J. KARL MILLER: History of the Purple Heart

Wednesday, September 8, 2010 | 12:27 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — What award traces its origins back to 1782 and is considered to be the United States of America's oldest military decoration? If you answered The Purple Heart, you may move to the head of the class.

(The Fidelity Medallion, or “Andre Capture Medal,” was created by act of the Continental Congress in 1780. It was awarded to Pvts. John Paulding, David Williams and Isaac Van Wart of the New York State Militia. It never was awarded again, so the Badge of Military Merit award created two years later by General George Washington, which later became the Purple Heart, is often considered the oldest, according to Military Order of the Purple Heart.)


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Established as the Badge of Military Merit, by Gen. George Washington, commander in chief of the Continental Army, the heart-shaped, purple cloth decoration was awarded to only three soldiers of the Revolutionary War. The order was never abolished nor rescinded; however, the award was not revived until well after World War I. It gained traction when Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur ordered work on a new design in 1931.

The new design consisted of a heart-shaped medal, rimmed with a gold border and containing a profile of President George Washington. Above the heart is the shield bearing Washington's coat-of-arms – the medal's reverse is a raised bronze heart inscribed "FOR MILITARY MERIT." The Executive Order establishing the Purple Heart was issued on Feb. 22, 1932, the 200th anniversary of Washington's birth.

The first Purple Heart was awarded to Gen. MacArthur for both wounds and meritorious achievement in World War I.

The criteria reviving the award authorized its issue to soldiers who had received the Meritorious Service Citation Certificate, the Army Wound Ribbon, or authorization for the Wound Chevron the day after the U.S. entered World War I. With no restrictions on retroactively issuing the award to those in previous wars, 14 surviving Union Army Veterans were honored. 

The award of the Purple Heart medal for meritorious service as well as for wounds sustained in combat continued until early 1942. The creation of the Legion of Merit medal as a meritorious service or achievement award enabled the Army to award the Purple Heart exclusively to those killed or wounded in combat. 

The outbreak of World War II generated a number of changes to the award criteria. In 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order authorizing the Secretary of the Navy to award Purple Hearts to Marines, Sailors and Coast Guardsmen. Prior to this, Marines and Sailors were awarded Army Purple Hearts only if the injury occurred while serving with Army units. That executive order also included authority for posthumous awards dating back to Dec. 6, 1941.

The eligibility requirements for the Purple Heart have evolved further since the beginning of World War II. Civilians assigned to Army and Navy units before 1997 were awarded some 100 Purple Hearts – the most famous recipient, war correspondent and journalist Ernie Pyle, was killed on Okinawa's Ie Shima Island in 1945.  In 1962, President John F. Kennedy issued an executive order that expanded eligibility to include military members serving as advisers to foreign military, and in 1984, President Ronald Reagan extended it to those killed or wounded by terrorist attacks.

Current eligibility is restricted to those killed or wounded as a direct result of enemy action while participating in direct or indirect combat operations. Awarded in the name of the president, the Purple Heart medal is unique among military honors because its recipients aren't recommended for the medal by their superiors but are entitled to it when they meet the criteria.

According to the Military Order of the Purple Heart, from the outbreak of World War II to July 23, 2010, 1,345,049 Purple Hearts have been awarded, and 964,509 have been given to those killed or wounded in World War II. As a matter of record, three soldiers (Brig. Gen. Robert Frederick, Col. David Hackworth and Col. Robert Howard) are recipients of eight awards, while two others (Army Sgt. Randy McConnell and Navy Hospital Corpsman Wallace Rather) have seven Purple Hearts. Maj. Gen. James L. Day was wounded six times in the Pacific while serving as an enlisted Marine.

No one actively seeks this award. Nevertheless, the original order proscribing the medal contained the phrase, "Let it be known that he who wears the Military Order of the Purple Heart has given of his blood in defense of his homeland and shall forever be revered by his fellow countrymen," identifies it as an honor meriting the utmost respect.

The Military Order of the Purple Heart is a national organization with an exclusive membership of the combat wounded. Chapter 605 is located in Columbia.

J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at

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John Bliss September 10, 2010 | 3:42 p.m.

Colonel, I always enjoy your comments. I noticed that you were modest Not to mention your OWN Purple Heart! Thank you again for your service to our nation Sir! If the people reading this think we are in trouble now, you have no idea what kind of trouble we would have been in without the ppl like Colonel Miller and others like him. God Bless!

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