Several years ago, retired Sergeant Danny Priest leaned over and said to me, “The Purple Heart is one of those medals you do not want to get because you have to have been wounded in battle.”
He should know. While serving in the 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division outside of Taji, Iraq in 2005, a rocket propelled grenade left scars on him.
“That said, I bear my Purple Heart with pride.”
Today is National Purple Heart Day, a day to remember those men and women who were either wounded on the battlefield or made the ultimate sacrifice.
This military medal – America’s oldest – traces its history back to the American Revolution and General George Washington’s desire to recognize those soldiers who had distinguished themselves in service or combat.
Hash Marks and Merit
Believing the “road to glory in a patriot army and a free country is thus open to all,” on a warm August 7, 1782 from his headquarters in Newburgh, New York, Washington ordered the establishment of two decorations.
In anticipation of today’s hash marks on a service member’s sleeve, the Badge of Distinction was to be “conferred on the veteran noncommissioned officers and soldiers … who had served more than three years,” and would consist of “a narrow piece of white cloth of an angular form … to be fixed to the left arm on the uniform coat,” wrote Washington.
More to the point of today – Purple Heart Day – he also ordered the creation of the Badge of Military Merit, and he stated that “whenever any singularly meritorious action is performed, the author of it shall be permitted to wear on his facings over the left breast, the figure of a heart in purple cloth, or silk, edged with narrow lace or binding.”
In shape and color, the Badge of Military Merit inspired today’s Purple Heart; the requirements to earn one foreshadowed the Medal of Honor.
To record his policy of formal recognition of the actions of regular soldiers – rather than just solely members of the officer class – Washington also ordered that the recipients of the Badge of Merit have their names enrolled in a Book of Merit which would be kept at the orderly office.
When the Revolutionary Army disbanded in June of 1783, the book disappeared forever, and the Badge of Military Merit was forgotten although never officially abolished.
General Order Number 3
Consideration for reviving the award first appeared in 1918 when General John Pershing wanted to recognize soldiers’ service outside of combat.
After World War I, no further interest in the award occurred until October 10, 1927, when Army Chief of Staff General Charles Summerall directed that a draft bill be sent to Congress “to revive the Badge of Military Merit,” to celebrate the Bicentennial of Washington’s birthday.
Congress refused to act.
Then in early 1930, new Army Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur sought to create a new design for the Badge.
Elizabeth Will of the Army Office of the Quartermaster and John Sinnock of the United States Mint worked to redesign the Badge featuring a bust of Washington and his coat of arms on a purple background.
On February 22, 1932 – the 200th anniversary of George Washington’s birth – General MacArthur’s General Order 3 was implemented.
By order of the President of the United States, the Purple Heart established by General George Washington at Newburgh, August 7, 1782, during the War of the Revolution, is hereby revived out of respect to his memory and military achievements.
Like the Badge of Military Merit, the Purple Heart was initially awarded both for wounds received in action and for meritorious service.
With the Congressional establishment of the Legion of Merit in October 1942, the Purple Heart was no longer presented for meritorious service, and in December 1942 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9277 authorizing the Purple Heart medal only for wounds received in combat.
Purple Heart Day: Fun Facts
- The first Purple Heart (for meritorious service) was presented to General Douglas MacArthur.
- Army Sergeant Stubby, a dog smuggled to Europe by soldiers of the 102nd Infantry Regiment, earned two Purple Hearts during World War I – one for being wounded in a gas attack; another for being wounded by a grenade.
- About 1.1 million Purple Hearts were awarded during World War II, more than have been awarded in all other conflicts of the 20th century combined.
- In 1917, nurse Beatrice Mary MacDonald lost her right eye when a German aircraft bombed her hospital. She received the Purple Heart in 1936, retroactively making her the first woman to receive the award. She is also the first woman to earn the Distinguished Service Cross.
- President John F. Kennedy is the only president to have received a Purple Heart.
- Vietnam Army veteran Curry T. Haynes holds the record of the most Purple Hearts received – ten.
- Today we remember the over 1.8 million men and women who have received a Purple Heart in service to this nation.
Read about the only Coastie to earn the Medal of Honor.