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Sea Service Medals: Military Awards and Decorations of the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard

by Fred L. Borch and Charles P. McDowell, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Md., 2009, $34.95.

The topic of military decorations and awards can be arcane. To most nonmilitary people, they represent confusing symbols understood only by the insiders of the insular military society. Far too many people don’t know the differences among the multicolored ribbons, nor do they care. This is unfortunate, because every one of those ribbons has a specific meaning and tells a story of achievement, meritorious service or heroism. The exact position of the ribbon in relation to the others around it is also important. Together they present a graphical testimony of the wearer’s military record.

In Sea Service Medals, Fred Borch and Charles McDowell present a lively overview and history of the current awards of the United States Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard. Clearly and concisely written but loaded with fascinating details and insights, the book is a valuable reference for anyone interested in military matters. The book does not, however, cover campaign and service medals, nor does it cover special-skill awards, such as aviator’s wings.

Why a book focusing only on the three military sea services? It is commonly assumed that all American military decorations are pretty much the same, but that isn’t quite the case. Some decorations, such as the Silver Star, are awarded by all of the three service departments under the Department of Defense. Other decorations, such as the Navy Cross, Air Force Cross and the Distinguished Service Cross, are equivalent in the order of precedence but have distinct names and designs. Some, such as the Medal of Honor, have the same name, but the design varies from service to service. The Medal of Honor for each of the services has a different medal but the same ribbon.

The Medal of Honor is an especially interesting case: Until 1942 the Army and Navy Medals of Honor were quite different. Both were established during the Civil War, but officers and enlisted soldiers were eligible for the Army’s Medal of Honor right from the start. Navy and Marine Corps officers only became eligible for the Medal of Honor in 1915. The Army Medal of Honor was awarded for combat valor only. The Navy Medal of Honor was awarded for combat valor or, until 1942, for extraordinary heroism in the line of the naval profession. In other words, for acts of heroism at sea, such as lifesaving. Between 1917 and 1942 the Navy actually had two completely different Medal of Honor designs, one for combat valor and one for non-combat heroism; both, however, had the same ribbon.

The only thing that might have improved this book would have been the inclusion of the decorations of the U.S. Merchant Marine, which performs critical missions in wartime and whose mariners are often in harm’s way. The Merchant Marine has its own system of decorations, and those awards are authorized for wear on the military uniforms of any former merchant mariners who later serve in a military service. That said, this is a book well worth adding to your library.


Originally published in the January 2010 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here