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Headquarters Marine Corps

Purple is color for those who have bled red

By Lance Cpl. R. Drew Hendricks | Headquarters Marine Corps | January 29, 2007

CAMP SMITH, Hawaii -- “By order of the president of the United States, the Purple Heart, established by George Washington at Newburgh, 7 August, 1782, during the War of the Revolution, is hereby revived out of respect to his memory and military achievements.” On Feb. 22, 1932, this order was published by the War Department in order to bring back to service an award that had been disregarded for nearly 150 years.

In 1782, the Badge of Military Merit became the first American decoration for conspicuous military service.

While it was a decoration for such service, it was not the first U.S. medal. That status is held by the Medal of Honor, which was approved by Congress in 1862 during the Civil War. 

According to “Ribbons and Medals,” written by H. Taprell Dorling, the design of the Badge of Military Merit was a figure of a heart in purple cloth edged with narrow silver lace or binding. This award was only presented to three noncommissioned officers during the Revolutionary War: Sgt. Daniel Bissell of the 2nd Connecticut Regiment of the Continental Line, Sgt. William Brown of the 5th Connecticut Regiment of the Continental Line, and Sgt. Elijah Churchill of the 2nd Continental Dragoons, also a Connecticut regiment.

On the 200th anniversary of Washington’s birth, nearly 150 years after it was last awarded, the Badge of Military Merit was revived as the Purple Heart.

Originally only awarded by the Army, Franklin D. Roosevelt extended the use of the Purple Heart to the Navy, Marine Corps and the Coast Guard after the attacks on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, according to the historians of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. When the Air Force was later established in 1947, the award was extended to airmen as well. 

The Purple Heart is a bronze, heart-shaped medal with a purple ceramic heart incased in the center with a bust of Washington placed on top. Washington’s family crest is centered above the heart. Purple Hearts are made by hand at Graco Awards in Tomball, Texas.

Today the Purple Heart is awarded to service members and civilian nationals who, while serving in any capacity with an armed force of the United States, are killed or wounded in action against an enemy of the United States. The wound received must require medical attention in order to merit the Purple Heart.

Other actions that merit the Purple Heart include those who are killed or wounded as a result of:

•An act of any hostile foreign force.

•Friendly fire while actively engaging the enemy.

•Indirect enemy action. (Example: injuries resulting from parachuting from a plane brought
down by enemy fire.)

•Maltreatment inflicted by their captors while a prisoner of war.

•International terrorist attack against the U.S. or a foreign nation friendly to the U.S.,
after March 28, 1973.

•Military operations while serving outside the territory of the United States as part of a peacekeeping force, after March 28, 1973.

The Purple Heart was also awarded retroactively to all service members who met any of these requirements before Feb. 22, 1932.

The first modern Purple Heart was awarded to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who was one of the leading forces behind its revival, according to the MOPH.

From July 1958 to March 2003, there have been approximately 235,000 Purple Hearts awarded, according to the Military Awards Branch, Army Human Resources Command.

The most Purple Hearts received by one person is eight. Four Army soldiers share that distinction:

•Richard J. Buck - Four Purple Hearts for his actions during the Korean War and four during
the Vietnam War.

•Robert T. Frederick - Eight Purple Hearts in World War II.

•David H. Hackworth - Four Purple Hearts in the Korean War and four in the Vietnam War.

•Robert L. Howard - Eight Purple Hearts in the Vietnam War; he also received the Medal of Honor, the nations highest military award.

“The Purple Heart is the only decoration that attests, without question, to the bearer having been in combat and one that an individual can not be recommended for,” said Tom Poulter, the National Commander of the MOPH.

The Purple Heart stands as the oldest U.S. military decoration and the first to be made available to the common soldier.


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