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The United States’ oldest decoration has undergone several changes of purpose and criterion since its inception in 1782.

More than 1 million Purple Hearts have been given out since 1932, when the decoration was revived by General Douglas MacArthur as an award for combat wounds and meritorious service. But while the modern version of the Purple Heart is less than 75 years old, the honor was first created by General George Washington in 1782, giving it the distinction of being the United States’ oldest military medal.

The Purple Heart is unique for several other reasons. When it was resurrected in 1932 as a medal for meritorious service, MacArthur and the U.S. Army never contemplated that it would be transformed into an award that would go only to men and women who had been wounded or killed in action, as would be the case during World War II and the Korean War. Unlike the criteria for other American medals, which have remained constant over time, those for awarding the Purple Heart have changed markedly in the past 73 years. WWII saw posthumous awards of the Purple Heart permitted for the first time, while it ceased being awarded for meritorious service. The Navy also was given authority to award the Purple Heart to sailors and Marines. In the 1960s, President John F. Kennedy altered the criteria so that Americans wounded or killed while fighting in an undeclared war against a nontraditional enemy, as they were in Vietnam, could receive it. Similarly, in the 1980s President Ronald Reagan authorized it for U.S. military personnel killed or wounded on peacekeeping missions, or who became victims of international terrorist attacks. The most recent change came in 1997, when Congress enacted legislation prohibiting its award to civilians serving with the U.S. armed forces.

On August 7, 1782, General Washington decreed that “whenever any singularly meritorious action is performed, the author of it shall be permitted to wear…over his left breast…a heart in purple cloth.” Washington called his new award the “Badge of Military Merit,” and three were awarded to Continental Army noncommissioned officers in 1783.

The first, Sergeant Daniel Bissell of the 2nd Connecticut Regiment, volunteered to “desert” the Continental Army in August 1781. He then traveled to New York City, where he enlisted in the British army. Bissell, who was operating under Washington’s personal direction, was to remain with the British no longer than necessary to obtain all the information he could on the strength of the enemy’s forces, fortifications and plans. Just before he was to return to the American lines, however, Bissell became deathly ill with a fever and, while in a state of delirium, made some incriminating admissions. The British surgeon treating him guessed that he was a spy, but did not disclose his patient’s identity and reportedly later helped Bissell escape after his lengthy recovery. When he finally rejoined the Continental Army, a year had passed. Bissell’s mission, however, had been an unqualified success, and Washington awarded him the Badge of Military Merit on June 8, 1783.

William Brown, a sergeant in the 5th Connecticut Regiment, earned his Purple Heart for gallantry in action at Yorktown, Va., on October 14, 1781. According to the citation for the award, Brown had been ordered to take a detachment of men and precede the main attack upon the British lines. He was to draw and sustain the first brunt of the enemy’s fire and drive into their lines as far as possible without waiting for sappers to cut through the British barricades and obstructions. That would allow the Continental soldiers following Brown and his men to attack a weakened enemy. Brown acted with “great bravery, propriety and deliberate firmness,” and his Badge of Military Merit reflected his success under fire.

Sergeant Elijah Churchill of the 2nd Continental Dragoons earned his Purple Heart for two raids inside British lines; both were planned and directed by Major Benjamin Tallmadge, the chief of Washington’s intelligence service. In the first raid, Tallmadge learned that the British were storing several tons of hay in a building at Coram, on the north shore of Long Island. British soldiers located at nearby Fort St. George were tasked with protecting the hay, which, given the importance of animal transport in the military of that time, was extremely valuable.

Tallmadge relayed this information to Washington and proposed that the hay be destroyed and the fort protecting it attacked. Late in the afternoon of November 21, 1780, Tallmadge and a detachment of 50 soldiers embarked in whaleboats at Fairfield, Conn., and headed across Long Island Sound toward Fort St. George, some 20 miles away.

