The Medal of Honour is the highest military decoration awarded by the United States government. It is given to a member of the United States armed forces who distinguishes himself “conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States”. Because of the nature of its criteria, the medal is often awarded posthumously. Members of all branches of the U.S. military are eligible to receive the medal, and each service has a unique design with the exception of the Marine Corps and Coast Guard, which both use the Navy’s medal.
The Medal of Honour is often presented personally to the recipient or, in the case of posthumous awards, to next of kin, by the President of the United States. Due to its high status, the medal has special protection under U.S. law. The Medal of Honour is one of two military neck order awards issued by the United States Armed Forces, but is the sole neck order awarded to its members.
The other is the Commander’s Degree of the Legion of Merit and is only authorized for issue to foreign dignitaries comparable to a US military chief of staff. While American service members are eligible for the Legion of Merit, they are awarded the lowest degree, “Legionnaire”, which is a standard suspended medal. The medal is frequently, albeit incorrectly, called the Congressional Medal of Honour, stemming from its award by the Department of Defence in the name of Congress.
The first formal system for rewarding acts of individual gallantry by American soldiers was established by George Washington on August 7, 1782, when he created the Badge of Military Merit, designed to recognize any singularly meritorious action. This decoration is America’s first combat award and the second oldest American military decoration of any type, after the Fidelity Medallion.
Although the Badge of Military Merit fell into disuse after the American Revolutionary War, the concept of a military award for individual gallantry by members of the U.S. armed forces had been established. In 1847, after the outbreak of the Mexican-American War, a Certificate of Merit was established for soldiers who distinguished themselves in action.
The certificate was later granted medal status as the Certificate of Merit Medal. Early in the Civil War, a medal for individual valour was proposed by Iowa Senator James W. Grimes to Winfield Scott, the Commanding General of the United States Army. Scott did not approve the proposal, but the medal did come into use in the Navy. Public Resolution 82, containing a provision for a Navy Medal of Valour, was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on December 21, 1861.
The medal was “to be bestowed upon such petty officers, seamen, landsmen, and Marines as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry and other seamanlike qualities during the present war. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles directed the Philadelphia Mint to design the new decoration. Shortly afterward, a resolution of similar wording was introduced on behalf of the Army and was signed into law on July 12, 1862.
This measure provided for awarding a Medal of Honour, as the Navy version also came to be called to such non-commissioned officers and privates as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action, and other soldier-like qualities, during the present insurrection. The Medal of Honour has evolved in appearance since its creation in 1862. The present Army medal consists of a gold star surrounded by a wreath, topped by an eagle on a bar inscribed with the word “Valour.”
The medal is attached by a hook to a light blue moiré. There is a version of the medal for each branch of the U.S. armed forces: the Army, Navy and Air Force. Since the U.S. Marine Corps is administratively a part of the Department of the Navy, Marines receive the Navy medal. Before 1965, when the U.S. Air Force design was adopted, members of the U.S. Army Air Corps, U.S. Army Air Forces, and Air Force received the Army version of the medal. The Coast Guard Medal of Honour, which was distinguished from the Navy medal in 1963, has never been awarded, partly because the U.S. Coast Guard is subsumed into the U.S. Navy in time of declared war. No design yet exists for it.
Only one member of the Coast Guard has received a Medal of Honour, Signalman 1st Class Douglas Munro, who was awarded the Navy version for action during the Battle of Guadalcanal. In the rare cases, 19 so far, where a service member has been awarded more than one Medal of Honour, current regulations specify that an appropriate award device be cantered on the Medal of Honour ribbon and neck medal. To indicate multiple presentations of the Medal of Honour, the U.S. Army and Air Force bestow oak leaf clusters, while the Navy Medal of Honour is worn with gold award stars.
A ribbon which is the same shade of light blue as the neckband, and includes five white stars, pointed upwards, in the shape of an “M” is worn for situations other than full dress uniform. When the ribbon is worn, it is placed alone above the centre of the other ribbons. For wear with civilian clothing, a rosette is issued instead of a miniature lapel pin (which usually shows the ribbon bar). The rosette is the same shade of blue as the neck ribbon and includes white stars. The ribbon and rosette are presented at the same time as the medal. On October 23, 2003 a Medal of Honour flag was to be presented to recipients of the decoration.
