Medal of Honor
The highest American decoration for valor is the Medal of Honor. In separate army, navy, and air force versions, the president awards it in the name of Congress to a member of the armed forces conspicuously displaying gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life, above and beyond the call of duty, while engaged in armed conflict. The navy medal may be awarded for noncombatant heroism such as lifesaving. On rare occasions the Medal of Honor has been awarded to individuals in peacetime. The medal has also been awarded to the American Unknown Soldiers and, by special legislation, to the Unknown Soldiers of U.S. allies in World War I.
The medal dates from December 1861, when Congress approved the creation of a Navy Medal of Honor for enlisted personnel; thus it is America's oldest badge of honor in continuous use. Congress authorized an Army
Medal of Honor in July 1862; legislation in March 1863 extended the medal to army officers and made the award retroactive to the start of the Civil War for all army personnel. Provisions to award the Navy Medal of Honor to navy and Marine Corps officers came in 1915, and the air force received authority to award the medal in 1949. In 1963, members of the Coast Guard (formerly eligible for the medal from the navy) received the same eligibility as members of the other services.
Distinguished Service, Navy, and Air Force Crosses
Ranking next below the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross was established for the army on 2 June 1918; the Navy Cross for the navy on 4 February 1919; and the Air Force Cross for the air force on 6 July 1960 (whose members had been eligible for the Distinguished Service Cross). The award is made to armed forces members who distinguish themselves by extraordinary heroism while engaged in action against an enemy of the United States; while engaged in military operations involving conflict with a foreign opponent; or while serving with friendly foreign forces in an armed conflict against an opposing armed force.
Distinguished Service Medal
The secretary of each branch of the armed services awards the Distinguished Service Medal to those who distinguish themselves in any capacity by exceptionally meritorious service in any duty of great responsibility. Congress authorized the army version on 6 July 1918, making it retroactive to 6 April 1917. The first recipients were the Allied Army commanders.
Members of the air force received this version until 6 July 1960, when Congress authorized their own distinctive award; Congress authorized the navy version, also awarded to Marine Corps personnel, on 4 February 1919, making it retroactive to 6 April 1917. The Coast Guard medal was authorized in 1951 for peacetime service, when that service is not under navy control.
Congress first authorized the Silver Star for all services on 9 July 1918, for gallantry in action as cited in published orders issued by the headquarters of a general officer. Since the award was made retroactive, many individuals "cited in orders" back to the Spanish-American War received the citation star. The Silver Star is the third highest award for combat heroism and ranks fourth in overall precedence.
Legion of Merit
Congress created the Legion of Merit, which ranks just below the Silver Star, on 20 July 1942, retroactive to 8 September 1939, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed a state of emergency before World War II. It is awarded to members of the American armed forces and of friendly foreign nations who "have distinguished themselves by exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services." It is the only U.S. decoration with specific degrees of rank.
Distinguished Flying Cross
First authorized by Congress on 2 July 1926, and amended by executive order on 8 January 1938, the Distinguished Flying Cross was made retroactive to 11 November 1918, for heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight. The first awards were made to Capt. Charles A. Lindbergh for his transatlantic solo flight (1927) and to Commander Richard E. Byrd (1926) for his North Pole flight. Both also received special awards of the Medal of Honor. Amelia Earhart is the only civilian recipient. The criteria for the award are the same for all services.
The Soldier's Medal is a non-combat award given to any person who, while serving in any capacity with the army, displays heroism not involving actual conflict with an enemy after 2 July 1926. It is a highly respected sign of personal bravery usually indicating risk of life. On 6 July 1960, Congress authorized the equivalent Airman's Medal.
Navy and Marine Corps Medal
Authorized by Congress on 7 August 1942, the Navy and Marine Corps Medal parallels the Soldier's Medal and is awarded to any person who, while serving in any capacity with the navy or the Marine Corps, displays heroism not involving actual conflict with an enemy after 6 December 1941. Persons to whom the secretary of the navy, before 7 August 1942, awarded a letter of commendation for heroism may also win this medal, regardless of the date of the act of heroism. President John F. Kennedy won this award as the commander of PT 109 in World War II.
Bronze Star Medal
First authorized in 1944, the regulations covering the Bronze Star have undergone numerous revisions. It may be awarded by the secretary of a military department, or by the secretary of transportation with regard to the Coast Guard when it is not operating as a service in the navy, to anyone who, while serving in any capacity in or with the army, navy, air force, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard after 6 December 1941, performs heroic or meritorious achievement not involving aerial flight during military operations. It can also be awarded to all personnel authorized the Combat Infantry Badge or Combat Medical Badge between 7 December 1941 and 2 September 1945.
Established on 11 May 1942, the Air Medal is given to any person who, while serving with the armed forces subsequent to 8 September 1939, performs meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight.
Purple Heart, Order of the
Established by George Washington on 7 August 1782, for meritorious service and extraordinary fidelity, the Order of the Purple Heart is America's oldest military decoration. After the Revolution it fell into disuse until the War Department reestablished it in 1932 to recognize a "singularly meritorious act," including wounds received in action, retroactive to 5 April 1917. Since 1942, when the Legion of Merit was established, the Purple Heart has been awarded to members of the armed forces and, in some cases, civilians, for wounds and other specific injuries received in action.
Kerrigan, Evans E. American War Medals and Decorations. New York: Viking Press, 1964.