Medal of Honor

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Medal of Honor
From left to right, the Army, Navy/Marine Corps and Air Force medals
Awarded by the United States of America
Type Single-grade neck order
Eligibility Military personnel only
Awarded for " a person who, while a member of the Army, distinguished himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States."[1]
Status Currently awarded
Established July 12 1862
First awarded American Civil War
Total awarded 3,535[2]
Next (higher) None
Next (lower) Army - Distinguished Service Cross
Navy - Navy Cross
Air Force - Air Force Cross
Medal of Honor ribbon

The Medal of Honor is the highest military decoration awarded by the United States government. It is bestowed on a member of the U. S. Military who distinguishes themselves "…conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States…"[1] Because of its nature, the medal is frequently awarded posthumously.

Members of all branches of the U.S. military are eligible to receive the medal, and each service has a unique design with the exception of the Marine Corps and Coast Guard, which both use the Navy's medal. The Medal of Honor is often presented personally to the recipient or, in the case of posthumous awards, to next of kin.

There are two distinct protocols for awarding the Medal of Honor. The first and most common is nomination by a service member in the chain of command, followed by approval at each level of command. The other method is nomination by a member of Congress (generally at the request of a constituent) and approval by a special act of Congress. In either case, the Medal of Honor is presented by the President of the United States on behalf of the Congress.

The medal is frequently, but incorrectly, called the Congressional Medal of Honor, because it is awarded by the Department of Defense "in the name of Congress." The Congressional Medal of Honor Society is so named because that is the name it was given in an act of Congress signed into law by President Eisenhower on August 5, 1958.[3]

The Medal of Honor was first issued during the Civil War. By the time of the Spanish American War, there were more types of medals available for distribution, and the Medal of Honor became the supreme honor.


The first formal system for rewarding acts of individual gallantry by American soldiers was established by George Washington on August 7, 1782, when he created the Badge of Military Merit, designed to recognize "any singularly meritorious action." This decoration is America's first combat award and the second oldest American military decoration of any type, after the Fidelity Medallion.[1]

Although the Badge of Military Merit fell into disuse after the American Revolutionary War, the concept of a military award for individual gallantry by members of the U.S. armed forces had been established. In 1847, after the outbreak of the Mexican-American War, a Certificate of Merit was established for soldiers who distinguished themselves in action. The certificate was granted medal status in 1905 as the Certificate of Merit Medal.[4]

Early in the Civil War, a medal for individual valor was proposed (by James W. Grimes) to Winfield Scott, the Commanding General of the United States Army. Scott did not approve the proposal, but the medal did come into use in the Navy.

Grave of a recipient at the Memphis National Cemetery

Senator James W. Grimes of Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Naval Committee, proposed that a medal of honor, similar to the Victoria Cross of England and the Iron Cross of Germany, be given to naval personnel for acts of bravery in action. His bill was passed by both Houses of Congress and approved by President Abraham Lincoln on December 21, 1861. It established a Medal of Honor for enlisted men of the United States Navy and Marine Corps.[3]

The medal was "to be bestowed upon such petty officers, seamen, landsmen, and Marines as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry and other seamanlike qualities during the present war."[5] Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles directed the Philadelphia Mint to design the new decoration.[3]

Shortly afterward, a resolution by Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts was introduced with similar wording on behalf of the Army and was signed into law on July 12, 1862. This measure provided for awarding a Medal of Honor, as the Navy version also came to be called: "to such noncommissioned officers and privates as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action, and other soldier-like qualities, during the present insurrection."[5]

The Navy presented its first Medals of Honor to 41 sailors, 17 of them for actions in the Battle of Forts Jackson and St. Philip on April 24, 1862. On March 25, 1863, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton presented the first Army Medals of Honor to six of the surviving members of Andrew's Raid.

In July of 1863 former slave William Harvey Carney became the first Black American to earn the Medal of Honor at Fort Wagner, South Carolina with the all black 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.