At about 3 a.m. on November 23, the troops arrived—unnoticed—within striking distance of the fort. In the subsequent operation, Churchill took 16 men and went ahead of the main body. He surprised, took and destroyed Fort St. George, “acquitting himself with great gallantry, firmness and address.” He also helped with burning a British supply schooner anchored close to the shore and in the capture of 50 prisoners. Churchill rejoined Tallmadge, with all his men, only one of whom was wounded. The second raid was carried out against Fort Slongo, on Long Island, in October 1781. Churchill and his men surprised the British, took 21 prisoners and seized a large quantity of clothes, food, powder and ammunition.

While historians surmise that there may have been others, Bissell’s, Brown’s and Churchill’s are the only confirmed awards of the Badges of Military Merit during the American Revolution.

After the Revolution, the Badge of Military Merit was forgotten for more than 150 years. In the aftermath of World War I, however, the U.S. Army’s leadership recognized that it needed a new award to recognize meritorious service. This was because it had only three decorations: the Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross and Distinguished Service Medal, the latter awarded for service that was “exceptionally meritorious” and occurred in a position of “great responsibility.” Many individuals who performed valuable services that fell short of the standards required for the Distinguished Service Medal could not be given the recognition they deserved.

In the early 1930s, Douglas MacArthur learned about Washington’s Revolutionary War badge. Given his position as Army chief of staff, he was able to prod the War Department staff to prepare a study of the award.

By December 1931, the Army was ready to revive the Badge of Military Merit—the original name, whose retention the staff study recommended—for both wartime and peacetime meritorious service. The plan was for the new badge to be announced on February 22, 1932, the bicentennial of Washington’s birth.

In December 1931, MacArthur made two important changes in the plan. He directed that the name of the new award be the Purple Heart rather than the Badge of Military Merit. Perhaps more important, he changed the definition of meritorious service to include combat wounds. That meant any soldier who had been wounded by the enemy had performed the required meritorious service. As he explained in a letter written some 10 years later, the new Purple Heart was unique in several ways:

First, it is the oldest in American history, and antedates practically all the famous military medals of the world; second, it comes from the greatest of all Americans, George Washington, and thereby carries with it something of the reverence which haloes his great name; and third, it is the only decoration which is completely intrinsic in that it does not depend upon approval or favor by anyone. It goes only to those who are wounded in battle, and enemy action alone determines its award. It is a true badge of courage and every breast that wears it can beat with pride.

On February 22, 1932, in General Orders No. 3, MacArthur announced that “the Purple Heart, established by General George Washington…is hereby revived out of respect to his memory and military achievements.” While the order did not define the award criteria, regulations published that same day spelled out that it could be awarded to “any person who, while serving in the Army…performed any singularly meritorious act of extraordinary fidelity or essential service.” The following sentence, in parentheses, was added to the definition: “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.”

Starting in 1932, hundreds of soldiers began applying to the War Department for Purple Hearts. An applicant had to show that he had served with the Army and had performed some qualifying meritorious act, or been wounded in combat. The Army interpreted its regulations to mean that any individual who had been assigned to the American Expeditionary Forces during WWI was eligible for the Purple Heart, and as a result a small number of Marines and sailors received the new medal.

General John J. Pershing, commander in chief of all U.S. forces in Europe, had also created and awarded a small number of “Meritorious Service Citation Certificates” to several hundred soldiers for their service in Europe during World War I, and the Army allowed those men to exchange the certificate for the Purple Heart if they so desired. The overwhelming majority of medals, however, went to those who had been wounded.

As for proving that one had been wounded in combat and treatment by a medical officer had been necessary, the Army preferred to have proof via medical records, but was willing to accept substitutes like sworn affidavits where it was clear that the soldier had been shot, gassed, wounded by shrapnel or otherwise injured in action. In 1932 alone some 25,000 Purple Hearts were awarded, and more than 60,000 had been issued by 1938.

In contrast to today, when Purple Hearts go to the next of kin of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines killed in action, the Purple Heart in those days went only to troops who survived their wounds. One reason was that the Army was afraid that it would get too many applications. Because every Purple Heart then being issued was hand-engraved with the recipient’s name, that fear of a heavy workload makes some sense.

