The Purple Heart – The Story of America’s Oldest Military Decoration and Some Soldier Recipients
Written By Fred L. Borch
All soldiers know that the Purple Heart is given to those who are wounded or killed while fighting in the nation’s wars. Most also know that those who are injured or die in terrorist attacks are eligible to receive the decoration, too. What most soldiers, and most Americans, do not realize, however, is that the Purple Heart is a unique military award. First, it is the oldest U.S. military decoration; General George Washington awarded the first purple-colored heart-shaped badges to soldiers who fought in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. Second, until World War II, the Purple Heart was exclusively an Army decoration and, with rare exceptions, only soldiers received it; the Navy and Marine Corps lacked the authority to award it to sea service personnel. Finally, the Purple Heart is the only decoration awarded without regard to any person’s favor or approval; any soldier, sailor, airman or marine who sheds blood in defense of the nation is automatically awarded the Purple Heart. What follows is a history of this unique decoration and some of its soldier recipients.
On 7 August 1782, General Washington announced the following in his Orders of the Day:
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…over his left breast, the figure of a heart in purple cloth…Not only instances of unusual gallantry but also of extraordinary fidelity and essential service…shall be met with a due award.
Three Continental Army noncommissioned officers were awarded the new Badge of Military Merit. Sergeant Daniel Bissell received his badge for spying on British troops quartered in New York City and then returning to American lines with invaluable intelligence. Sergeant William Brown was awarded the decoration for his gallantry while assaulting British positions at Yorktown in October 1781. Finally, Sergeant Elijah Churchill was awarded his Badge of Military Merit for heroism on two daring raids against British fortifications on Long Island.
Sergeants Bissell, Brown, and Churchill would eventually be the only recipients of the new decoration. In the years that followed the Revolution and the birth of the United States, Washington’s Badge of Military Merit fell into disuse and was forgotten for almost 150 years.
When General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing and the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) arrived in Europe in 1917, the only existing American decoration was the Medal of Honor. Pershing and his fellow American officers, as well as the enlisted soldiers, soon were acutely aware that the British, French, Italian and other Allied armies had a variety of military medals that could be used to reward valor or service. The British, for example, had a Medal of Honor equivalent, the Victoria Cross, but they also had a Military Cross for junior and warrant officers and a Military Medal for enlisted soldiers, both awarded for gallantry. They also had at least one medal that could be awarded for meritorious service. Except for the Medal of Honor, which was for combat heroism only, there were no other medals for Americans.
By the end of World War I, the Army had remedied this award shortage to some extent. In 1918, Congress passed legislation creating the Distinguished Service Cross and the Distinguished Service Medal. While giving much deserved recognition to those serving in both the United States and overseas, these new medals required such a high degree of combat heroism or service that some civilian and military leaders in Washington believed that another decoration was required—one that could be used to reward those individuals for their valuable wartime services.
In the 1920s, the War Department began studying the issue. A few officers with knowledge of Washington’s old Badge of Military Merit suggested that it be resurrected, renamed the “Order of Military Merit,” and awarded to any soldier for exceptionally meritorious service or for any heroic act not performed in actual conflict. Ultimately, however, no action was taken on this proposal to revive the Badge of Military Merit.
With the appointment of General Douglas MacArthur as Army Chief of Staff in 1930, however, there was renewed interest in the idea for a new medal. A few months after MacArthur pinned on his fourth star and began serving as the Army’s top officer, he wrote a letter to Charles Moore, the chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts, and informed him that the War Department planned to “revive” Washington’s old award on the bicentennial of his birth.
As a result, on February 22, 1932, the Army announced in General Orders No. 3 that “the Purple Heart, established by General George Washington in 1782” would be “awarded to persons who, while serving in the Army of the United States, perform any singularly meritorious act of extraordinary fidelity or essential service.” Then, in a parenthetical in this announcement, the Army published the following sentence: “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, may…be construed as resulting from a singularly meritorious act of essential service.”) This meant that the Purple Heart was an award for high-level service, but it also meant that an individual serving “in the Army” who was wounded in action, could also be awarded the Purple Heart. Not all wounds, however, qualified for the new decoration; the wound had to be serious enough that it “necessitated” medical treatment.
