The Medal of Honor US Armed Forces' highest honor. Meanwhile, the Purple Heart is the oldest. Over the years, many servicemen and women have been awarded either one or both of these decorations. You might be wondering what it takes to earn these remarkable awards. As you can imagine, it's not easy, and the stories behind the men and women who possess these medals are truly harrowing.
1. Purple Criteria
The US Armed Forces give out the Purple Heart to those who are injured or lose their lives while serving “under competent authority". Any member of any branch of the US Armed Forces is eligible for the Purple Heart, which is awarded in the name of the US President. While the Purple Heart is usually awarded for actions carried against an armed force, it may also be awarded to someone who is injured or lost their lives while serving with a peacekeeping force.
2. Honor Criteria
The Medal of Honor has undergone a long evolution of criteria during its existence. As of 2018, it’s usually awarded to a person who displays valor that is above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in some form of action or operation against enemies of the United States.
3. Collecting Them Like Pokemon Badges
Both the Medal of Honor and the Purple Heart can be won multiple times by the same person. Three men have been awarded a whopping ten Purple Hearts each, while only nineteen people have gotten two Medals of Honor.
4. Someone Has to be First
The first woman to ever receive the Purple Heart in US history was Cordelia E. Cook. During WWII, Cook served as a combat nurse and sustained injuries from shrapnel while on the Italian front. She also received a Bronze Star, causing her to be a double first for the Armed Forces—not too shabby!
5. There’s Going to be a Delay
The idea of an award that later became the Medal of Honor was first introduced during the American Civil Battle. However, Lt. Colonel Edward D. Townsend met failure when he suggested the concept to Winfield Scott, who was the general-in-chief of the US Army at the time. Scott disliked the European idea of giving out medals and opposed its development.
6. Nearly Half?
At the time of the American Civil Battle, the Medal of Honor was the only award which servicemen could receive, as opposed to the Stars, Crosses, and other awards that emerged later on. As of 2018, around 3,500 Medals of Honor have been awarded.
The first Medals of Honor ever awarded were given to several men who participated the Great Locomotive Chase. Also called Andrew’s Raid, this mission took place on April 12, 1862 in Georgia. Union forces, led by a civilian scout named James J. Andrews, took over a train and took it along Western and Atlantic Railroad, a vital track to the Confederacy. Pursued by Confederate forces, the raiders did as much damage to the railroad as they could. Ironically, despite giving his name to the raid, Andrews was denied the Medal of Honor because of his civilian status.
8. Only You Can Prevent Explosions
The first WWI recipient of the Medal of Honor was Willis W. Bradley Jr. In June 1917, the USS Pittsburgh suffered an accidental explosion. Bradley Jr. entered the room at the worst time and was thrown back during the explosion. Despite that, he saved another man’s life and put out a fire, thus preventing further explosions from happening.
9. Sign of Respect
Due to the prestige of the Medal of Honor, servicemen and women are encouraged to salute recipients of the award, regardless of whether they’re in uniform or not, and regardless of rank. It remains to be one of the only instances where a senior-ranking person in the Armed Forces would salute a lower-ranking individual.
10. The Angry Young Man of Hollywood
Rod Serling was one of the men who made up the 511th demolition battalion during WWII. This battalion became famous for the high casualty rate they regularly dealt with. Serling barely survived several harrowing events, particularly as he was part of the very costly mission to take the city of Manila. Injured several times, no amount of decorations could prevent Serling from suffering the effects of PTSD for the rest of his life.
The flashbacks and nightmares he suffered would go on to inspire his future writing, including on his well-known TV show The Twilight Zone.
11. You’ll Never Take Me Alive!
On November 5, 1950, Mitchell Red Cloud Jr., a Ho-Chunk Native American corporal, was with the 2nd Battalion of the 19th Infantry when he noticed a force of Chinese combatants advancing on their position. Red Cloud Jr. raised the alarm and began firing on the invading enemy. After being shot in the chest twice, he refused to withdraw, as he was in the best position to defend his comrades-in-arms. Red Cloud Jr. continued to fight, even as the others avoided a devastating ambush thanks to his courage.
