The Purple Heart

August 7th, 1782 

From his New York Headquarters, General Washington issued the famous order to establish the forerunner to the Purple Heart, the Badge of Military Merit for “singular meritorious action”. 

With more than one million recipients, it is America’s oldest military award. It is conferred upon any person wounded in action while serving with the armed forces of the United States. 

However during the Revolution War, only three members of his Continental Army were so recognized. They were all Sergeants from Connecticut, Daniel Bissell, William Brown and Elijah Churchill who received the award at Newburgh on June 10, 1783.
For the next century and a half the Badge fell into official disuse. The Medal of Honor was the first decoration created after it was allowed to lapse. However by the third decade of the twentieth century, the US Army Leadership decided that it was time to improve the recognition of meritorious service. And inevitably, their thoughts turned to Washington, the national role model. 

The exact timing of the revival was carefully chosen to mark the bicentennial of his birthday. The Army Heraldic specialist, Miss Elizabeth Will designed the device in 1931 and John R. Sinnock then modelled it. 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. It is therefore an award by proxy from the General himself. The man who issued the revival order was the Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur. He was another military genius who if not quite Washington’s equal was certainly a peer who would sit comfortably with him at the highest of tables. During his later career, he like Washington would become a General of the Army and hold Five-Star Rank. 

Only nine people have ever done so in the history of the United States. Ironically, MacArthur also became the first recipient for his valorous service in combat in the Pacific Campaign. Many others followed in that theatre. For wounds received when the Japanese bombed their hospital on Bataan Rita Palmer of Hampton, New Hampshire, and Rosemary Hogan of Chattanooga, Oklahoma. Army Nurse Mary Brown Menzie as a result of injuries on Corregidor. And in anticipation of the invasion of Japan (a mission that MacArthur surely would have commanded), over five hundred thousand Purple Hearts were manufactured, a stock that thankfully is yet to be fully consumed. Nevertheless, and tragically, 1,076, 245 American servicemen and women received the award during World War Two. Noticeable recipients include mainstream politicians and anti-war political activists, entertainers, actors, journalists, publishers and TV producers. The 35th US President, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Colonel Ruby Bradley, America's most decorated military woman. The actor Lee Marvin. Dr Mary Walker, a surgeon in the Civil War. Chuck Yeager, the pilot who first broke the sound barrier. Film Producer Oliver Stone. Ron Kovic who is depicted in the biopic movie "Born on the Fourth of July". Rod Serling, the creator of the TV Series “Twilight Zone”. Monica Brown for her gallantry in Khowst province, Afghanistan. Actor Charles Bronson. Secretary of State Colin Powell. Kurt Vonnegut the author of the anti-war novel, “Slaughter-House Five”. 

 And from that roll call of honour we can begin to sense the uniquely American nature of the award, the creation of an exclusive club based purely upon meritous service in combat to the Republic. Men and women proud to struggle for the freedom and liberty of the United States, even if ultimately they strongly believed in the pursuit of peace and even strongly disagreed with the conflict in which they themselves fought. One unmistakeable sign of the development of the Republic from Washington's day is surely that the Purple Heart is not in the gift of commanding officers who are his successors, but instead it is awarded automatically upon satisfaction of certain criteria for those wounded or killed in action. The award is a true meritocracy. 

Of course those criteria, and the inclusion of services, and even civilians has changed over the years. But because it is always awarded on behalf of the President of the United States, it has a direct link straight back to the very first holder of that office, George Washington himself. Because in a very real sense the original Purple Heart beat inside the chest of George Washington. As intended by the US Army Leadership, the revival and the continuity of the award is a reminder that his spirit is still looking over us today. He continues to stand as a symbol for those same values of freedom and liberty that made him take up arms against the King of England. His heart beating mightily in the breast of the Republic. He was the nation builder that had the foresight of vision to create so many national symbols. The holders of this award are brave men and women who walked in his giant footsteps. They fought also for the Freedom and Liberty that he cherished so dearly. And that purple clothed device is the enduring symbol of an unbreakable relationship with the man who more than anyone individual, made that possible. 

Ironically, it was an Englishman, Thomas Paine who after the military disaster at Hackensack, found the words to describe the patriotic heroism that Washington had the imagination to reward 

"Let it be told to the future world, that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet (it)."

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