From 1932 until the outbreak of World War II, the Army awarded some 78,000 Purple Hearts to living veterans and active duty soldiers who had either been wounded in action or had been awarded General Pershing’s certificate for meritorious service during World War I. The latter was a printed certificate signed by Pershing that read “for exceptionally meritorious and conspicuous services.” While the vast majority of Purple Hearts were issued to men who had fought in Europe in 1917 and 1918, a small number of soldiers who had been wounded in earlier conflicts, including the Civil War, Indian Wars, and Spanish-American War, applied for and were awarded the Purple Heart.
Two additional points about pre-World War II awards of the Purple Heart must be mentioned. First, the new decoration was an Army-only award. Since the War Department had used a regulation to resurrect Washington’s old badge, there was no legal basis for the Navy Department to award the Purple Heart. A small number of sailors and marines who had been “serving with” the AEF, however, were awarded Army Purple Hearts for combat wounds suffered while fighting in France, and the Navy Department permitted these sea service personnel to wear the Purple Heart on their uniforms. Nevertheless, the Navy does not seem to have ever considered adopting the Purple Heart as a Navy decoration during this time period.
Second, there were no posthumous awards of the Purple Heart prior to World War II. As MacArthur explained in 1938, the Purple Heart, like Washington’s Badge of Military Merit, was “not intended…to commemorate the dead, but to animate and inspire the living.” Consequently, said MacArthur, the Purple Heart could not be awarded posthumously. “To make it a symbol of death, with its corollary depressive influences,” insisted MacArthur, “would be to defeat the primary purpose of its being.” However, the Army was to jettison this “no posthumous award” rule after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
After America’s entry into World War II in December 1941, and the deaths of thousand of soldiers in Hawaii and the Philippines, the War Department recognized that those who had given their lives in defense of the nation must be recognized. Consequently, on 28 April 1942, the Army reversed MacArthur’s original policy and announced that the Purple Heart now would be awarded to “members of the military service who are killed…or who died as a result of a wound received in action…on or after December 7, 1941.”
Five months later, the Army made another major change in the award criteria for the Purple Heart: it restricted the award of the Purple Heart to combat wounds only. While MacArthur’s intent in reviving the Purple Heart in 1932 was that the new decoration would be for “any singularly meritorious act of extraordinary fidelity or essential service” (with combat wounds being a sub-set of such fidelity or service), the creation of the Legion of Merit in 1942 as a new junior decoration for achievement or service meant that the Army did not need two medals to reward the same thing. The result was that the War Department announced that, as of 5 September 1942, the Purple Heart was now exclusively an award for those wounded or killed in action. About 270 Purple Hearts for achievement or service—and not for wounds—were awarded prior to this change in policy, which makes them exceedingly rare.
A final change in the evolution of the Purple Heart was President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s decision to give the Navy Department the authority to award the decoration. This occurred on 3 December 1942, almost a year after the attack that had propelled the United States into World War II, when Roosevelt signed an executive order giving the Secretary of the Navy the authority to award the Purple Heart to any sailor, marine or Coast Guardsman wounded in action against an enemy of the United States or killed in any action after 7 December 1941.
The next major change to the award criteria for the Purple Heart occurred during the presidency of John F. Kennedy. In the early 1960s, after American military personnel serving in South Vietnam began being killed and wounded, the Defense Department discovered that the restrictive nature of the Purple Heart’s award criteria precluded the award of the medal because these men were serving in an advisory capacity, not as combatants. Additionally, because the United States was not formally a participant (as a matter of law) in the ongoing war between the South Vietnamese and Viet Cong guerrillas, and their North Vietnamese allies, there was no “enemy” to satisfy the requirement of a wound or death received “in action against an enemy.” Since Kennedy recognized that the Purple Heart should be awarded to these uniformed personnel who were shedding blood in South Vietnam, he signed an executive order on 25 April 1962 that permitted the Purple Heart to be awarded to any person wounded or killed “while serving with friendly foreign forces” or “as a result of action by a hostile foreign force.” By 1973, when the last U.S. combat forces withdrew from Vietnam, thousands upon thousands of Americans wounded or killed in Southeast Asia had been awarded the Purple Heart.