Medal of Honor Legion

A statue in Louisville, Kentucky honors Medal of Honor recipients from the state.

In the last decade of the century aging Civil War veterans began to seek recognition of their prior service and heroism by requesting awards of the Medal. The Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization composed of veterans of the Union Army created a membership badge that closely resembled the Army's version of the Medal of Honor, causing confusion and animosity among some veterans. As a result, in April of 1890 the Medal of Honor Legion was established to protect the integrity of the Medal. Today the medal is known as the Legion of Valor.

The efforts of the Medal of Honor Legion led to many changes including the review of 1917, where a board of five Army generals convened by law to review every Army Medal of Honor awarded. The commission, led by Lt. Gen. Nelson Miles (a Medal of Honor recipient from the Civil War), recommended that the Army rescind 911 medals. This included the 864 medals awarded to members of the 27th Maine Regiment, 29 who served as Abraham Lincoln's funeral guard, and six civilians whose courage the board did not deny, but who were ruled ineligible for the Medal due their civilian status. Five of the civilians were scouts from the Indian Campaigns including Buffalo Bill Cody. The sixth was Civil War Assistant Surgeon Mary Edwards Walker. Though she had participated in major campaigns from Bull Run to the Battle of Chickamauga and endured three months as a Confederate prisoner of war, her civilian status denied her continued recognition as a Medal of Honor recipient.

Amos Chapman, William Cody, William Dixon, James Dozier, Mary Walker, and William Woodall subsequently had their awards reinstated.[2]

Tiffany Cross

"Tiffany Cross" version of the Medal of Honor

Between 1919 and 1942, the Navy issued two separate versions of the Medal of Honor, one for non-combat bravery and the other for combat-related acts. The ‘Tiffany Cross’ edition first introduced by the Navy Department in 1919 was the combat version of the medal. Awardees for non-combat actions still received the original (and current) medal design.

The name ‘Tiffany Cross’ comes from the medal being originally designed by the famous jewelers Tiffany & Company of New York. The cross was not a popular award and is the rarest of all Medals of Honor in existence.

Eventually, in 1942, the Navy returned to the original medal design for combat awards and abolished non-combat awards of the Medal of Honor.[6]

After World War II

By 1940 the number of living Medal of Honor recipients had dropped to 279, most of them older veterans. The last Civil War recipient had died just two years earlier. World War II focused new attention upon Medal of Honor heroes, many, like Audie Murphy, came home to active roles as "celebrities." As a result the Medal of Honor rose to increased prominence and recognition in American society.

This new prestige attached to the Medal, along with the fresh group of war heroes, many of whom were the subject of books and movies, led to the creation in 1946 of the Medal of Honor Society. Less political than its predecessor, the organization became more concerned with perpetuating the ideals embodied in the Medal… promoting patriotism and fostering a love of Country in the aftermath of World War II.[3]

On August 5, 1958 President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed legislation sent to him by Congress chartering the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.

The Korean War (1950-1953) had 133 Medal of Honor recipients and only 37 survived. In 1953 the last hero of the Indian Wars died, followed by many of the other older heroes of wars past. By the time Roger Donlon earned the first Medal of Honor of the Vietnam War in 1964 the numbers of living heroes was less than 270. The Vietnam War pushed the numbers back over the 300 mark.

In the early twenty-first century the number of living recipients had dropped to less than 100.

