Purple Heart

From New World Encyclopedia

Purple Heart
Purple heart.jpg
Awarded by United States of America
Type Medal
Eligibility Military Personnel
Awarded for "Being wounded or killed in any action against an enemy of the United States or as a result of an act of any such enemy or opposing armed forces"
Status Currently Awarded
First awarded 22 February 1789
Next (higher) Bronze Star
Next (lower) Meritorious Service Medals:
Joint Service, Branch Service
Purple Heart BAR.svg
Purple Heart Ribbon

The Purple Heart is an American military decoration that was the first award made available to the common soldier. It was initially created as the Badge of Military Merit by General George Washington's General Orders of August 7, 1782, and is the oldest military award to U.S. military members in current use.

Designed by Washington in the form of a purple heart, it was intended as a military order for soldiers who displayed unusual gallantry in battle, or extraordinary fidelity and essential service.

In 1932, the United States War Department authorized the new Purple Heart Medal for soldiers who had previously received either a Wound Chevron or the Army Wound Ribbon. At that time, it was also determined that the Purple Heart Medal would be considered the official "successor decoration" to the Badge of Military Merit. It is now specifically a combat decoration that is awarded to members of the U.S. armed forces who are wounded by the enemy and posthumously to the next of kin in the name of those who are killed in action or die of wounds received in action.

An estimated 1.7 million veterans have received Purple Hearts since 1932. In October 2008, U.S. soldiers who died in Prisoner of war (POW) camps as long ago as World War II were authorized to receive Purple Heart medals. The changes in eligibility affect an estimated 17,000 POWs who died in captivity to receive the honor.

The National Purple Heart Hall of Honor is located in New Windsor, New York.


Initially created as the Badge of Military Merit by George Washington—then the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army—by order from his Newburgh, New York headquarters on August 7, 1782, it stated, "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." Washington ended his order with: "The road to glory in a patriot army and a free country is thus open to all."

The Badge of Military Merit was only awarded to three Revolutionary War soldiers, all from Connecticut, who were recognized for valor in combat. Sergeant Elijah Churchill was cited for gallantry in action at Fort St. George, New York in November 1780 and for action at Tarrytown, New York, in July 1781. Sergeant William Brown was also cited for his gallantry during the siege of Yorktown as was Sergeant Daniel Bissell, Jr., who posed as a deserter and acted as a spy among the British troops in New York.[1]

Did you know?
The Purple Heart was originally created as the Badge of Military Merit by George Washington

These three awards were all made directly by General Washington himself, presented together with a certificate detailing the service for which the Badge was awarded. Two of these original awards have been preserved.

It is possible there were others who received the award, but the record book containing the list of names was destroyed when the British burned Washington, D.C., during the War of 1812.[2]

The award fell into disuse following the American War for Independence. Although never abolished, the award of the badge was not proposed again officially until after World War I.

Badge revived

On October 10, 1927, Army Chief of Staff General Charles Pelot Summerall directed that a draft bill be sent to the United States Congress "to revive the Badge of Military Merit." The bill was withdrawn but the office of the Adjutant General was instructed to file all materials collected for future use.

On January 7, 1931, Summerall’s successor, General Douglas MacArthur, reopened work on a new design, involving the Washington Commission of Fine Arts. By Executive Order of the President of the United States, Herbert Hoover, the Purple Heart was revived on the 200th Anniversary of George Washington's birth, February 22, 1932.

After turning the badge into a medal, MacArthur stuck with the original design and color. But he made one significant change. Deciding that those wounded or killed in the line of duty were worthy of an award of merit, he recommended the criteria be changed to include the combat wounded and made the honor retroactive to World War I. Having been injured in battle, MacArthur received the first Purple Heart medal.

An organization now known as the "Military Order of the Purple Heart," was formed in 1932 for the protection and mutual interest of those who received the decoration. Composed exclusively of Purple Heart recipients, it is the only veterans service organization comprised strictly of "combat" veterans.