As his last act, Red Cloud Jr. ordered his men to secure him a nearby tree so that he could continue fighting after he was too weak to stand. It’s not certain just how many men’s lives Red Cloud Jr. saved, or the number of enemies he took out, but he was wounded at least eight times as he made his last stand. General Omar Bradley personally presented Red Cloud Jr.’s mother with his Medal of Honor in April 1951.
12. Silver Lining?
Manny Babbitt served with the US Marines in Vietnam and was injured at the Battle of Khe Sanh in 1968. Things took a dark turn, however, in 1980 when Babbitt was convicted of ending an elderly woman while burglarizing her house. Babbitt claimed that his post-t. stress disorder was affecting his behavior. This defense proved insufficient in court, however, and Babbit was sentenced to lethal injection. Before his execution, he was awarded the Purple Heart for his prior actions in Vietnam, and was later given a funeral with full honors.
13. Art and Life Blurred Together
Samuel Fuller received a Purple Heart, Bronze Star, and Silver Star for his services during WWII. He would later mine his own life experiences as a screenwriter and director when he made the film The Big Red One. Interestingly, the film also starred Lee Marvin, another Purple Heart winner from WWII.
14. Good Enough, Sonny Jim!
While Franklin D. Roosevelt led the US through much of WWII, his son was serving as a naval officer. Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr. was awarded for bravery displayed at the Battle of Casablanca. He earned the Purple Heart, as well as the Legion of Merit.
15. B.Y.O.B. Still Applies, Though!
As well as a monthly pension, any recipients of the Medal of Honor receive invitations to any and all presidential inaugurations and inaugural balls.
16. Eight? That’s Great!
Robert T. Frederick is the only American who earned eight Purple Hearts during WWII. He would command the 1st Special Service Force, the 1st Allied Airborne Task Force, and the 45th Infantry Division during his service. Frederick was injured several times on the Italian front and the Allied push into Germany. He became the youngest general of a division during WWII.
17. The Pen is Mightier than the Sword
Ron Kovic lost the use of his legs while serving with the Marine Corps in Vietnam. Following a period of disillusionment and depression, he would go on to become a peace activist protesting the treatment of veterans and the ongoing conflict. Kovic would also write an autobiography about his life titled Born on the Fourth of July and would co-write the screenplay of its film adaptation. Tom Cruise would get his first Oscar nomination for his work portraying Kovic in the film.
18. Iron Will
Speaking of the Marine Corps in Vietnam, Robert Mueller became noted for rescuing one of his comrades from a devastating ambush which led to half of their platoon getting wounded or losing their lives. He would also be injured in the thigh by gunfire during his tours of Vietnam, earning him the Purple Heart. He went on to pursue a lawful career, eventually becoming the sixth director of the FBI.
19. Good on You, Des!
One man who has received both the Purple Heart and Medal of Honor is Desmond Doss. What makes his Medal of Honor more unique is that Doss is the only conscientious objector to receive the award. That means Doss refused to carry a weapon, not even to defend himself. Despite that, he served in WWII and would go on to save over seventy-five men at the Battle of Okinawa. Recently, his heroics were honored in the film adaptation Hacksaw Ridge starring Andrew Garfield.
20. We Can’t Thank You Enough
The first black recipient of the Medal of Honor in Vietnam was Milton L. Olive III. On October 22, 1965, Olive was a private in the 503rd Infantry in Vietnam when he threw himself on top of a grenade to save his comrades. The action cost Olive his life; he was only 18 years old at the time. His Medal of Honor was presented to his father and stepmother by President Lyndon Johnson. Among those who were present at the ceremony were two of the men who owed their lives to Olive’s sacrifice.
21. Prestigious President
John F. Kennedy remains to be the only US President to have earned a Purple Heart from his time in the armed forces—he served with the Navy during WWII. Meanwhile, three presidential candidates have also been awarded Purple Hearts for service: John McCain, John Kerry, and Bob Dole.
22. Supply Exceeding Demand
During WWII, more the US made 1.5 million Purple Hearts in anticipation of the high casualties their army man would likely endure before the conflict was won. While a large number of them were awarded to various people, they ended up having more than they needed (a good thing, if you ask me). In fact, of the 500,000 Purple Hearts left from that original number, there were more than 120,000 still unclaimed by 2003, and that’s after all the conflicts which the US has been involved with since WWII.