The flag was based on a concept by retired Army Special Forces 1SG. Bill Kendall of Jefferson, Iowa, who designed a flag to honour Medal of Honour recipient Captain Darrell Lindsey. Kendall’s design of a light blue field emblazoned with thirteen white five-pointed stars was nearly identical to that of Sarah LeClerc’s of the Institute of Heraldry. LeClerc’s design, ultimately accepted as the official flag, does not include the words “Medal of Honour” and is fringed in gold.
The colour of the field and the 13 white stars, arranged in the form of a three bar chevron, consisting of two chevrons of 5 stars and one chevron of 3 stars, replicate the Medal of Honour ribbon. The flag has no set proportions. The first Medal of Honour recipient to receive the official flag was Paul R. Smith. The flag was cased and presented to his family along with his medal. A special ceremony presenting this flag to 60 Medal of Honour recipients was held onboard the USS Constitution Template:WP Ships USS instances on September 30, 2006. There are two distinct protocols for awarding the Medal of Honour.
The first and most common is nomination by a service member in the chain of command, followed by approval at each level of command. The other method is nomination by a member of Congress and approval by a special act of Congress. In either case, the Medal of Honour is presented by the President on behalf of the Congress. Several months after President Abraham Lincoln signed Public Resolution 82 into law on December 21, 1861, a similar resolution for the Army was passed. Six Union soldiers who hijacked the General, a Confederate locomotive were the first recipients.
Raid leader James J. Andrews, a civilian hanged as a Union spy, did not receive the medal. Many Medals of Honour awarded in the 19th century were associated with saving the flag, not just for patriotic reasons, but because the flag was a primary means of battlefield communication.
During the time of the Civil War, no other military award was authorized, and to many this explains why some seemingly less notable actions were recognized by the Medal of Honour during that war. The criteria for the award tightened after World War I. In the post-World War II era, many eligible recipients might instead have been awarded a Silver Star, Navy Cross or similar award. During the Civil War, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton promised a Medal of Honour to every man in the 27th Regiment, Maine Infantry who extended his enlistment beyond the agreed upon date.
Many stayed four days extra, and then were discharged. Due to confusion, Stanton awarded a Medal of Honour to all 864 men in the regiment. In 1916, a board of five Army generals convened by law to review every Army Medal of Honour awarded. The commission, led by Nelson Miles, recommended that the Army rescind 911 medals.
This included the 864 medals awarded to members of the 27th Maine, 29 who served as Abraham Lincoln’s funeral guard, six civilians (including Dr Mary Edwards Walker, the only woman to have been awarded the medal), Buffalo Bill Cody, and 12 others whose awards were judged frivolous. Dr. Walker’s medal was restored posthumously by President Jimmy Carter in 1977. Cody’s award was restored in 1989. Early in the 20th century, the Navy awarded many Medals of Honour for peacetime bravery. For instance, seven sailors aboard the USS Iowa received the medal when a boiler exploded on January 25, 1904. Aboard the USS Chicago in 1901, John Henry Helms received the medal for saving Ishi Tomizi, the ship’s cook, from drowning.
Even after World War I, Richard Byrd and Floyd Bennett received the medal for exploration of the North Pole. Thomas J. Ryan received it for saving a woman from the burning Grand Hotel in Yokohama, Japan following the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake. Between 1919 and 1942, the Navy issued two separate versions of the Medal of Honour, one for non-combat bravery and the other for combat-related acts. Official accounts vary, but generally the non-combat Medal of Honour was known as the Tiffany Cross, after the company that manufactured the medal. The Tiffany Cross was first issued in 1919 but was rare and unpopular, partly because it was presented both for combat and non-combat events.
As a result, in 1942, the United States Navy reverted to a single Medal of Honour, awarded only for heroism. Since the beginning of World War II, the medal has been awarded for extreme bravery beyond the call of duty while engaged in action against an enemy. Arising from these criteria, approximately 60% of the medals earned during and after World War II have been awarded posthumously. Capt. William McGonagle is an exception to the enemy action rule, earning his medal during the USS Liberty incident. A 1993 study commissioned by the Army described systematic racial and religious discrimination in the criteria for awarding medals during World War II.
