Purple Heart Day: Honoring Courage & Devotion
The many medals and ribbons worn, past and present, on the uniforms of American service members signify a whole variety of admirable things. Courage. Devotion. Skill. Battles fought and campaigns served in. But few carry as much weight and respect as the one given to those who quite literally shed their blood in defense of our nation: the Purple Heart Medal. So in honor of National Purple Heart Day, we’d like to teach you the history and facts behind the US military’s oldest decoration.
History of the Purple Heart
Image via The National Museum of the United States Army
Badge of Military Merit
The precursor to today’s Purple Heart, the Badge of Military Merit, was very different in nearly every way. Established by George Washington in a general order issued August 2nd, 1782, the badge was meant to honor enlisted soldiers who demonstrated “unusual gallantry in battle” or “extraordinary fidelity and essential service in any way.” It was, in fact, purple and was heart-shaped, but the similarities pretty much stop there. It was made of cloth and lace with the word “Merit” sewn onto it. There are only four known recipients of the award, all of whom were sergeants in the Continental Army:
- William Brown
- Elijah Churchill
- Daniel Bissel
- Louis Marney
Other men may have received the award, as Washington authorized other officers to give the award to deserving troops. But after the Revolutionary War’s end, no further badges were issued. But the award itself was not abolished, meaning it still officially existed as a US military decoration. It wasn’t until 1927 that the original badge was brought up as a medal that should once again be issued. That October, General Charles P. Summerall, Chief of Staff of the Army at the time, unsuccessfully attempted to have the award revived by Congress.
Introducing the Purple Heart Medal
His successor, General Douglas MacArthur, had better luck. Starting in 1931, he began the process of reintroducing the award by tasking a heraldry specialist working for the Quartermaster General named Elizabeth Will to design a new medal. Based on his specifications and her design, US Mint engraver John R. Sinnock designed a model that was selected by the Commission of Fine Arts as the new medal. And on February 22nd, 1932, President Herbert Hoover issued an Executive Order officially reviving the original award under its new name: The Purple Heart Medal. MacArthur himself received the first one in recognition of the times he was wounded in action during WWI.
The criteria of this new award were much closer to what it’s known for today. It replaced the sewn-on Wound Chevron that service members were awarded for being wounded in combat, though it could also be awarded for meritorious service. It wasn’t until the creation of the Legion of Merit in 1942 that the Purple Heart Medal became awarded only to recognize those who had been wounded or killed in combat.
Facts About the Purple Heart Medal
The history of how a cloth badge for merit became the symbol of those who shed blood in our nation’s uniforms is, as you now know, interesting in and of itself. But since we know how much our readers love fun facts, here are some great ones about the Purple Heart Medal.
- It’s often believed that the Purple Heart Medal is the first military award presented to enlisted personnel, but the French Médaillon Des Deux Épées is actually the oldest such award, dating back to 1771. (Click to Tweet this)
- In anticipation of the high casualties that the planned invasion of Japan during WWII was expected to incur, the US military produced so many Purple Hearts (over 500,000) that they have yet to run out. (Click to Tweet this)
- The most Purple Hearts ever earned so far is ten, a record shared by at least three US Army Soldiers: William G. White (9 during WWII, 1 during the Korean War), Curry T. Haynes (all during the Vietnam War), and Medal of Honor winner Charles D. Barger (all during WWI). (Click to Tweet this)
- The date picked for the medal’s revival, February 22nd, 1932, was specifically chosen because it was George Washington’s 200th birthday. (Click to Tweet this)
- The red and white shield where the ribbon meets the actual medal is George Washington’s family coat of arms. (Click to Tweet this)
- From 1942 to 1997, civilians who worked closely with the military (Red Cross personnel, war correspondents, government workers, etc) were also eligible for Purple Heart Medals. (Click to Tweet this)
- Although they are technically not eligible, several Purple Hearts have been awarded to military animals like Sergeant Stubby and Sergeant Reckless. (Click to Tweet this)
National Purple Heart Day
What is Purple Heart Day?
In 2014, in order to honor all men and women who have received the decoration, National Purple Heart Day was established. The occasion is meant to draw attention to the brave service members who’ve borne the heaviest brunt of warfare. As an observed day rather than a Federal Holiday, there are no specifically prescribed procedures and ceremonies that come with it. So any way you choose to use the occasion to commemorate and honor those who received a Purple Heart is just fine.
When is Purple Heart Day?
National Purple Heart Day (sometimes referred to as Purple Heart Recognition Day or Purple Heart Appreciation Day) takes place every August 7th since 2014.
When George Washington first created the original purple, heart-shaped Badge of Military Merit he didn’t envision it as a device solely for those who literally gave their blood for the United States. But as the list of medals and awards given by the military and its individual branches grew over the decades and centuries, a medal specifically honoring the wounded and dead was an important addition. And it makes sense that the award for those who sacrificed most come from that very first one our nation’s Soldiers earned. Because it is those men and women whose spilled blood signifies the highest devotion to America and its ideals. And it’s for them that we observe National Purple Heart Day.
The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.