The First Congressional Medal
So, you think that Congress is slow to act now?
The medal above was commissioned by Congress in 1776 to honor General George Washington for his role in forcing the British to abandon the besieged city of Boston.
A gold one was to be struck and given to General Washington. Silver ones would be struck and given to dignitaries and VIPs.
The front of the coin, which should look a little familiar is based on the bust of Washington Jean-Antoine Houdon. The back side showed a scene of Washington and four of his men on Dorchester Heights overlooking Boston.
Over the next twelve years, Congress would authorize six additional medals. In 1777 they honored General Horatio Gates and 1779 General Anthony Wayne. Major Henry Lee, General’s Morgan and Greene would follow over the next couple of years and the last of the era went to John Paul Jones for his capture of the Serapis.
So about the delay. Congress approved each of these medals in a quick form, but it turned out that there was nowhere in the colonies that could actually produce the medals. So they looked to France to produce the awards. And they took their time.
On March 21, 1790, President Thomas Jefferson presented former President Washington with his medal. Also as a box containing the other five medals commissioned fourteen years after they were ordered. If only they had Amazon!
Over the years the Congressional gold medals would be given to prominent military men. Later recipients would expand to include actors, artists, musicians and other entertainers.
On August 7th, 1782 from his headquarters in New York General George Washington established the Badge of Military Merit, the precursor to the Purple Heart you see above. In his official order creating the award he wrote that “the road to glory in a patriot army and a free country is…open to all.” For what is believed to be the first time a military service award could be given to an enlisted man instead of just officers which was the European tradition.
Three soldiers of the Revolution were awarded the Badge of Military Merit and hold the distinction of being presented with the award by General Washington personally.
- William Brown, Sergeant of the 5th Connecticut Regiment of the Connecticut Line
- Elijah Churchill, Sergeant of the 2nd Regiment Light Dragoons
- Daniel Bissell. Sergeant of the 2nd Connecticut Regiment of the Connecticut Line
After the war, the award was almost forgotten and fell into disuse, but never officially decommissioned. After WWI an attempt was made by the Army to revive it, but the attempt faltered until 1931. That year General Douglas MacArthur, the Army Chief of Staff, moved ahead with the process and a total redesign.
Unveiled on the bicentennial of Washington’s birth. The new design features a heart-shaped medallion that features the bust of General Washington, hanging on the purple ribbon.
Originally the award was given for those wounded in combat as well as those who performed meritorious achievement. Eventually, with the commissioning of the Legion of Merit, the Purple Heart was reserved exclusively for the wounded. The first recipient of the Purple Heart? General Douglas MacArthur himself!
For more information on the award, please visit http://www.thepurpleheart.com/history/
Medals of the Forgotten War
Above are medals that were presented to an American soldier during that the Korean War. Starting from the top left the medals are:
Army Commendation Medal
Army Good Conduct Medal
National Defense Medal
Korean Service Medal
Quite a selection.
Being sandwiched between WWII and the Vietnam War it truly seemed to earn its sobriquet of The Forgotten War, unless you were one who served or had family that did. In fact, it can probably be said that if not for the television show M*A*S*H, it would still be mostly forgotten. Which is sad when you consider that over 36,000 American soldiers gave their lives in just shy of three years. Of course, that pales in comparison to the approx 140,000 South Korean soldiers that died. In comparison though to the just under 7,000 deaths of American soldiers during the 13+ years of the War on Terror, it sort of makes you wonder it is still so forgotten.
The Korean War was the first major confrontation in the post-WWII world and pit the forces of the United Nations (28 nations participated in the war in various roles, 17 with combat troops) against North Korea, China, the Soviet Union and their allies (6 other nations). Quite a scrum, which could have easily swung out of control to become World War 3, the fact that it didn’t is sort of miraculous. In fact maybe instead of the Forgotten War, we should start calling it the Close Call War. Regardless of the name, one thing can be said. There are plenty of medals to go around.
The War to End All Wars (WWI)
The medals in the picture above were given to participants in WWI. Given for heroics and valor, for bravery and performing above and beyond the call of duty. On April 6, 1917, the Great War on the European continent finally drew in the United States. On that day the US House of Representatives voted 373 to 50 to approve the Senates (82 to 6) declaration of war against Germany.
There were many that wanted us in the war since it began and many more that saw a war across the ocean as something that should stay there, but when American civilian lives were put at risk, and even lost thanks to German navy, it was not long before we would seek our retribution. The last straw, the straw that saw us turn toward war instead of away was not the sinking of the Lusitania, which may be the ship you are most familiar with, but the Houstanic.
Days later on February 22, 1917, Congress passed a $250 million appropriations bill to prepare us for war. By the time March had come and gone Germany had sunk four more US merchant ships and President Wilson called for war to be officially declared.
The Yankees Arrive
The first US troops landed in France on June 26, almost 14,000 total began their adventure Over There. About seventeen months later the war was finally over with more than 2 million Americans having joined in the fighting. Almost fifty thousand of them didn’t come home. Those that did came home to a country that had proven itself on the world stage as never before. As a military power and as a true industrial power.