23. In Memory of Kiowa
After earning a Purple Heart during his service in Vietnam, Tim O’Brien would immortalize his experiences with his work as a writer. His most famous novel is The Things They Carried, an experimental anthology of short stories involving O’Brien’s experiences and those of the people he knew in Vietnam.
24. Not So Honorable
On December 29, 1890, as many as 300 men, women, and children of Aboriginal descent were slaughtered at Wounded Knee by US Cavalry. For their efforts in the horrific day, 20 men received Medals of Honor. It was noted in the citations that some of these men “earned” their medals by chasing down fleeing Lakota people. Due to the controversy of this event, it should surprise nobody that many have called for these 20 Medals of Honor to be revoked.
25. What Took So Long?!
At the Battle of Gettysburg, one of the many men who suffered ghastly injuries was Alonzo Cushing. Shockingly, though, despite his abdomen and groin being torn by shell fragments, Cushing’s only response was to press his hand over his exposed intestines and keep fighting with his unit! He refused to retreat from the fight and lost his life to further gunfire.
Surprisingly, he wasn’t awarded a Medal of Honor until his nomination was approved by President Barack Obama. The award ceremony was held on December 19, 2014, a full 151 years later. It remains to be the longest delay of a service award in US history.
26. From Heroes to Action Stars
In 1967, the film The Dirty Dozen became a huge box office success. Set during WWII, the film depicts several outlaw servicemen forced to go on a dangerous mission to redeem themselves. Interestingly, three of the lead actors in the film had been awarded Purple Hearts for their services during WWII. Lee Marvin had served with the Marines, Charles Bronson had been a member of the Air Force, and Telly Savalas had been in the US Army.
27. That’s a Lot of Medals…
During WWII, a total of 471 different people serving with the US Armed Forces were awarded the Medal of Honor. Due to the conflict's bloody toll, nearly half of all those medals had to be awarded posthumously. Also, included amongst these medals was the first and only incident where a member of the United States Coast Guard was given the Medal of Honor.
28. Who are the Patriots Now?
Of the 471 Medals of Honor awarded during WWII, 21 of them were given to the 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Combat Team. It’s worth noting that these units were made up of exclusively Japanese-Americans, who were fighting valiantly for the US during a time when many Japanese-Americans were being incarcerated exclusively because of their race.
29. The Glorious Nine
Albert L. Ireland holds a prestigious second place in the history of the Purple Heart. He was awarded nine of them, the second-most that any individual has ever won. All of them were awarded due to injuries that Ireland had sustained across two conflicts. Five of those Purple Hearts were related to WWII and four of them to Korea. We’ll safely assume that Ireland was the toughest customer of his day.
30. Warrior Princess
Kristin Beck is a transgender veteran of the US Navy SEALs who served a counter-terrorism unit. Among the many decorations she earned during her time in the Armed Forces was a Purple Heart. As of 2018, she is the only openly transgender veteran of the Navy SEALs.
31. You Messed with the Wrong Guy!
On May 14, 1918, Henry Johnson was in the Argonne Wood on the lookout for Germans. He was set upon by a German raiding party, which would normally be the last thing written about someone who was KIA. Johnson, however, refused to be gone. Using his nothing more than what he had on him, including his bare fists, Johnson drove off the attacking Germans and even saved a comrade's life, sustaining a stunning twenty-one wounds in the process!
32. Well, This Is Sad…
For this incredible feat, Henry Johnson became the first American in WWI to earn the French “Croix de Guerre". Sadly, Johnson’s own country would take longer to recognize his accomplishment on account of his race. He would meet his end in obscure poverty, his heroism unrecognized. Johnson wouldn’t be awarded a Purple Heart until 1996, and he was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama in 2015.
33. A Warrior Through and Through
Before he was one of the most decorated heroes WWII, Audie Murphy was one of 12 children in Texas. His mother passed of sickness in 1941, and his father abandoned the family. Murphy would lie about his age to enlist in the US Armed Forces, and would receive “every...combat award for valor available from the US Army, as well as French and Belgian awards for heroism".
