8 Things You Need to Know About the Purple Heart Medal

U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Alexander Hill

By Danielle DeSimone

On August 7, Purple Heart Day, the nation pauses to acknowledge and remember the sacrifices made by brave people in the military.

The Purple Heart medal is presented to service members who have been wounded or killed as a result of enemy action while serving in the U.S. military. A Purple Heart is a solemn distinction and means a service member has greatly sacrificed themselves, or paid the ultimate price, while in the line of duty.

According to the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor, more than 1.8 million Purple Heart medals have been presented to service members since the award was created in 1782.

In honor of Purple Heart Day, here are eight facts about the history of the Purple Heart Medal and its recipients:

1. The Purple Heart is the Oldest Military Award Still Presented to American Service Members

The Purple Heart’s first predecessor, the Fidelity Medallion, was created in 1780 by the Continental Congress, but was only awarded to three soldiers that year.

Two years later, in 1782, President George Washington created the Badge of Military Merit. Because the Fidelity Medallion was never again bestowed, it is generally thought of as commemorative, and the Badge of Military Merit is instead considered to be the first U.S. military decoration and the Purple Heart’s predecessor.

According to Washington, who designed the Badge of Military Merit in the form of a cloth purple heart, the Badge of Military Merit would be given to soldiers who displayed “not only instances of unusual gallantry in battle, but also extraordinary fidelity and essential service in any way.”

The Badge of Military Merit later became evolved into what we now know as the Purple Heart, which is still presented to qualified U.S. service members today.

General George Washington presents the Badge of Military Merit in Newburgh, New York, in 1783. | Photo credit U.S. Army Center of Military History

2. One of the First Military Medals Given to all Ranks

In the years before 1782, when the Purple Heart’s predecessor, the Badge of Military Merit, was first created, most military awards were only given to officers who had secured grand victories in battle.

The Badge of Military Merit, now known as the Purple Heart, was truly a military medal by the people, of the people: it was one of the first awards in military history that could be given to lower-ranking, enlisted soldiers or non-commissioned officers for their outstanding service.

Today, U.S. service members of any rank who been wounded or killed in enemy action are qualified to receive a Purple Heart medal.

3. Today’s Purple Heart Medal and Eligibility

Thanks to Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the Purple Heart officially received its modern-day look and name in 1932.

MacArthur, who wanted to refresh and rename the award in time for the bicentennial of George Washington’s birthday, worked with the Washington Commission of Fine Arts and Elizabeth Will, a heraldry specialist in the Army’s Office of the Quartermaster General, to design the medal.

The revived Purple Heart medal, which features George Washington’s likeness, was designated primarily as a combat decoration for the Army or Army Air Corps only, recognizing commendable action as well as those wounded or killed in combat. At this time, the Purple Heart could not be posthumously given or given to the recipient’s family.

A few years later in 1942, President Roosevelt and the War Department further defined the qualifications for receiving a Purple Heart, designating it for those who were wounded or killed in action. They also expanded the eligibility for the award to all military branches of service and gave authorization to give posthumous Purple Heart medals.

In the years since, the qualifications that dictate who is eligible to receive a Purple Heart have changed throughout the years and continue to evolve even until today.

Photo credit U.S. Army

General Douglas MacArthur (pictured center, seated) observes the Battle of Inchon in the Korean War in 1950.

4. Who Received the First Purple Heart in U.S. History?

During the Revolutionary War, Continental Army soldiers William Brown and Elijah Churchill were the first soldiers to receive the Badge of Military Merit, the predecessor to the Purple Heart. Brown was most likely bestowed the honor for his service during the Siege of Yorktown, while Churchill was recognized for his gallantry at a battle near Fort St. George on Long Island.

The first service member to receive the modern-day Purple Heart was Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur for his service in the Pacific theater (specifically in the Philippines) during World War II.

5. Famous Purple Heart Recipients

Although each Purple Heart recipient deserves widespread recognition, a handful of honorees standout as household names, such as the legendary Lewis Burwell “Chesty” Puller.

Other famous Purple Heart recipients include actors (such as James Arness, Charles Bronson, James Garner, Rod Serling), writers (Kurt Vonnegut, Oliver Stone), athletes (Warren Spahn, Pat Tillman, Rocky Bleier, and even animals Sergeant Stubby the dog and Sergeant Reckless the horse.

Photo credit U.S. Army

U.S. Army First Lieutenant Cordelia “Betty” Cook, the first woman to receive both the Purple Heart Medal and the Bronze Star Medal, tends to a wounded service member in Italy in 1943; her bandaged shrapnel wound clearly visible.

6. Two Women, One First

In 1942, Army Lt. Annie G. Fox became the first woman to receive a Purple Heart for her heroic actions during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Fox, who was serving as the chief nurse at Hickam Field, Hawaii, remained calm throughout the attack on Pearl Harbor and her hospital, and successfully directed hospital staff to tend to the wounded as they came in from harbor.

While she wasn’t the first woman to receive the Purple Heart, Cordelia “Betty” Cook was the first woman to receive both the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star. In 1943, Cook, who served as a combat nurse during World War II, sustained shrapnel wounds while working at a field hospital on the Italian front. Despite her injuries, Cook continued to work and was later commended with both awards for her heroic actions.

7. John F. Kennedy, the Only President with a Purple Heart

United States Navy Reserve Lieutenant John F. Kennedy | Photo credit United States National Archives and Records Administration

President John F. Kennedy is the only U.S. president with a Purple Heart.

Kennedy, who served in the Navy during World War II, injured his back when a Japanese destroyer collided with his patrol torpedo boat near the Solomon Islands. As his boat sank, Kennedy refused to let his injury stop him from towing a badly burned crew member to safety. Kennedy swam with the man’s life jacket strap clenched between his teeth for three miles before reaching an island and bringing the man safely to shore.

Kennedy was also awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his actions.

8. How Many Purple Hearts Can You Receive? Who Has the Most Purple Hearts?

Service members can receive multiple Purple Hearts throughout their military career.

Curry T. Haynes currently holds the record for the largest number of Purple Hearts bestowed upon a single service member.

Haynes, who served in the Army during the Vietnam War, was awarded his first Purple Heart after an ambush in the jungle, where he was shot in the arm. After surgery in Japan, he returned to the front where his actions would later result in being awarded his nine additional Purple Hearts. In the span of one assault – which involved dodging multiple grenades – Haynes sustained a series of injuries, including the loss of two fingers.

He later received nine Purple Hearts – one for each wound – and passed away in July 2017 from cancer.

-This story was first published on USO.org in 2018. It has been updated in 2020.

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