The medals above were given for heroics and valor. For bravery and performing above and beyond the call of duty. They also served as proof to the world that America was poised to take its place on the world stage.
The Philippine Campaign 1899-1913
In 1898 during the Spanish-American War, the United States liberated the Philippines from the Spanish. Unfortunately, many Filipinos were not any happier to be under American control than Spanish control. Even after the war with the Spanish ended the war in the islands continued. For three years, until July 1902 the United States and the Philippines remained in a state of war. Even an official peace did not stop the fighting. Rebel factions continued to fight the US until June of 1913. Yep, what started in 1898 continued until 1913. This particular conflict had a huge effect on our military and policies.
First and foremost it was during this conflict, that was primarily a guerrilla war against unconventional forces, that the book was written on how to deal with this sort of war. In fact, the original blueprint for dealing with the unconventional tactics of the Viet Cong, came from the lessons learned during this war.
So how did one get this ribbon?
The following is from the USmilitary.about.com Page:
The Philippine Campaign Medal was awarded for military service in the Philippine Islands under any of the following conditions indicated in AR 600-8-22, between the dates 4 February 1899 and 31 December 1913:
- Ashore between 4 February 1899 and 4 July 1902.
- Ashore in the Department of Mindanao between 4 Feb 1899, and 31 Dec 1, 1904.
- Against the Pulajanes on Leyte between 20 July 1906 and 30 June 1907, or on Samar between 2 August 1904, and 30 June 1907.
With any of the following expeditions:
- Pala on Jolo between April and May 1905.
- Datu Ali on Mindanao in October 1905.
- Against hostile Moros on Mount Bud-Dajo, Jolo, in March 1906.
- Against hostile Moros on Mount Bagsac, Jolo, between January and July 1913.
- Fighting hostile Moros on Mindanao or Jolo between 1910 and 1913.
- Any action in which U.S. troops were killed or wounded between 4 February 1899, and 31 December 1913.
Considering that the Spanish-American war is barely remembered today, it is not a surprise that this conflict gets overlooked. It also doesn’t help that the dates of when it ended are up for discussion. Casualties are hard to quantify because of this also. For the US it was somewhere around 10,000 killed and wounded. For the Filipino’s between 12 and 20,000 killed and wounded with civilian casualties estimated at around 200,000 thousand.
That medal above represents a lot of lives in a forgotten conflict.
The Spanish-American War Aftermath
Yes, once again the Spanish-American War is a topic for this site. One of the reasons we touch upon it so much is that it falls in that odd period of American history after the Civil War and before WWI that a lot of people seem to think nothing happened during. The causes of the war are denoted elsewhere, the big names are listed elsewhere, this is a conflict that has a deep bench of personalities that bring their own stories.
Treaty of Paris
On December 10, 1898 the Treaty of Paris (yes there were a lot of treaties with that name) was signed between the US and Spain. In the treaty Spain renounced all claims to Cuba and outright ceded to the US Guam and Puerto Rico and for the tidy sum of $20 million ownership of the Philippines was transferred. In effect the war ended the Spanish empire and gave birth to an American Empire that brought the US to the center of the world stage.
To this day Guam and Puerto Rico are still US territories with the issue of statehood for Puerto Rico under constant consideration. Guam is an important US military base that proves incredibly valuable today.
The last two on that list, well it gets complicated.
Cuba was granted full independence in 1902 and for the first time stood on its own. Mostly, the US still reserved the right to basically interfere and help guide the Cuban people as it saw fit. The island was always ripe for revolution. For its part the US stepped in many times to ensure its interests during periods of unrest. Revolutions in the 50’s and 60’s saw the communists brought to power and the USSR favored over the US. The US reacted a little childishly with a boycott that lasted until just recently. Stay tuned, this is a continuing story…
The Philippines did not go as well. The US fought an ongoing war to “subdue” the islands until interrupted by the Japanese and WWII. Yep close to thirty years fighting the Philippine Insurrection and that was only put on hold for a bigger war. After WWII, on July 4th 1946 the US finally recognized the Philippines as a sovereign state. The two countries have been close since with a number of treaties binding them together. Glad to see there were no hard feelings.
The Army Commendation medal is mid-level award that is given out for “sustained acts of heroism or meritorious service.” It entered service in 1945 as the Army Commendation Ribbon and achieved full medal status by 1960.
The medal can be awarded to any member of the US Armed Forces (except general officers) that distinguishes oneself while doing service with the US Army anytime after December 6, 1941. Members of a friendly foreign military are eligible as of June 1, 1962.
The commendation is awarded on the approval of a Colonel or higher. The medal is a bronze hexagon approximately 1 3/8 inches wide. The medallion shows a bald eagle with the wings spread, three arrows grasped in its talons. On its chest is a shield with thirteen stripes. The reverse of the medallion contains the words For Military Merit, with space between the military and merit for the recipients name along with a laurel sprig. The ribbon is 1 3/8 inches wide in myrtle green with five white stripes spaced evenly apart.
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.