The Purple Heart is a United States military decoration awarded in the name of the President to those who have been wounded or killed while serving on or after 5 April 1917 with the U.S. military. The National Purple Heart Hall of Honor is located in Newburgh, New York. The Purple Heart is the oldest symbol and award that is still given to U.S. soldiers in service, surpassed in history only by the long obsolete Fidelity Medallion.
A Purple Heart is a heart-shaped medal within a gold border, 1 3⁄8 inches (35 mm) wide, containing a profile of General George Washington…
… Above the heart appears a shield of the Washington coat of arms (a white shield with two red bars and three red stars in chief) between sprays of green leaves. The reverse consists of a raised bronze heart with the words FOR MILITARY MERIT below the coat of arms and leaves. The ribbon is 1 and 3⁄8 inches (35 mm) wide and consists of the following stripes: 1⁄8 inch (3 mm) white 67101; 1 1⁄8 inches (29 mm) purple 67115; and 1⁄8 inch (3 mm) white 67101. As with other combat medals, multiple awards are denoted by award stars for the Navy, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard, or oak leaf clusters for the Army and Air Force.
Intrinsically, the Purple Heart is the world’s costliest military decoration – nineteen separate operations are required to make it from the rough heart stamped from bronze to the finished medal, plated with gold and enameled in various colors, suspended from a purple and white ribbon.
The original Purple Heart, designated as the Badge of Military Merit, was established by George Washington—then the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army—by order from his Newburgh, New York headquarters on 7 August 1782.
General Washington is often pictured as a cold, stern soldier, a proud aristocrat, a martinet. Perhaps he was all of these at times. Yet we know he showed sympathy and concern for his troops, and was not too proud to pray, humbly on his knees, for his beloved country and for the men who served it, and him, so bravely and loyalty. His keen appreciation of the importance of the common soldier in any campaign impelled him to recognize outstanding valor and merit by granting a commission or an advance in rank for the person concerned. In the summer of 1782 he was ordered by the Continental Congress to cease doing so – there were no funds to pay the soldiers, much less the officers!
Deprived of his usual means of reward, he must have searched for a substitute. Shortly after receiving the “stop” order from Congress, he wrote his memorable General Orders of August 7, 1782, which read in part, the phrase: “Let it be known that he who wears the military order of the purple heart has given of his blood in the defense of his homeland and shall forever be revered by his fellow countrymen.”
The Badge of Military Merit was only awarded to three Revolutionary War soldiers and fell into disuse following the War of Independence. Although never abolished, the award of the badge was not proposed again officially until after World War I.
On 10 October 1927, Army Chief of Staff General Charles Pelot Summerall directed that a draft bill be sent to Congress “to revive the Badge of Military Merit”. The bill was withdrawn and action on the case ceased on 3 January 1928, but the office of the Adjutant General was instructed to file all materials collected for possible future use.
A number of private interests sought to have the medal reinstituted in the Army. One of these was the board of directors of the Fort Ticonderoga Museum in Ticonderoga, New York.
On 7 January 1931, Summerall’s successor, General Douglas MacArthur, confidentially reopened work on a new design, involving the Washington Commission of Fine Arts. This new design was issued on the bicentennial of George Washington’s birth.
Elizabeth Will, an Army heraldic specialist in the Office of the Quartermaster General, was named to redesign the newly revived medal, which became known as the Purple Heart. Using general specifications provided to her, Will created the design sketch for the present medal of the Purple Heart. Her obituary, in the 8 February 1975 edition of the Washington Post newspaper, reflects her many contributions to military heraldry.
The Commission of Fine Arts solicited plaster models from three leading sculptors for the medal, selecting that of John R. Sinnock of the Philadelphia Mint in May 1931. By Executive Order of the President of the United States, the Purple Heart was revived on the 200th Anniversary of George Washington’s birth, out of respect to his memory and military achievements, by War Department General Orders No. 3, dated 22 February 1932.
The criteria was announced in War Department circular dated 22 February 1932 and authorized award to soldiers, upon their request, who had been awarded the Meritorious Service Citation Certificate, Army Wound Ribbon, or were authorized to wear Wound Chevrons subsequent to 5 April 1917, the day before the United States entered World War I. The first Purple Heart was awarded to MacArthur.
During the early period of American involvement in World War II (7 December 1941-22 September 1943), the Purple Heart was awarded both for wounds received in action against the enemy and for meritorious performance of duty. With the establishment of the Legion of Merit, by an Act of Congress, the practice of awarding the Purple Heart for meritorious service was discontinued.
By Executive Order 9277, dated 3 December 1942, the decoration was extended to be applicable to all services and the order required that regulations of the Services be uniform in application as far as practicable. This executive order also authorized award only for wounds received.
Executive Order 11016, dated 25 April 1962, included provisions for posthumous award of the Purple Heart.
Executive Order 12464, dated 23 February 1984, authorized award of the Purple Heart as a result of terrorist attacks or while serving as part of a peacekeeping force subsequent to 28 March 1973.
The Senate approved an amendment to the 1985 Defense Authorization Bill on 13 June 1985 which changed the precedent from immediately above the Good Conduct Medal to immediately above the Meritorious Service Medals. Public Law 99-145 authorized the award for wounds received as a result of friendly fire. Public Law 104-106 expanded the eligibility date, authorizing award of the Purple Heart to a former prisoner of war who was wounded before 25 April 1962.
The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1998 (Public Law 105-85) changed the criteria to delete authorization for award of the Purple Heart Medal to any civilian national of the United States while serving under competent authority in any capacity with the Armed Forces. This change was effective 18 May 1998.
“Military Order of the Purple Heart,”
An organization now known as the “Military Order of the Purple Heart,” was formed in 1932 for the protection and mutual interest of all who have received the decoration. Composed exclusively of Purple Heart recipients, it is the only strictly “combat” organization in existence.
Funds for welfare, rehabilitation and/or service work carried on by the organization are derived almost entirely from the annual distribution of its official flower, The Purple Heart Viola. These are assembled by disabled and needy veterans, many of whom receive little or no compensation from other sources. Thus your contribution for a Viola serves a two-fold purpose – it helps the veteran who assembled it, and enables the organization to do many things in behalf of hospitalized and needy veterans and their families.
The Purple Heart Viola on your lapel is evidence that YOU have not forgotten the price of liberty paid in the past and still being paid by those who have borne the brunt of battle in defense of America.
Close relatives of Purple Heart recipients are eligible to belong to the Ladies Auxiliary of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, which does important work nationally and locally in Veterans’ Hospitals. Further information about the Order and its auxiliary may be obtained from the National Headquarters as listed below.
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