Medal inventory

During World War II, some 1,506,000 Purple Hearts were made for the war effort with production reaching its peak as America geared up for the invasion of Japan. The Navy had believed that its initial 1942 order for 135,000 Purple Hearts would be sufficient for all wartime needs but found that it had to order some 75,00 more by the spring of 1945. However, when the war ended there was a surplus of 495,000 unused Purple Hearts.

By 1976, roughly 370,000 of these had been earned by servicemen and women who fought in America’s Asian wars as well as in trouble spots in the Middle East and Europe. This total included a significant number issued to World War II and even World War I veterans whose paperwork had finally caught up with them. That year also saw a small production run of additional Purple Hearts before a warehouse-load—125,000 decorations—of decades-old inventory was rediscovered after falling off the books.

Increasing terrorist activity in the late 1970s and 1980s resulted in mounting casualties among service personnel, and a decision was made to inspect the remaining stock. Thousands were labeled “unsalvageable,” but thousands more were re-furbished and repackaged between 1985 and 1991. By the end of 1999, most of the refurbished medals had been shipped to other government customers, and the Defense Supply Center in Philadelphia entered into contracts with Graco Industries of Tomball, Texas, for the first large-scale production of Purple Hearts since World War II.[3]

More than thirty thousand Purple Hearts have been awarded since 2001.[4]

Six share distinction

The most Purple Hearts received by one person is eight. Six U.S. Army soldiers share that distinction:

  • Richard J. Buck—Four Purple Hearts in the Korean War and four in the Vietnam War
  • Robert T. Frederick—Eight Purple Hearts in World War II; also received two Distinguished Service Crosses
  • David H. Hackworth—Eight Purple Hearts in the Korean War and Vietnam War; also received two Distinguished Service Crosses and ten Silver Stars
  • Robert L. Howard—Eight Purple Hearts in the Vietnam War; also received the Medal of Honor
  • William L. Russell—Eight Purple Hearts in World War II; Silver Star
  • William Waugh—Eight Purple Hearts in the Vietnam War; also received the Silver Star
  • Steponas Darius, an aviator, who fought for the U.S. army during World War I

Women recipients

The first woman to receive The Purple Heart as a result of combat was 1st Lt. Annie G. Fox, while serving at Hickam Field during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec 7, 1941. Lt. Fox was later awarded the Bronze Star as well.

Two nurses were awarded the Purple Heart for wounds received when the Japanese bombed their hospital on Bataan Rita Palmer, Hampton, New Hampshire, and Rosemary Hogan, Chattanooga, Oklahoma. Army Nurse Mary Brown Menzie received the Purple Heart as a result of injuries on Corregidor. Several other military women were awarded the Purple Heart during WWII.[5]


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.

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.

The Purple Heart award is a heart-shaped medal within a gold border, 1 38 inches (35 mm) wide, containing a profile of General George Washington. Above the heart appears a shield of the coat of arms of George Washington (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 38 inches (35 mm) wide and consists of the following stripes: 18 inch (3 mm) white 67101; 1 18 inches (29 mm) purple 67115; and 18 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.


Per United States Army regulations, the Purple Heart is awarded in the name of the President of the United States to any member of the Armed Forces of the United States who, while serving under competent authority in any capacity with one of the U.S. Armed Services after 5 April 1917, has been wounded or killed, or who has died after being wounded.

The Purple Heart differs from all other decorations in that an individual is not "recommended" for the decoration; rather he or she is entitled to it upon meeting specific criteria. A Purple Heart is authorized for the first wound suffered under conditions indicated above, but for each subsequent award an oak leaf cluster is awarded. Only one award is made for more than one wound or injury received at the same instant.


During the early period of American involvement in World War II (December 7, 1941-September 22, 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.

Since World War II, U.S. presidents have expanded the eligibility requirements for the Purple Heart. On December 3, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order that extended the award to the Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard and made the change retroactive to December 6, 1941. In 1952, President Harry S. Truman extended the date of eligibility retroactively to April 5, 1917, to include those who were injured or killed during World War I.