One of his many feats included holding a position atop a tank destroyer, ending or injuring more than fifty Germans in the process. This action earned him his Medal of Honor.
34. You’re a Star!
After his successes, Audie Murphy would go on to star in films, including John Huston’s The Red Badge of Courage. One of his biggest triumphs was playing himself in a film adaptation of his autobiography. At the time, it was the best-selling film that Universal Studios ever released.
35. You Can’t Knock Me Down
The only woman to ever receive the Medal of Honor was Mary Edwards Walker. At the outbreak of the American Civil Battle, the abolitionist Walker was an experienced surgeon who’d kept a private practice for a considerable amount of time. Despite this, the Union Army refused her offer to work as a surgeon because she was a woman. Undeterred by this obstacle, Walker proved her value when she first worked as a nurse, and then an unpaid field surgeon on the front lines.
Due to the fluid mobility they provided her, Walker would wear clothing usually worn by men as she worked and would even refuse to wear traditional women’s clothes when the Confederates captured her on suspicion of her being a spy—she would frequently cross the lines to assist civilians in between battles. Walker would survive the conflict, become a writer, and emerge as a figure in the women's suffrage movement.
36. Like a Boss
Lewis Burwell “Chesty” Puller was the most decorated Marine in US history. He served in the Marine Corps for 37 years, until 1955. By that time, he had fought in WWII and Korea. His repeated acts of heroism led to him being awarded several Navy Crosses, an Army Distinguished Service Cross, and a Purple Heart, among others. While it would take a while to list his acts of valor, one famous line attributed to him came from an incident in Korea when his unit was caught up in the Battle of Chosin Reservoir. He allegedly stated, “We’ve been looking for the enemy for some time now. We’ve finally found him. We’re surrounded. That simplifies things".
37. Like Father Like Son
Following in his father’s footsteps, Lewis Burwell Puller Jr. enlisted in the Marines and went to Vietnam. In 1968, Burwell was seriously injured by a howitzer round and taken to the hospital. He had lost his right leg, half of his left leg, his left hand, and most of his right hand. This effectively ended his career, which had resulted in him earning two Purple Hearts among a few other decorations.
Burwell Jr. barely survived his ghastly injuries—he even dropped down to just 55 pounds while in the hospital. Burwell Jr. would spend the next 25 years being hampered by his physical injuries and struggling with depression. He would eventually take his own life in 1994, but not before winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for his autobiography Fortunate Son.
39. Lights, Camera, Action!
Oliver Stone enlisted in the US Army and served for more than a year in Vietnam. He was with the 25th Infantry Division and the 1st Cavalry Division during his time the jungle and was wounded twice. He was awarded a Bronze Star for gallantry and a Purple Heart with an additional Oak Leaf Cluster. Stone would later go on to win two Best Director Oscars for Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July. He remains the only Purple Heart recipient to do so.
40. Youthful Achievements
The youngest recipient of the Purple Heart was named Calvin Graham. Graham enlisted in the US Navy on August 15, 1942, and participated in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. For his injuries, and for his actions in saving other wounded men from the battlefield, Graham was given the Purple Heart. It was later revealed that he was just 12 years old!
When his deception came out, Graham was discharged from the Navy and his awards were revoked. Graham would spend the next few decades trying to get his deserved recognition for his heroic actions. His Purple Heart would not be restored until 1994, two years after he passed.
41. Bravest of the Brave
Charles D. Barger, who served in the US Army during WWI, was one of three men in US history to have been awarded ten Purple Hearts for injuries he’d sustained on the battlefield. Not only that, he was also awarded the Medal of Honor for a feat he performed during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Barger rescued two wounded officers and one infantryman by going into no man’s land and braving enemy fire during the rescue mission.
42. A Sad Ending
Sadly, once he returned home, Barger struggled to make ends meet, commenting that while he was honored to have these medals, “you can’t eat them". He struggled to make ends meet and ended up suffering from a series of terrible mental breakdowns. Eventually, he lost his life from injuries sustained in a violent encounter with authorities—he was just 44 years old.