In the United States Military, one of the highest honors a service member can receive is the Purple Heart. Most Americans know that the Purple Heart is a prestigious award that’s bestowed only to those military members who either paid the ultimate price by sacrificing their lives in the line of duty or were seriously injured during combat. But do you know the history behind this esteemed honor and how its criteria have changed over the years?
The oldest U.S. military honor
The Purple Heart is the oldest military honor and originated during the American Revolution. On August 7, 1782, toward the end of the war, General George Washington ordered that a Badge of Military Merit be commissioned. Per his own words from his Orders of the Day, those awarded with the medal “...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.”
In total, only three Continental Army officers received the Badge of Military Merit. Sergeant Daniel Bissell received the award for spying on British troops stationed in New York. Sergeant William Brown was awarded for attacking British positions in Yorktown in 1781. And finally, Sergeant Elijah Churchill was given the honor for leading two raids on Long Island against British forces. However, after the American Revolution, the Badge of Military Merit was all but forgotten for nearly 150 years.
World War I and the evolution of U.S. Military honors
It wasn’t until the latter half of World War I that the U.S. Military realized their medals and honors system was limited compared with other long-standing militaries like the French or British. General John J. Pershing of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) noticed that in comparison to the U.S.’ sole military medal that served for any bravery, most other national forces had multiple awards that were bestowed across forces, depending on ranks and the type of bravery exhibited.
Instead of offering only the Medal of Honor, Congress passed legislation in 1918 to expand their medals to also include the Distinguished Service Cross and the Distinguished Service Medal. However, many military members believed that the criteria to qualify for both of these medals — whether abroad or in the U.S. — was so rigorous that additional medals were needed to recognize other forms of bravery. During the 1920s, the War Department considered reinstating the Badge of Military Merit. But nothing would change for almost a decade.
General MacArthur and the rebirth of the Badge of Military Merit
In 1930, the push to create another medal that would award bravery during wartime service was supported by General Douglas MacArthur, who was currently serving as the Army Chief of Staff. He lobbied to bring the Badge of Military Merit back into use. The goal was to have the medal become available on the bicentennial of Washington’s birthday. The medal was renamed the Purple Heart.
On February 22, 1932, General MacArthur—now the top general in the Army—received the very first Purple Heart issued by the U.S. Army. The Army outlined the Purple Heart as recognition “awarded to persons who, while serving in the Army of the United States, perform any singularly meritorious act of extraordinary fidelity or essential service.” The award was specifically for those wounded in duty with further clarification stating “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.”
Between 1932 and the start of World War II, the Army bestowed roughly 78,000 Purple Heart awards to veterans. While the bulk of these veterans served in World War I, a small number of recipients served in the Civil War, Spanish-American War and Indian Wars. Until World War II, the Purple Heart was given only to members of the U.S. Army.
World War II through the present and criteria changes
Until the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Purple Heart could be awarded only to living army service members. But on April 28, 1942, the War Department expanded its eligibility to include military service members who gave their life defending their country at Pearl Harbor. Later that year, the Army would further narrow the Purple Heart’s scope to focus exclusively on those killed in combat. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order on December 3, 1942 to allow the Navy Department to also award Purple Hearts to its service members.