From 1962 to 1998, civilian personnel wounded or killed while serving under military command were also eligible for the Purple Heart, in accordance with a 1962 executive order by President John F. Kennedy. That order also prompted a policy change to include prisoners of war wounded during captivity. (A 1996 law authorized awarding the Purple Heart to POWs wounded before April 25, 1962.) Kennedy’s 1962 executive order was amended in 1984 by President Ronald Reagan to include both military personnel and civilians under military authority who were killed or wounded in an international terrorist attack after March 28, 1973.[6]

In 1985 the U.S. Senate approved an amendment to the Defense Authorization Bill, which changed the precedence from immediately above the Good Conduct Medal to immediately above the Meritorious Service Medals.

A law that went into effect in 1998 restored the previous criteria so that now only members of the U.S. armed forces may receive the Purple Heart. The Defense of Freedom Medal, the civilian equivalent of the Purple Heart, was unveiled by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld on September 27, 2001.[7]

In October 2008 U.S. soldiers who died in prisoner of war camps as long ago as World War II became eligible to receive Purple Heart medals once reserved only for troops killed or wounded in combat.[8]

The Stolen Valor Act of 2005 sets out penalties for people who falsely claim to have been awarded the Purple Heart. The Act states that any false verbal, written or physical claim, or selling of the Purple Heart Medal, by an individual to whom it has not been awarded, is a federal offense punishable by jail time and/or a fine.[9]


Current active duty personnel are awarded the Purple Heart upon recommendation from their chain of command, stating the injury that was received and the action in which the service member was wounded. While the award of the Purple Heart is considered automatic for all wounds received in combat, each award presentation must still be reviewed to ensure that the wounds received were as a result of enemy action.

Army PFC Jessica Lynch receiving the Purple Heart in 2003.

Retroactive awards

Because the Purple Heart did not exist prior to 1932, records of the decoration are not annotated in service histories of those veterans who were wounded or killed by enemy action prior to the establishment of the medal. The Purple Heart, however, is retroactive to 1917 meaning that it may be presented to veterans as far back as the World War I.

Prior to 2006, service departments would review older service records, service histories, and all available records to determine if a veteran was entitled to a retroactive Purple Heart. As of 2008, such records are listed as "Archival" by the National Archives and Records Administration meaning they have been transferred from the custody of the military and can no longer be loaned and transferred for retroactive medals determination. In such cases, those seeking consideration for a Purple Heart (especially from records of the World War I) are provided with a complete copy of all available records (or reconstructed records in the case of the 1973 fire) and advised that the Purple Heart may be privately purchased.

Destroyed record requests

Due to the 1973 National Archives Fire, a large number of retroactive Purple Heart requests are difficult to verify since all records to substantiate the award may very well have been destroyed. As a solution to this, the National Personnel Records Center maintains a separate office to deal with Purple Heart requests where service records have been destroyed in the 1973 fire. In such cases, NPRC searches through unit records, military pay records, and records of the Department of Veterans Affairs. If a Purple Heart is warranted, all available alternate records sources are forwarded to the military service department for final determination of issuance.

Last resort requests

Some veterans who have exhausted all available sources, often still feel that they should be awarded a Purple Heart, even if there are no records of the decoration. In such cases, service members may appeal directly to the military service department by way of a Defense Department Form 149, which requests an official change to military records.

A final course of action for some veterans has been to approach either a United States Senator or Congressman. Such cases are treated as brand new award recommendations and the process for presenting the Purple Heart begins again with a review of records and interview of witnesses to the action in which a service member was wounded.

Well known recipients

John Kerry, Democratic Party nominee for President in 2004, was awarded three Purple Hearts during his service in the Vietnam War. During the 2004 U.S. presidential campaign these awards (along with Kerry's entire Vietnam war record) were the source of some controversy as the 527 group Swift Vets and POWs for Truth, in a series of ads questioned the validity of those awards. 2008 presidential candidate John McCain has also received a Purple Heart.

