‘For Wounds Received in Action’: The History of the Purple Heart Medal

August 7 is National Purple Heart Day, which honors those who died or were wounded in the line of duty against an enemy. Today’s post comes from Thomas Richardson, an archives technician at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri.

Many of the U.S. military awards and decorations are received for service, wartime participation, and personal achievement, but there is one medal that holds special significance: the Purple Heart.

Not only does its lineage stretch as far back to the American Revolution, but it recognizes the enormous sacrifice that a servicemember can make while in the line of duty. Whether they sustain grievous injuries or die fighting the enemy, the Purple Heart medal always makes its way into the hands of the veteran or their family. No other medal in the vast collection of U.S. military awards has undergone as many revisions as the Purple Heart. 

Near the end of the American Revolution, George Washington created a badge to recognize the contributions and achievements of enlisted soldiers. Called the “Badge of Military Merit,” it was described, according to Washington’s papers

“Honorary badges of distinction are to be conferred on the veteran noncommissioned officers and soldiers of the army who have served more than three years with bravery, fidelity, and good conduct . . .”

Only three enlisted men received the badge, and following Washington’s tenure as President, the badge fell inactive and was not heard of again for over a hundred years. 

Following World War I, a movement to revive the award began with the Army Chief-of-Staff, General Charles Summerall. At the time, a system of sleeve chevrons were used to denote wounds received in battle, aptly named the “wound chevrons,” but Summerall believed that a medal was more befitting the significance of shedding blood for one’s country. Summerall submitted his idea to Congress, but the bill died in committee in 1928 and was not revived again until 1931, when General Douglas MacArthur became Chief-of-Staff. 

During the bicentennial year of George Washington’s birthday in 1932, MacArthur collaborated with Elizabeth Will, a heraldic expert in the Quartermaster General Office, the Washington Commission of Fine Arts, and John Sinnock from the Philadelphia Mint. Together they sketched, designed, and cast the first Purple Heart Medal. On February 22, 1932, MacArthur issued General Order No. 3 establishing the award:

“By order of the President of the United States, the Purple Heart established by General George Washington at Newburgh, August 7, 1782, during the War of the Revolution, is hereby revived out of respect to his memory and military achievements.”

For his services, General MacArthur received the first Purple Heart Medal. (National Archives Identifier 2595319)

In 1942 the medal was standardized for all service branches, and the original criteria limited the award to those wounded or killed in action. In 1962 the Purple Heart was made eligible for posthumous issuance, allowing the surviving next of kin to receive the veteran’s medal, and in 1984, those wounded as a result of terrorist attacks were eligible to receive the medal, retroactive to 1973.

Former prisoners of war and those injured by friendly fire were entitled to receive the medal a year later under the National Defense Authorization Act. Additionally, Congress passed a separate law to limit the Purple Heart to only members of the Armed Forces, and therefore civilian contractors became ineligible. Nearly two million Purple Hearts have been issued since World War I, and many recipients are memorialized in the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor. 

Chief Boatswain’s Mate Lloyd M. Morris, 24, of 432 York Street, Vallejo, California, wounded in action in North Africa, receives the Purple Heart from Vice Admiral Russell R. Waesche, Coast Guard Commandant. Morris is the first Coast Guardsman in the history of the service to receive the medal, previously restricted to Army personnel. (National Archives Identifier 205587941)

How does the National Archives and the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) play a role with the Purple Heart Medal? The process is the same for all the service branches. When veterans request replacement sets of medals or apply to receive new awards, technicians review the record for discharge paperwork, orders, and citations. The Purple Heart, though, requires additional documentation verifying entitlement. Unlike some awards that require meeting only one or two criteria, the Purple Heart is scrutinized far more and technicians have to verify a number of sources. Technicians look for specific documentation and afterwards the information is forwarded to the service branch which makes the final determination. If veterans don’t initially meet the criteria, they will need to provide pertinent medical records showing combat injuries. 

Technicians review a service record for the following documents:

  1. Separation document (DD 214, WD AGO 53-55, 53-98)
  2. DA Form 20, 2-1, or 66 (Enlisted Qualification Record)
  3. Medical documents pertaining to wounds (found in Service Treatment Record or Inpatient Clinical Records)
  4. SGO listings (Surgeon General Office)
  5. Telegram notification to next-of-kin (copies are placed in the veteran’s personnel record at the time of injury or death)
  6. Report of Casualty (DD Form 1300)
  7. Other award citations that mention the wound (Purple Heart Medal Certificates are printed and placed in the veteran’s personnel record)
  8. Morning reports/hospital records (Primarily used for World War I, World War II, and the Korean War since they are burned files)
  9. If POW, repatriation physical/sworn statements of witnesses
Staff Sgt. Timerlate Kirven and Cpl. Samuel J. Love, Sr. received Purple Hearts for wounds received in the Battle of Saipan. (National Archives Identifier 535872)

The Purple Heart is one award that is routinely reviewed and checked to make sure that all combat-injured veterans receive them, sometimes while still in the hospital. A significant number of veterans apply to receive the Purple Heart because of injuries they received while serving in a combat zone. However, the type of injury is an important factor. A servicemember must have been wounded by a hostile force. Injuries or sickness resulting from noncombat conditions are not eligible for a Purple Heart—if someone suffered from frostbite, heat exhaustion, or contracted disease like malaria or dysentery, they cannot receive the award. 

President George W. Bush shakes the hand of U.S. Army Pfc. Lukas Shook after presenting Shook with a Purple Heart, 12/22/2008. (National Archives Identifier 78086788)

With the prestige that comes with the Purple Heart, though, there have been numerous cases of Stolen Valor. Instances Some individuals have claimed to have combat-related injuries in order to receive additional VA benefits, employment opportunities, and other tangible benefits that stem from possessing a Purple Heart. While it is illegal to sell the Purple Heart for commercial purposes unless they come from authorized vendors, many are found and sold online or estate sales of deceased veterans. Thorough background checks and verification of records from the NPRC and the VA can determine whether or not an individual lawfully received the award. The National Archives has a role in this process as well by verifying the service record through the Office of the Inspector General

Deputy Commanding General, 3rd U.S. Army, Major General Warren C. Edwards presents the Purple Heart Medal and Award to Sergeant Booker T. Hanson (Retired), veteran of the Korean War, 6/29/2001. (National Archives Identifier 6596998)

For as long as U.S. servicemembers place their life on the line against the nation’s enemies, the Purple Heart medal honors their sacrifice and carries on the legacy of George Washington. His ideals in honoring the contributions of volunteers and putting their lives in danger are a hallmark of the U.S. Armed Forces and the millions of civilians who fought and died for the country. 

To learn more about the Purple Heart medal read the Prologue article, “A Heart of Purple: The Story of America’s Oldest Military Decoration and Some of Its Recipients.

[Disclaimer: Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the National Personnel Records Center is only completing emergency requests for separation documents (i.e., burials, medical emergencies, homeless veterans, etc.). All other requests for personnel, medical, and awards information are not being answered at this time until local health conditions improve. For current information about the center’s operating status, please visit ‘Veterans’ Service Record’]

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