More than 3500 different people have received the Medal of Honor.[2]

By conflict
Civil War 1,523 Indian Wars 426
Korean Expedition 15 Spanish-American War 110
Samoan Civil War 4 Philippine-American War 86
Boxer Rebellion 59 Mexican Expedition 56
Haiti (1915–1934) 8 Dominican Republic Occupation 3
World War I 126 Occupation of Nicaragua 2
World War II 472 Korean War 146
Vietnam War 261 USS Liberty incident 1
Battle of Mogadishu 2 Iraq War 7
War in Afghanistan 20 Operation Inherent Resolve 1
Peacetime 193 Unknowns 9
By branch of service
Service Awards
Army 2,461
Navy 749
Marines 300
Air Force 19
Coast Guard 1


A 1993 study commissioned by the Army described systematic racial and religious discrimination in the criteria for awarding medals during World War II.[7] At the time, no Medals of Honor had been awarded to black soldiers who served in World War II. After an exhaustive review of files, the study recommended that several black Distinguished Service Cross recipients be upgraded to the Medal of Honor. On January 13, 1997, President Bill Clinton awarded the medal to seven African-American World War II veterans. Of these, only Vernon Baker was still alive.[8]

A similar study of Asian-Americans in 1998 resulted in President Clinton awarding 21 new Medals of Honor in 2000, including 20 to Japanese-American members of the 442nd Infantry Regiment, among them Senator Daniel Inouye.[9] In 2005, President George W. Bush awarded the Medal of Honor to Jewish veteran and Holocaust survivor Tibor Rubin, who was denied a medal for actions taken during the Korean War because of a superior officer's anti-Semitism.[10]


Early Army versions of the Medal of Honor.
Early Navy versions of the Medal of Honor.

The Medal of Honor has evolved in appearance since its creation in 1862. The present Army medal consists of a gold star surrounded by a wreath, topped by an eagle on a bar inscribed with the word "Valor." The medal is attached by a hook to a light blue moiré silk neckband that is 1316 inches (30 mm) in width and 21¾ inches (552 mm) in length.[1][11]

There is a version of the medal for each branch of the United States armed forces: the Army, Navy and Air Force. Since the U.S. Marine Corps is administratively a part of the Department of the Navy, Marines receive the Navy medal. Before 1965, when the U.S. Air Force design was adopted, members of the U.S. Army Air Corps, U.S. Army Air Forces, and Air Force received the Army version of the medal.[3]

The Coast Guard Medal of Honor, which was distinguished from the Navy medal in 1963, has never been awarded, partly because the U.S. Coast Guard is subsumed into the U.S. Navy in time of declared war. No design yet exists for it. Only one member of the Coast Guard has received a Medal of Honor, Signalman 1st Class Douglas Munro, who was awarded the Navy version for action during the Battle of Guadalcanal.[12]

In the cases where a service member has been awarded more than one Medal of Honor, current regulations specify that an appropriate award device be centered on the Medal of Honor ribbon and neck medal. To indicate multiple presentations of the Medal of Honor, the U.S. Army and Air Force bestow oak leaf clusters, while the Navy Medal of Honor is worn with gold award stars.

A ribbon which is the same shade of light blue as the neckband, and includes five white stars, pointed upwards, in the shape of an "M" is worn for situations other than full dress uniform. When the ribbon is worn, it is placed alone, ¼ inch (6 mm) above the center of the other ribbons. For wear with civilian clothing, a rosette is issued instead of a miniature lapel pin (which usually shows the ribbon bar). The rosette is the same shade of blue as the neck ribbon and includes white stars. The ribbon and rosette are presented at the same time as the medal.[3]


On October 23, 2003, Pub.L. 107-248 was enacted, modifying 36 U.S.C. § 903, authorizing a Medal of Honor flag to be presented to recipients of the decoration.[13]

Medal of Honor Flag

The flag was based on a concept by retired Army Special Forces 1SG Bill Kendall of Jefferson, Iowa.[14] He designed a flag to honor Medal of Honor recipient Captain Darrell Lindsey, a B-26 pilot killed in World War II, who was also from Jefferson. Kendall's design of a light blue field emblazoned with thirteen white five-pointed stars was nearly identical to that of Sarah LeClerc's of the Institute of Heraldry. LeClerc's design, ultimately accepted as the official flag, does not include the words "Medal of Honor" and is fringed in gold. The color of the field and the 13 white stars, arranged in the form of a three bar chevron, consisting of two chevrons of 5 stars and one chevron of 3 stars,[1] replicate the Medal of Honor ribbon. While the flag was originally designed to be a perfectly square 3′x3′, it is 3′x4′, no other size is authorized.[15]