MacArthur explained in 1938, however, that the chief reason was that Washington had established the award to “animate and inspire the living,” and the Army did not want “to commemorate the dead.” In MacArthur’s view, to make the Purple Heart a “symbol of death, with its corollary depressive influences, would be to defeat the primary purpose of its being.” Not until 1942 would the Army change its regulations to permit the Purple Heart to be awarded to those killed in action—and then it allowed posthumous awards only as far back as December 7, 1941.

The War Department anticipated that most applicants for the new medal would be veterans who had been injured in WWI. As the criteria did not restrict its award to any particular conflict, however, men who had served in earlier conflicts also requested it. More than 10 went to Civil War veterans wounded between 1861 and 1865. A small number were also awarded to soldiers who had been wounded in the Indian wars (1861 to 1898), Spanish-American War (1898), Philippine-American War (1899-1913), the Boxer Rebellion (1900), and the punitive expedition into Mexico (1916).

On April 28, 1942, the Army reversed its “no posthumous award” policy, in order to recognize the sacrifice of soldiers and airmen who had lost their lives in the opening days of hostilities with Germany and Japan, starting with those killed in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The posthumous award of the Purple Heart was now authorized “to members of the military service who are killed in action…or who die as a direct result of a wound received in action against an enemy of the United States, on or after December 7, 1941,” with medals to be sent to the next of kin.

After the United States formally entered WWII on December 8, 1941, Purple Hearts were awarded to thousands of men who had been injured or killed in combat, while slightly more than 200 were given for meritorious action. But awarding Purple Hearts for merit came to a halt with the creation of the Legion of Merit in 1942. The principal impetus was the need to have a decoration that could be bestowed upon high-ranking friendly foreign officers for services to the Allied cause. Consequently, the top three degrees of the Legion of Merit were reserved for foreign recipients. American officers of lower grade and enlisted men could also receive the Legion of Merit without degree as a general legionnaire. In September 1942, the War Department ruled that the Purple Heart should only be awarded to those wounded or killed in action.

In December 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order that, for the first time, gave the Department of the Navy the authority to award the Purple Heart to sailors and Marines wounded or killed in action after December 7, 1941. Prior to Roosevelt’s action, the Purple Heart had been an “Army only” award—and the Navy showed little official interest in obtaining its own authority to award the Purple Heart. As hostilities in the Pacific grew, however, and Navy and Marine Corps personnel suffered ever greater losses, the Navy reversed course. Roosevelt’s executive order also meant that all personnel were on an equal footing when it came to the Purple Heart, as the executive order paralleled the Army’s existing award criteria for the medal.

More than 500,000 Purple Hearts were awarded to Americans during WWII. Under the same award criteria, thou- sands more were awarded during the Korean War from 1950 to 1953. By the 1960s, however, the nature of warfare—or at least American involvement in it—had changed. In 1959 the first Americans arrived as part of Military Assistance Advisory Group in Saigon, Republic of Vietnam. As those soldiers began suffering casualties in the early 1960s, however, the Army realized that the Purple Heart could not be awarded to them because the existing award criteria required that an “enemy” inflict the wounds or death—and the Viet Cong did not qualify.

To correct that shortcoming, President Kennedy signed a new executive order on April 25, 1962, expressly providing that the Purple Heart could be awarded to any member of the U.S. armed forces wounded or killed “in any action against an enemy of the United States.” But the order also provided that the Purple Heart could be awarded to any soldier, sailor, airman or Marine who was injured “as the result of an act of any hostile foreign force.” Those words not only covered the ongoing hostilities in Vietnam but also—the drafters of this language must have thought—fighting under circumstances not yet foreseen.

