On August 7th, 1782, Continental Army General George Washington issued an order establishing the forerunner to the Purple Heart, the Badge of Military Merit, for “singular meritorious action”. With nearly two million recipients, the Purple Heart is America’s oldest military award. Today, it is conferred upon any person wounded in action while serving in the armed forces of the United States.
During the Revolutionary War, only three members of the Continental Army were awarded the Badge of Military Merit. They were all sergeants from Connecticut: Daniel Bissell, William Brown and Elijah Churchill. They received the award at Newburgh, New York on June 10, 1783.
Although never officially abandoned, for the next century and a half the Badge fell into disuse. The Medal of Honor, first created and awarded during the Civil War, was the first decoration created after the Badge lapsed into disuse. However, by the third decade of the twentieth century, US military leaders decided it was time to improve the recognition of meritorious service. Thus was the Purple Heart, a re-birth of the Badge of Military Merit, created.
The exact timing of the revival was carefully chosen to mark the bicentennial of Washington's birthday. An Army heraldic specialist, Miss Elizabeth Will designed the device in 1931; John R. Sinnock then created a model of the device. It is 1-11/16 inches in length and 1-3/8 inches in width, suspended by a rounded rectangular length, which displays a vertical purple band with quarter-inch white borders. General Washington is shown in profile with his coat of arms, and set in three lines, "For Military Merit," with a space below for the recipient's name.
The man who issued the revival order was then-Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur. The Army allowed the medal to be awarded retroactively for those wounded or recognized for meritorious service during the First World War. As a result, over 300,000 soldiers who were veterans of that conflict received Purple Hearts. The first recipient was Douglas MacArthur.
In 1943, the conditions under which the Purple Heart were awarded were changed. Congress created the Legion of Merit during the first year of the war, so by Executive Order President Franklin Roosevelt extended the use of the award to all branches of the armed forces but limited its use to the recognition of those who are wounded or die in combat. Since that time, changes have been made as to who is eligible to receive the award, but its purpose has remained unchanged.
As was mentioned in the last episode of this podcast, in anticipation of the invasion of Japan, over five hundred thousand Purple Hearts were manufactured, a stock that has yet to be exhausted. Over one million American servicemen and women received the award during World War Two. Three hundred thousand veterans of the First World War were awarded the Purple Heart retroactively. The remaining 500,000 or so have been awarded since 1945, well more than half of that number during the Vietnam War.
Noticeable recipients of the Purple Heart include mainstream politicians and anti-war political activists, entertainers, actors, journalists, publishers and TV producers. The list includes the 35th US President, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Colonel Ruby Bradley, America's most decorated military woman, former Marine and actor Lee Marvin, Chuck Yeager, the pilot who first broke the sound barrier, film producer Oliver Stone, Ron Kovic, who is depicted in Stone's biopic movie "Born on the Fourth of July", Rod Serling, the creator of the TV Series “Twilight Zone”, actor Charles Bronson, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and novelist Kurt Vonnegut. At least one military working dog has been awarded an honorary Purple Heart.
The award is a true meritocracy. And because it is always awarded on behalf of the President of the United States, it serves a direct link back to the very first holder of that office.