The next major changes to the Purple Heart occurred in February 1984, when President Ronald Reagan recognized the changing nature of war and signed Executive Order 12464. This order announced that the Purple Heart could now be awarded to those killed or wounded as a result of an “international terrorist attack against the United States.” Reagan also decided that the Purple Heart should be awarded to individuals killed or wounded “outside the territory of the United States” while serving “as part of a peacekeeping mission.” As a result of Reagan’s decision, a small number of soldiers in uniform received the Purple Heart who otherwise would have been denied the medal. For example, Master Sergeant Robert H. Judd, Jr., was awarded a Purple Heart after he was shot by two terrorists belonging to the Greek 17 November group. At the time, Judd was serving in the Joint U.S. Military Aid Group, Greece, and was on duty driving a government-owned vehicle when he was attacked. Similarly, four soldiers serving in the Multinational Force and Observers in the Sinai received Purple Hearts after being wounded when their vehicle struck a landmine.
Finally, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq caused the most recent changes to the Purple Heart’s award criteria. On 25 April 2011, the Defense Department announced that the decoration now could be awarded to servicemen and women who sustained “mild traumatic brain injuries and concussive injuries” in combat. This decision was based on the recognition that brain injuries caused by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) qualify as wounds, even though such brain injuries may be invisible.
Awards for these head injuries are retroactive to 11 September 2001, the day of al Qaeda’s attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. On the issue of severity of a brain injury, a soldier need not lose consciousness in order to qualify for the Purple Heart. On the contrary, if a “medical officer” or “medical professional” makes a “diagnosis” that an individual suffered a “concussive injury” and the “extent of the wound was such that it required treatment by a medical officer,” this is sufficient for the award of the Purple Heart. It is too early to know the extent to which Purple Hearts will be awarded to soldiers for these concussion injuries, but the number of awards could be sizable given the wounds inflicted by IEDs.
The Purple Hearts for traumatic brain injury, however, are very different from the ongoing issue of whether the Purple Heart should be awarded for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In 2008, after increasing numbers of men and women returning from service in Operations ENDURING FREEDOM and IRAQI FREEDOM were diagnosed as suffering from PTSD, some commentators proposed awarding the Purple Heart for these psychological wounds. After carefully studying the issue, however, the Defense Department concluded that having PTSD did not qualify a person for the Purple Heart because the disorder was not a “wound intentionally caused by the enemy…but a secondary effect caused by witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event.” This is not to say that PTSD is not a serious mental disorder, but those who suffer from it will not be awarded the Purple Heart.
As war evolves, the Purple Heart will evolve as well. For example, a recent law passed by Congress permits the award of the Purple Heart for some domestic terrorist incidents. While today’s Purple Heart medal looks exactly the same as it did in 1932, General MacArthur would certainly be surprised to see how much the criteria for awarding it has changed. Today, the Purple Heart may be awarded to any soldier who, while serving under competent authority in any capacity with one of the Armed Forces after 5 April 1917, is killed or wounded in any of the following circumstances:
In action against an enemy of the United States;
In action with an opposing armed force of a foreign country in which the Armed Forces of the United States are or have been engaged;
While serving with friendly foreign forces engaged in an armed conflict against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party;
As the result of an act of any such enemy of opposing armed force;
As the result of an act of any hostile foreign force;
As the result of friendly weapon fire while actively engaging the enemy;
As the indirect result of enemy action (e.g., injuries resulting from parachuting from a plane brought down by enemy or hostile fire);
As the result of an international terrorist attack against the United States or a foreign nation friendly to the United States;
As a result of military operations outside the United States while serving with a peacekeeping force;
As the result of a domestic attack inspired by foreign terrorist organizations.
