The Iron Cross
The Iron Cross is probably one of the most distinctive military decorations that there has ever been. Beyond just a commendation it also became part of the identity of the German army in the past and into the present.
Its design can be traced back to the Crusades when the King of Jerusalem gave the Teutonic Order permission to combine their solid black cross to the silver Cross of Jerusalem. The first award as a military decoration goes back to 1813 and the Napoleonic Wars. The Prussian King decided that it would best symbolize courage and strength. The decoration would be used again during the Franco-Prussian War, World War I and World War II.
As a symbol of the German Army it was used during World War I and retired at the end of the war. Only to be brought to the fore again by the Nazis in 1939. Sometimes even adorned with the swastika. After the war, it fell out of favor but was reinstated in 1956 by the West Germans. After reunification, it remains the symbol of the German Army today in various forms.
Interestingly enough, the Iron Cross citation was never revived in Germany post WWII. Though they did reissue the awards won during the war without the Nazi symbols attached to them. There has been somewhat of a movement to reinstate the Iron Cross award. In the meantime, though a new award has been put in place at the same level, The Cross of Honor for Bravery. Which is more reminiscent in design to an older Prussian medal.
The Hero From Shangri-La
On December 7, 1941 the Japanese Imperial Navy undertook a surprise attack on the American Naval base at Pearl Harbor Hawaii. With that America launched head first into World War 2. Up to that point most average Americans saw the events transpiring in Europe as something that didn’t concern them, sure people had opinions but that was an ocean away. Now however we had been attacked. Americans died. Japan steamrolled across the pacific. The shaken people demanded President Roosevelt do something.
He put the call out to the military. We had to strike back. That is where Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle came in. His plan was to launch a bombing mission against the Japanese Home Islands using B-25 Medium bombers, launched from an aircraft carrier. Something never attempted before. Sixteen aircraft needed retrofitted to allow them to be launched from the carrier, and the crews would need to be trained.
On April 18, 1942 the raid launched. All the planes reached their targets and dropped their payloads. They then headed for their landing sites in China. Unfortunately the planes did not have the fuel. The crews had no choice but to bail out. Most of the crews survived, assisted by the friendly Chinese and good dose of luck. The actual damage done to the Japanese was minimal. That was not the point, We had struck a blow in retaliation. We proved we would fight.
Doolittle was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. His citation reads, “For conspicuous leadership above and beyond the call of duty, involving personal valor and intrepidity at an extreme hazard to life. With the apparent certainty of being forced to land in enemy territory or to perish at sea, Lt. Col. Doolittle personally led a squadron of Army bombers, manned by volunteer crews, in a highly destructive raid on the Japanese mainland.”
What he did was brave beyond measure. It was also a little crazy, but in times of war we could use a little more crazy…
The trope is a familiar one. Returning veterans of the war in Vietnam joining in with the protesters all over the country, trying to bring the war to an end. As a sign of protest they would take their medals and citations and toss them in the reflecting pool at the Mall in Washington or throw them over fence at the White House as a sign of anger and frustration.
The war was something that people didn’t understand. Unlike WW2 there was no clear-cut definition or goal, it was a war that was being fought mainly to prove that we were willing to fight and the men and women that served often felt like tools and pawns of the people in Washington. Their need to protest and sound off, to be heard and understood was well founded. But there is another side to the story.
Many men and women served and did their duty and while they may have had strong feelings about the right or wrong of the war, they fought it. They did their duty when called. Then something amazing happened to them that caused many to speak out though they had remained silent so far.
On September 16, 1974 President Gerald Ford announced that those who had dodged the draft and avoided service would be allowed to earn clemency by providing “alternate” service to their country. In exchange for two years public service, their sins would be forgiven.
A new wave of protests were started, this time not against the war but against the idea that those who illegally avoided fighting would be forgiven. Many veterans sent their medals and citations directly to President Ford himself in protest. The photo above is a collection of just some of the medals that Ford received in protest. In an effort to heal the wounds of the nation, he only created a deeper divide.
The Other Side of the Korean War
The Korean War was a civil war that drew in outside forces on both sides. In every war each side believes that they are right and that they alone are fighting the good fight. With that said it is sometimes easy to overlook the other side of a conflict that your nation was on one side of.
As an early battleground of the proxy wars between major powers during the Cold War. Officially it is still going on, just on pause and any glance at a newspaper reminds you that at any time it could flare back up.
In the picture above is a simple plaque in a display case in a museum. In the case (and we see them later in another article) is a North Korean flag, a soldiers fur covered hat and a rifle, but it us the badge in the picture that is interesting on this point.
Estimates on casualties during the Korean War put the North Korean losses at between 215,000 and 350,000 killed and another 300,000 wounded. On top of that an estimated 1,550,000 civilians (estimated) lost their lives.
War sucks and the goal of war is to win. People die in war, soldiers and civilians. Those numbers above are astounding and should cause you to think about the other side for just a minute. As a comparison the other side, (South Korea and the United Nations) had an estimated total of 178,426 dead and around 566,000 wounded, civilian dead,wounded and missing totaled about 990,000.
So the other side can have their medals, just like we do. The main lesson in all this is that war is terrible. Honestly if you are reading this odds are you already know that.
In the days before the American Revolution the great European powers that spent time traipsing around the wilds of North America presented the leaders of the various native tribes with silver medals that were to be seen as symbols of friendship and to single out the leaders as special people. They were effective tools that tied the leadership of various tribes to the major powers.
In the wake of the Revolution it was decided that the United States of America would continue the tradition. Thomas Jefferson, the first Secretary of State, saw the medals as just trinkets that were the continuation of a long-standing European tradition to give small presents to treaty negotiators, one that was harmless and really had no meaning. Sort of like when you stop at a truck stop and buy a spoon with the name of whatever state you are visiting.
When Jefferson, as President, sent Lewis and Clark on their great adventure to the Pacific Ocean they were loaded down with these medals in 1804 through 1806. Along the way as they handed out the medal to the various tribes they encouraged their “new friends” to send back or turn in any such trinkets they had received previously from other Europeans. There is no record to indicate how many were returned. Odds are not many.
The medal above is one of these medals. The original medals were made of thin silver plates connected with a small silver band. On the front was President Jefferson and the back the crossed tomahawks and clasped hands indicting peace and friendship. Each successive President would strike their own medallions though whether or not the worked in promoting friendship… well that may be another story.