At the time, no Medals of Honour had been awarded to black soldiers who served in World War II. After an exhaustive review of files, the study recommended that several black Distinguished Service Cross recipients be upgraded to the Medal of Honour. On January 13, 1997, President Bill Clinton awarded the medal to seven African American World War II veterans. Of these, only Vernon Baker was still alive.
A similar study of Asian Americans in 1998 resulted in President Bill Clinton awarding 21 new Medals of Honour in 2000, including 20 to Japanese American members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, among them Senator Daniel Inouye. In 2005, President George W. Bush awarded the Medal of Honour to Jewish veteran and Holocaust survivor Tibor Rubin, whom many believed to have been overlooked because of his religion. This medal’s history stretches back into our bloody war history, it has seen its own trials and tribulations and like America is has grown and melded itself into the prestigious award that it is today.
I believe the medal has been properly issued to service members and at the same time given away freely, but that does not take away from the honour and respect each recipient deserves. These recipients are text book example of perfect military stature and then some. All of them go above and beyond anyone’s expectations that even they themselves had.
The most surprising thing is that all of them did these marvellous and mind blowing deeds of service at such a young military age, the same and even younger age of my own. It not only blows my mind at how they accomplish or even began to go through with what they did but they did it without an order or a self doubt, to me they got in the perfect mindset of selfless service and their one goal was to help other and complete the mission.
My first pick of recipients is Private First Class Willy F. James, U.S. Army, Company G, 413th Infantry near Lippoldsberg, Germany, 7 April 1945. Private First Class Willy F. James, Jr. distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism at the risk of his own life on 7 April 1945 in the Weser River Valley, in the vicinity of Lippoldsberg, Germany. On 7 April 1945, Company G, 413th Infantry, fought its way across the Weser River in order to establish a crucial bridgehead.
The company then launched a fierce attack against the town of Lippoldsberg, possession of which was vital to securing and expanding the important bridgehead. Private First Class James was first scout of the lead squad in the assault platoon. The mission of the unit was to seize and secure a group of houses on the edge of town, a foothold from which the unit could launch an attack on the rest of the town.
Far out in the front, Private First Class James was the first to draw enemy fire. His platoon leader came forward to investigate, but poor visibility made it difficult for Private First Class James to point out enemy positions with any accuracy. Private First Class James volunteered to go forward to fully reconnoiter the enemy situation. Furious crossfire from enemy snipers and machine guns finally pinned down Private First Class James after he had made his way forward approximately 200 yards across open terrain.
Lying in an exposed position for more than an hour, Private First Class James intrepidly observed the enemy’s positions, which were given away by the fire he was daringly drawing upon himself. Then, with utter indifference to his personal safety, in a storm of enemy small arms fire, Private First Class James made his way back more than 300 yards across open terrain under enemy observation to his platoon positions, and gave a full detailed report on the enemy disposition. The unit worked out a new plan of maneuver based on Private First Class James’s information. The gallant soldier volunteered to lead a squad in an assault on the key house in the group that formed the platoon objective.
He made his way forward, leading his squad in an assault on the strongly-held enemy positions in the building and designating targets accurately and continuously as he moved along. While doing so, Private First Class James saw his platoon leader shot down by enemy snipers. Hastily designating and coolly orienting a leader in his place, Private First Class James instantly went to the aid of his platoon leader, exposing himself recklessly to the incessant enemy fire. As he was making his way across open ground, Private First Class James was killed by a burst from an enemy machine gun.
Private First Class James’s extraordinarily heroic action in the face of withering enemy fire provided the disposition of enemy troops to his platoon. Inspired to the utmost by Private First Class James’s self sacrifice, the platoon sustained the momentum of the assault and successfully accomplished its mission with a minimum of casualties.
Private First Class James contributed very definitely to the success of his battalion in the vitally important combat operation of establishing and expanding a bridgehead over the Weser River. His fearless, self-assigned actions far above and beyond the normal call of duty exemplify the finest traditions of the American combat soldier and reflect the highest credit upon Private First Class James and the Armed Forces of the United States.
Private First Class James is a prime example of what a man should be. He ran through enemy fire, and then while in the midst of the fire still had the discipline and the bravery to observe fire positions and any other useful information that he could see from his position. On top of that he still was able to fall back to his platoon 300 meters behind him.