More than 1.5 million American men and women have been awarded the Purple Heart since 1932. While one might expect that only those wounded after the Purple Heart was revived in 1932 would have received the Purple Heart, the truth is that most early recipients were World War I soldiers (and marines serving with the Army in France) who had been wounded in action. But veterans of the Civil War and Indian Wars, as well as the Spanish-American War, China Relief Expedition (Boxer Rebellion), and Philippine Insurrection also were awarded the Purple Heart. This is because the original regulations governing the award of the Purple Heart, published by the Army in 1932, provided that any soldier who had been wounded in any conflict involving U.S. Army personnel might apply for the new medal. There were but two requirements: the applicant had to be alive at the time of application (no posthumous awards were permitted) and he had to prove that he had received a wound that necessitated treatment by a medical officer.
Certainly the most famous recipient of the Purple Heart for a pre-1917 combat wound is Calvin Pearl Titus. On 14 August 1900, while serving in China as a corporal and bugler in the Regular Army’s 14th Infantry Regiment during the heavy fighting in Peking, Titus overheard his commander saying that the thirty-foot-high Tartar Wall needed to be scaled. He answered with the now famous reply, “I’ll try, Sir.” Holding onto exposed bricks and crevices in the ancient wall, Titus managed to climb to the top. Other soldiers then followed his courageous example, and soon two companies of soldiers were in control of the wall. Their covering fire subsequently allowed British troops to breach the Boxers’ stronghold.
Titus was recommended for the Medal of Honor for his extraordinary heroism at Peking, and he also received an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy (USMA). Titus was at West Point as a cadet when President Theodore Roosevelt presented him with the Medal of Honor, and he remains the only USMA cadet in history to be honored with America’s highest award for combat valor while attending classes at West Point.
Although Titus was not wounded while climbing the Tartar Wall, official military records show that he was wounded the next day. As a result of this “in line of duty” injury, the Army awarded Titus the Purple Heart on 17 February 1955. Titus had retired from the Army in October 1930 with the rank of lieutenant colonel and was seventy-six years old when he was awarded his Purple Heart.
Tens of thousands of World War I veterans were awarded the Purple Heart following the medal’s re-establishment in 1932. The most well-known World War I recipients of the Purple Heart are William J. Donovan, Douglas MacArthur, and George S. Patton, Jr.
Born on New Year’s Day 1883 in Buffalo, New York, William Joseph “Wild Bill” Donovan graduated from Columbia University in 1905 and completed law school there in 1908. He then became a successful Wall Street lawyer. When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, however, the thirty-four-year-old Donovan left civilian life for duty with the Army in France. On 14-15 October 1918, then Lieutenant Colonel Donovan, serving in the 165th Infantry Regiment, 42d (Rainbow) Division, “personally led the assaulting wave” of American soldiers “in an attack upon a very strongly organized position.” His heroism during this attack ultimately earned him the Medal of Honor. As he had been wounded in the leg by German machine-gun bullets, Donovan would later receive the Purple Heart. Today, Donovan is best remembered as the founder of the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Douglas MacArthur, the prime mover behind the revival of the Purple Heart, was twice wounded by gas while fighting in France. On 11 March 1918, the thirty-eight-year-old MacArthur was seriously injured when exposed to mustard gas. The poison vapor threatened his eyesight and he had to wear a blindfold for eight days. Seven months later, on 14 October 1918, MacArthur was wounded a second time after encountering “mustard and tear gas.” On both occasions, MacArthur had been at the front without a gas mask. He knew this was irresponsible behavior and although MacArthur “severely disciplined subordinates who followed his example,” this did not deter him. In July 1932, MacArthur was issued Purple Heart No. 1 (Arabic numerals were impressed on the edge of all pre-World War II Purple Hearts). Today, MacArthur is best known for his brilliant strategic exploits in the Pacific in World War II, his pivotal role in the reconstruction of Japan, and his controversial command decisions during the Korean War.
George S. Patton, Jr. sailed to France in 1917 and began studying tank tactics with the Allies. He established a tank school in Bourg, France, trained the first American tank crews and commanders, and led a 345-tank brigade into combat at Meuse-Argonne. He was severely wounded in the leg by gunfire on 26 September 1918 and, on account of that combat injury, was awarded the Purple Heart in 1932. Today, Patton is accepted as one of the greatest military commanders in U.S. history, and the 1970 film Patton, starring George C. Scott in the title role, cemented his heroic image in popular culture.