The first Medal of Honor recipient to receive the official flag was Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith in 2005. He was the first Operation Iraqi Freedom Medal of Honor recipient. The flag was cased and presented to his family along with his medal.[16] A special ceremony presenting this flag to 60 Medal of Honor recipients was held onboard the USS Constitution on September 30, 2006.[17]

Authority and privileges

The grave of a recipient at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial

The Medal of Honor confers special privileges on its recipients, both by tradition and by law. By tradition, all other soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen—even higher-ranking officers up to the President of the United States—who are not also recipients of the Medal of Honor initiate the salute. In the event of an officer encountering an enlisted member of the military who has been awarded the Medal of Honor, officers by tradition salute not the person, but the medal itself, thus attempting to time their salute to coincide with the enlisted member's. By law, recipients have several benefits:[18]

  • Each Medal of Honor recipient may have his or her name entered on the Medal of Honor Roll (38 U.S.C. § 1560). Each person whose name is placed on the Medal of Honor Roll is certified to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs as being entitled to receive the special pension of US$1,027 per month. As of December 1, 2004, the pension is subject to cost-of-living increases.
  • Enlisted recipients of the Medal of Honor are entitled to a supplemental uniform allowance.
  • Recipients receive special entitlements to air transportation under the provisions of DOD Regulation 4515.13-R.
  • Special identification cards and commissary and exchange privileges are provided for Medal of Honor recipients and their eligible dependents.
  • Children of recipients are eligible for admission to the United States military academies without regard to the quota requirements.
  • Recipients receive a 10 percent increase in retired pay under 10 U.S.C. § 3991.
  • Those awarded the medal after October 23, 2002 also receive a Medal of Honor Flag. The law also specified that all living Medal of Honor recipients would receive the flag along with all future recipients.(14 U.S.C. § 505).
  • As with all medals, retired personnel may wear the Medal of Honor on "appropriate" civilian clothing. Regulations also specify that recipients of the Medal of Honor are allowed to wear the uniform "at their pleasure" with standard restrictions on political, commercial, or extremist purposes; other former members of the armed forces may do so only at certain ceremonial occasions.

Legal protection

Until late 2006, the Medal of Honor was the only service decoration singled out in federal law to protect it from being imitated or privately sold. The Stolen Valor Act of 2005, enacted December 20, 2006, extended some of these protections to other military awards as well.[19] Now, any false verbal, written or physical claim to an award or decoration authorized for wear by authorized military members or veterans is a federal offense.

All Medals of Honor are issued in the original only, by the Department of Defense, to a recipient. Misuse of the medal, including unauthorized manufacture or wear, is punishable by a fine up to $100,000 and imprisonment for up to one year pursuant to (18 U.S.C. § 704(b)), which prescribes a harsher penalty than that for violations concerning other medals. After the Army redesigned its medal in 1903, a patent was issued (United States Patent #D37,236) to legally prevent others from making the medal. When the patent expired, the Federal government enacted a law making it illegal to produce, wear, or distribute the Medal of Honor without proper authority. Violators of this law have been prosecuted. A number of veterans' organizations and private companies devote themselves to exposing those who falsely claim to have received the Medal of Honor.[20]

In 1996, Fort Lauderdale, Florida resident Jackie Stern was convicted of wearing a medal to which he was not entitled; instead of six months in jail, a federal judge sentenced him to serve one year's probation and to write a letter of apology to each of the then-living 171 actual recipients of the medal; the letter was also published in the local newspaper.[21]