The drafters were correct to a great extent. The expansive language permitted the Navy to award the Purple Heart to the 33 personnel killed and 170 wounded during the Israeli attack on the spy ship Liberty in June 1967, and the three Marine guards injured in the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, Iran, in February 1979. Likewise, the “hostile foreign force” language meant the Army could award 112 Purple Hearts to soldiers killed or wounded in Operation Urgent Fury, the U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1983. Nevertheless, the term “any hostile foreign force” did not anticipate two new casualty categories that had emerged by the 1980s: American service personnel wounded or killed while serving on overseas peacekeeping missions—as occurred in Lebanon in 1982—and by international terrorist attacks.

The chief impetus for making further changes to the award criteria came when the Army pointed to four terrorist incidents in which soldiers had been killed or wounded, but for which the Purple Heart could not be awarded: the May 1972 bombing of V Corps Headquarters in Frankfurt, Germany; a June 1979 assassination attempt on the supreme allied commander, Europe; the wounding of the commander in chief, Europe, in September 1981; and the assassination of the U.S. assistant army attaché to France in January 1982.

With that as background, President Reagan’s executive order of February 23, 1984, made perfect sense. As a result, any soldier, sailor, airman or Marine wounded or killed after March 28, 1973, while on an overseas peacekeeping mission, or as a result of an international terrorist attack, may receive the Purple Heart. The effective date of March 29, 1973, was chosen as a starting point because it was the day after the cessation of hostilities involving American forces in Vietnam. Since then, Purple Hearts have been awarded to Americans serving as peacekeepers in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Cambodia, Haiti, Kuwait, Lebanon, Sinai, Somalia and Western Sahara.

The next of kin of Army Major Randall A. Carlson, for example, received a retroactively awarded Purple Heart after Carlson was killed with three other United Nations Truce Supervision Organization members when their jeep hit a land mine near Beirut, Lebanon, in September 1982. Navy Lieutenant Steven J. Corley also received a Purple Heart after being wounded when his vehicle struck an antitank mine in the Angkor Thom district of Cambodia in September 1993. Army Specialist Martin J. Begosh was the first soldier to receive a Purple Heart while performing peacekeeping duties in the Balkans, when the vehicle in which he was riding struck a land mine and he was wounded.

Terrorist-related Purple Hearts have been awarded to American military personnel killed or wounded in Belgium, Egypt, El Salvador, France, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Honduras, Italy, Lebanon, Namibia, Pakistan, Panama, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Turkey and the United Kingdom. The Army, for example, awarded 53 Purple Hearts (including one posthumous medal) to soldiers injured in the terrorist bombing of the LaBelle disco in West Berlin, Germany, in April 1986.

The Navy awarded a Purple Heart to the next of kin of Master Chief Sam Novello when Turkish leftists shot him at his home in Istanbul in April 1980. A posthumous award also went to the family of Captain George Tsantes, assassinated in November 1983 while riding in a car in Athens, Greece.

The most recent change to the Purple Heart occurred in November 1997, when Congress restricted its award to military personnel only. That congressional action grew out of complaints by the Military Order of the Purple Heart that a military award should not be given to civilians—who until that time had been eligible to receive the Purple Heart if they had been “serving with” the U.S. armed forces. Probably no more than 100 civilians had received the Purple Heart between 1932 and 1997, with the majority going to Americans wounded in international terrorist attacks on U.S. facilities in Saudi Arabia in 1995 and 1996.

Other than the Medal of Honor, the Purple Heart is probably the most widely recognized American military award, yet few Americans realize how far back it dates, or how many changes it has undergone. Those changes, however, have not affected the decoration’s prestige. Part of the Purple Heart’s high status among recipients and other Americans certainly is due to the beauty of the medal’s design. But it seems likely that the decoration also is cherished because, as MacArthur recognized, it is the only combat decoration whose award does not depend upon approval or favor from anyone.


Fred L. Borch retired from the Army after 25 years and works in the federal court system. He is the author of Kimmel, Short and Pearl Harbor and several books on military decorations. For further reading, try The Purple Heart: A History of America’s Oldest Military Decoration, by Borch and F.C. Brown.

Originally published in the September 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here