas peacekeeping mission, or as a result of an international terrorist attack, may receive the Purple Heart.

Since Reagan's 1984 executive order, Purple Hearts have been awarded to Americans serving as peac ekeepers in Bosnia and Croatia, Cambodia, Haiti, Kuwait, Lebanon, Sinai, Somalia, and Western Sahara. As for terrorist-related Purple Hearts, awards have been made to American personnel killed or wounded in Belgium, Egypt, El Salvador, France, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Honduras, Italy, Lebanon, Namibia, Pakistan, Panama, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Turkey and the United Kingdom.


The most recent change to the Purple Heart occurred in November 1997, when Congress restricted the award of the Purple Heart to military personnel only. This congressional action grew out of complaints a military award should not be given to civilians--who up until this time had been eligible to receive the Purple Heart if they had been "serving with" the U.S. armed forces. Probably no more than 100 civilians had received the Purple Heart between 1932 and 1997, with the majority going to Americans wounded in international terrorist attacks on U.S. facilities in Saudi Arabia in 1995 and 1996.


The Purple Heart is, other than the Medal of Honor, probably the most widely recognized American military award. As it celebrates its two birthdays in 2007, now is the time to reflect on its fascinating and unique history. As General MacArthur recognized, it is the only combat decoration whose award does not depend upon approval or favor from anyone.

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