FBI Special Agent Tom Cottone learned that multiple unauthorized Medals of Honor existed in circulation. During the course of his investigation, Cottone found more than 200 individuals who falsely identified themselves as Medal of Honor recipients, which was more than the number of living recipients. H.L.I. Lordship Industries, the government’s official manufacturer of the Medal of Honor, was found to have illegally manufactured additional unauthorized Medals of Honor. Lordship was convicted in federal court, fined, ordered to pay $22,500 in restitution, and the company was barred from receiving any government contracts for 15 years.[22]

Double recipients

Nineteen men have been awarded the Medal of Honor twice. Five of these men were awarded both the Army and Navy Medal of Honor for the same action.[23]

Name Service Rank War Notes
Frank Baldwin Army First Lieutenant, Captain American Civil War, Indian Wars
Smedley Butler Marine Corps Major Vera Cruz, Haiti
John Cooper Navy Coxswain American Civil War
Louis Cukela Marine Corps Sergeant World War I Both awarded for same action.
Thomas Custer Army Second Lieutenant American Civil War
Daniel Daly Marine Corps Private, Gunnery Sergeant Boxer Rebellion, Haiti
Henry Hogan Army First Sergeant Indian Wars
Ernest A. Janson Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant World War I Both awarded for same action. Received the Army MOH under the name Charles F. Hoffman.
John J. Kelly Marine Corps Private World War I Both awarded for same action.
John King Navy Watertender Peacetime
Matej Kocak Marine Corps Sergeant World War I Both awarded for same action.
John Lafferty Navy Fireman, First Class Fireman American Civil War, peacetime
John C. McCloy Navy Coxswain, Chief Boatswain Boxer Rebellion, Vera Cruz
Patrick Mullen Navy Boatswain's Mate Civil War
John H. Pruitt Marine Corps Corporal World War I Both awarded for same action.
Robert Sweeney Navy Ordinary Seaman Peacetime
Albert Weisbogel Navy Captain Peacetime
Louis Williams Navy Captain Peacetime
William Wilson Army Sergeant Indian Wars

Medal of Honor Memorials

On September 21, 2001 a unique memorial was dedicated outside the entrance to the Pueblo, Colorado Convention Center. Named "Heroes' Plaza," the memorial was declared a National Medal of Honor Memorial by the U.S. Congress. Four eight-foot bronze statues of Pueblo's Medal of Honor heroes dominate the convention center plaza and encircle a pool of water. Behind the statues fly the National colors, the flags of each branch of military service, and the POW-MIA flag. The memorial is completed by four large, black marble panels into which is etched the names of all 3,440 Medal of Honor recipients.[24]

There are also memorials at the Riverside National Cemetery in California and the Indianapolis Medal of Honor Memorial in Indiana.[25] A Medal of Honor Museum is located on the hanger deck of the U.S.S. Yorktown at Patriots Point in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.[26]

Similar decorations within the United States

The following United States decorations bear similar names to the Medal of Honor, but are separate awards with different criteria for issuance.

  • Cardenas Medal of Honor: decoration of the Revenue Cutter Service, merged into the United States Coast Guard
  • Chaplain's Medal of Honor: awarded posthumously for a single action to four recipients
  • Congressional Gold Medal
  • Congressional Space Medal of Honor: despite its name, not equal to the Medal of Honor
  • Presidential Medal of Freedom: the highest civilian honor