Over one million American service personnel were awarded the Purple Heart during World War II. Arguably, the most famous soldier of the war to receive of the Purple Heart was Audie L. Murphy, who was awarded three Purple Hearts. His first award was for injuries received when he was caught in a mortar barrage while fighting in France in September 1944. While Murphy waited for the enemy fire to stop, a shell exploded at his feet and knocked him unconscious. A fragment of metal from that shell also pierced his foot. The following month, now Lieutenant Murphy (he had received a battlefield commission) was wounded in his right hip by a German sniper. He spent three months in the hospital recovering from this serious wound. After rejoining his unit in January 1945, Murphy was wounded a third time when he was hit by fragments from a German mortar round that killed two others nearby. When World War II ended, Audie Murphy was still a month shy of his twenty-first birthday, but he was the most highly decorated soldier in the eight million strong Army, earning a Medal of Honor, a Distinguished Service Cross (the second highest decoration that may be awarded to an American soldier), two Silver Stars and two Bronze Stars.
Murphy returned to the United States as a hero. His face graced the cover of Life magazine and, after visiting Hollywood at the invitation of actor James Cagney, Murphy began appearing in movies. Murphy had roles in more than forty movies, including The Red Badge of Courage in 1951 and To Hell and Back in 1955, in which he played himself.
The Army awarded more than 100,000 Purple Hearts to soldiers who were either wounded or killed in action in Korea between 1950 and 1953. One of the most remarkable recipients was Lewis Lee “Red” Millett. Born on 15 December 1920, Millett joined the Massachusetts National Guard at age seventeen. He served in World War II and, after a brief stint as a civilian, returned to active duty in 1949. He was assigned to the 27th Infantry Regiment (Wolfhounds), 25th Infantry Division, and sent to Japan. After war broke out in Korea on 25 June 1950, Millett served as an artillery observer on the ground and in the air. Six months later, then Captain Millett took command of Company E, 27th Infantry. On 7 February 1951, in the vicinity of Soam-Ni, Millett led his company in an attack against strongly held Chinese positions. When he saw that one of his platoons was pinned down by enemy fire, Millett ordered his soldiers to fix bayonets and led the assault uphill against Communist positions. Then, despite having been “wounded by grenade fragments,” Millett refused to be evacuated until the objective was taken. For his combat wounds, Millett was awarded a Purple Heart. He also received the Medal of Honor for his actions in the same engagement.
Over 350,000 Purple Hearts were awarded during the Vietnam War. Well-known soldier recipients include Generals Colin L. Powell, H. Norman Schwarzkopf, and Eric K. Shinseki.
In 1963, then twenty-six-year-old Powell was wounded when he “stepped into a punji trap” while serving as an advisor to a South Vietnamese Army unit. The Viet Cong routinely set up such booby traps along well-traveled trails, and the sharp punji sticks in these traps were poisoned by dipping them in dung. In Powell’s case, a punji pierced his boot and sank into his foot, causing an infection that required his evacuation to a hospital for treatment. Today, Powell is best remembered for his service as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and his tenure as U.S. Secretary of State.
Herbert Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr., was twice wounded in Vietnam. He received his first Purple Heart for wounds suffered on 14 February 1966 while serving as an advisor to a South Vietnamese airborne brigade. His second Purple Heart came in 1970 while Schwarzkopf was in command of 1st Battalion, 6th Infantry, 198th Infantry Brigade, 23d Infantry (Americal) Division. This second Purple Heart occurred under very unusual circumstances. Having heard that some of his soldiers had entered a minefield and that one had been badly injured, Schwarzkopf flew by helicopter to the scene. After another soldier stepped on a mine and began to scream uncontrollably, Schwarzkopf feared that “his cries were causing panic among the troops and that…they might break and run. ” Schwarzkopf then entered the minefield “one slow step at a time” and, reaching the young soldier, “lay down on him to keep him from thrashing.” Suddenly, the artillery liaison officer, who was twenty yards away, stepped on a mine. It blew off the man’s right arm and leg, and Schwarzkopf was wounded in the chest from shrapnel.