Celebrity recipients

  • Charles Bronson, actor
  • Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., writer
  • Oliver Stone, director
  • Lee Marvin, actor
  • Charles Durning, actor
  • Audie Murphy, actor


The Original General Order issued by Washington, apparently lost or misfiled for almost 150 years among the War Department Records at Washington, D.C., was discovered during a search through Washington's papers prior to the celebration of his bicentennial in 1932. With it were the dramatic accounts of three soldiers who received the decoration at Newburgh, N.Y., at Washington's Headquarters.

The current medal is made in the shape of a rich purple heart bordered with gold, with a bust of Washington in the center and the Washington Coat-of-arms at the top. The latter is believed to have been the source of the stars and stripes of the American Flag.[10]

The Purple Heart Trail was established in 1992 by the Military Order of the Purple Heart to be a symbolic trail throughout all 50 states to commemorate and honor all men and women who have been wounded or killed in combat while serving in the U.S. armed forces. The Purple Heart Trail originates in Mount Vernon, Virginia, outside the main gate of Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens and traverses the United States to California. More than 20 states have implemented the trail, including Hawaii. The trail has also been implemented in Puerto Rico and Guam.[11]

The National Purple Heart Hall of Honor in New York's Hudson River Valley at the New Windsor Cantonment State Historic Site opened in 2006. The 7,500 square foot facility shares the stories of America's combat wounded veterans and those who never returned. The original award given to Elijah Churchill by Washington is on display at the New Windsor Cantonment State Historic Site.

Also in 2006 a new version of a postage stamp commemorating the Purple Heart and all those who have earned it was issued. The stamp is a new version of the Purple Heart Definitive stamp, first issued in May 2003.

In August 2007 artist Roger Baker mowed a 1,000-foot long rendition of the medal, covering 850,000 square feet, into a field at Thomas Bull Memorial Park in Hamtonburgh, N.Y., near the town where the first awards were presented to Revolutionary War soldiers. Baker said his creation is a “gift of art” to the American public.[12]


  1. Home of Heroes, Our Nation's First Military Award. Retrieved December 20, 2008.
  2. John White, The Award No One Wants. Retrieved December 20, 2008.
  3. D.M. Giangreco and Kathryn Moore, Half a Million Purple Hearts. Retrieved December 13, 2008.
  4. VVA, The National Purple Heart Hall of Honor. Retrieved December 14, 2008.
  5. userpages.aug.com, Women Medal Recipients. Retrieved December 14, 2008.
  6. The American Presidency Project, Executive Order 12464 - Award of the Purple Heart Retrieved January 7, 2016.
  7. Mount Vernon, Commemoration of Purple Heart Award at Mount Vernon. Retrieved December 13, 2008.
  8. Reuters, U.S. expands eligibility for Purple Heart Medal. Retrieved December 13, 2008.
  9. 18 U.S.C. 704.
  10. Purple heart.org, History of the Medal. Retrieved December 14, 2008.
  11. Purple Heart Austin, Purple Heart Trail. Retrieved December 13, 2008.
  12. Defense Link, Artist Creates Giant Rendition of Purple Heart Medal. Retrieved December 13, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Borthick, David, and Jack Britton. 1984. Medals, Military, and Civilian of the United States. Tulsa, OK: M.C.N. Press. ISBN 091295826X.
  • Foster, Frank C., and Lawrence H. Borts. 2000. A Complete Guide to all United States Military Medals, 1939 to Present. Fountain Inn, SC: MOA Press. ISBN 1884452191.
  • Military Order of the Purple Heart, and Turner Publishing Co. 1987. The Legacy of the Purple Heart. Paducah, KY: Turner Pub. Co. ISBN 9780938021551.
  • Robles, Philip K. 1971. United States Military Medals and Ribbons. Rutland, VT: C.E. Tuttle. ISBN 0804800480.

External links

All links retrieved December 2, 2022.


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