History of the Purple Heart

The Story of America's Oldest Military Decoration
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:

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.

n 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.