Today, “Stormin’ Norman” is best remembered for his superb performance in the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Beginning in August 1990, Schwarzkopf and his staff planned and carried out the deployment of some 765,000 troops from twenty-eight countries, including 541,000 Americans. This was followed by Operation DESERT STORM, which included a six-week air campaign beginning on 17 January 1991 that concluded with a decisive 100-hour assault by ground forces.
Eric K. Shinseki, who would later serve as Army Chief of Staff and Secretary of Veterans Affairs, was twice wounded in Vietnam. Born in Honolulu on 28 November 1942, Shinseki graduated from USMA in 1965. He was awarded his first Purple Heart while serving with the 25th Infantry Division in Vietnam in September 1966. Three years later, while back in Vietnam and in command of Troop A, 3d Squadron, 5th Cavalry Regiment, Shinseki received his second Purple Heart after stepping on a landmine and losing part of his foot.
Since Vietnam, thousands and thousands of Purple Hearts have been awarded to soldiers for wounds received in a variety of locations, including Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, France, Germany, Haiti, Korea, Iraq, Panama, Serbia, Somalia, and the United States. More than 30,000 Purple Hearts have been awarded to soldiers for wounds received in combat since 2001.
One topic that often arises with regards to the Purple Heart is identifying the soldier who received the most awards of the medal. Military records maintained by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in St. Louis, Missouri, identify a number of possible candidates, with the two strongest contenders being Major General Robert T. Frederick and Colonel David H. Hackworth. Both soldiers received a remarkable eight awards of the decoration.
All eight of Frederick’s Purple Hearts were awarded during World War II, with an unprecedented three Purple Hearts being awarded on 4 June 1944. On that day, while commanding the First Special Service Force as it entered Rome, he was wounded on three separate occasions by bullets that struck his thighs and right arm. Frederick received his eighth Purple Heart, just six days after he had pinned on his second star, when he was wounded on 15 August 1944 during Operation DRAGOON while leading a parachute assault near Saint-Tropez, France. As for Hackworth, he was awarded four Purple Hearts for combat wounds received in the Korean War and another four for wounds received while fighting in Vietnam. In addition to eight Purple Hearts, Hackworth was awarded an unprecedented ten Silver Stars for gallantry in action, all of which are confirmed by official documents in his military personnel file preserved by NARA at St. Louis. After retiring from the Army, Hackworth had a successful career as a controversial columnist for Newsweek and wrote a number of bestselling books on military topics, including About Face: The Odyssey of an American Warrior, which was published in 1989.
Although not a soldier, and technically outside the scope of this article, the only U.S. president to be awarded the Purple Heart must be mentioned. Elected as the thirty-fifth president in 1960, John F. “Jack” Kennedy was awarded the Purple Heart after being seriously injured when the patrol torpedo boat he was commanding, PT-109, was sliced in half and sunk by a Japanese destroyer near the Solomon Islands on 2 August 1944. Kennedy was badly hurt in the collision, as were two other sailors; two more were lost. Despite his injuries, then Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Kennedy “unhesitatingly braved the difficulties and hazards of darkness to direct rescue operations, swimming many hours to secure aid and food after he had succeeded in getting his crew to shore” on a nearby island. Kennedy’s brush with death was popularized in newspapers and magazines, and his status as a war hero helped smooth his entry into Massachusetts politics. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1947 and to the U.S. Senate in 1953 before defeating sitting vice president and Republican candidate Richard M. Nixon for the presidency in 1960.
More than a million Purple Hearts have been awarded since General Washington’s Badge of Military Merit was revived in 1932. The unique heart-shaped decoration continues to widely recognized by Americans. It also continues to be prized by all who receive it, probably because the award of a Purple Heart does not depend on any superior’s favor or approval. After all, the Purple Heart is unique as an egalitarian award in what is usually thought of as a nondemocratic, hierarchical military organization, since every man or woman in uniform who sheds blood or receives a qualifying injury while defending the nation receives the Purple Heart regardless of position, rank, status, or popularity.