Several United States law enforcement decorations also bear the name "Medal of Honor." The Public Safety Officer Medal of Valor, established by Congress in 2001, "the highest national award for valor by a public safety officer," is also awarded by the President.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 Title 32 CFR 578.4: Section 578.4 Medal of Honor Code of Federal Regulations (annual edition) - July 1, 2002 Edition (U.S. Government Printing Office). Retrieved June 13, 2023.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Statistics & FAQS Congressional Medal of Honor Society. Retrieved June 13, 2023.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 The Congressional Medal of Honor Society's History Congressional Medal of Honor Society. Retrieved June 13, 2023.
  4. Certificate Of Merit Medal Medal Book. Retrieved June 13, 2023.
  5. 5.0 5.1 History of the Medal. Public Broadcasting System. Retrieved June 13, 2023.
  6. FBI donates confiscated Medal of Honor to museum US Militaria Forum (September 18, 2010). Retrieved June 13, 2023.
  7. Blake Stilwell, A New Book Details the 7 Black Medal of Honor Recipients of World War II Retrieved June 13, 2023.
  8. Robert Child, Immortal Valor: The Black Medal of Honor Winners of World War II (Osprey Publishing, 2022, ISBN 1472852850).
  9. Rudi Williams, 21 Asian American World War II Vets To Get Medal of Honor Digital History (May 19, 2000). Retrieved June 13, 2023.
  10. Corporal Tibor Rubin's Medal of Honor. The National WWII Museum (July 12, 2021). Retrieved June 13, 2023.
  11. Designs of the Medal of Honor Congressional Medal of Honor Society. Retrieved June 13, 2023.
  12. World War II - U.S. Coast Guard: Douglas Albert Munro Congressional Medal of Honor Society. Retrieved June 13, 2023.
  13. Designation of the Medal of Honor Flag. US Retrieved June 13, 2023.
  14. Legionnaire remembered for his Medal of Honor flag design The American Legion (June 26, 2018). Retrieved June 14, 2023.
  15. The Medal of Honor Flag The Drill Master, March 31, 2020. Retrieved June 14, 2023.
  16. SFC Paul Ray Smith Military Hall of Honor. Retrieved June 14, 2023.
  17. 2006, "Old Ironsides" Hosts Medal of Honor Recipients]. Air Force. Retrieved June 14, 2023.
  18. 8 Special Benefits Medal of Honor Recipients Get for Their Exceptional Service Retrieved June 14, 2023.
  19. S. 1998: Stolen Valor Act of 2005. Retrieved June 14, 2023.
  20. Amy Chozick, Veterans' Web Sites Expose Pseudo Heroes, Phony Honors The Wall Street Journal (May 6, 2005). Retrieved June 14, 2023.
  21. Robert Vito, Florida Man wears medal without Honor. CNN (December 4, 1996). Retrieved June 14, 2023.
  22. Congressional Medal of Honor Fraud Federal Bureau of Investigation. Retrieved June 14, 2023.
  23. 38 Recipeients of Two Medals of Honor Congressional Medal of Honor Society. Retrieved June 13, 2023.
  24. Pueblo Medal of Honor Memorial at Pueblo Convention Center Pueblo Home of Heroes. Retrieved June 14, 2023.
  25. Medal of Honor Memorial Indiana War Memorials Foundation. Retrieved June 14, 2023.
  26. The Medal of Honor Museum. Congressional Medal of Honor Society. Retrieved June 14, 202.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bonds, Russell S. Stealing the General: The Great Locomotive Chase and the First Medal of Honor. Yardley, PA: Westholme. 2007. ISBN 1594160333
  • Child, Robert. Immortal Valor: The Black Medal of Honor Winners of World War II. Osprey Publishing, 2022. ISBN 1472852850
  • Congressional Medal of Honor Society. Above and Beyond: A History of the Medal of Honor from the Civil War to Vietnam. Boston, MA: Boston Pub. Co., 1985. ISBN 0939526190
  • Collier, Peter, and Nick Del Calzo. Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty. New York: Artisan, 2003. ISBN 1579652409
  • Mikaelian, Allen. Medal of Honor: Profiles of America's Military Heroes from the Civil War to the Present. New York: Hyperion, 2002. ISBN 0786866624
  • Smith, Larry. Beyond Glory: Medal of Honor Heroes in Their Own Words : Extraordinary Stories of Courage from World War II to Vietnam. New York: Norton, 2003. ISBN 039305134X

External links

All links retrieved May 18, 2023.


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