Veterans Disability Info Blog

Honoring the Honorable: What You Should Know About the Purple Heart

We just celebrated Veterans Day, and the country honored the gallantry of our Armed Forces.  In remembering our veterans, we want to reflect on America’s oldest service medal and the warriors who won it. General George Washington himself conceived the Purple Heart in the waning days of the Revolution, as he tried to raise morale by recognizing enlisted men who had performed valiant acts on the battlefield that had contributed significantly to victory. Thus, in 1782, the Badge of Military Merit was born, a sewn canvas heart, embroidered simply with the word “Merit.”

You might think such an honor would continue as an unbroken tradition through subsequent conflicts, such as The War of 1812, The Mexican-American War, The American Civil War, The Spanish-American War, and The Great War, known today as World War One. But the award actually went on hiatus after the Revolution, and was only revived on Feb. 22, 1932, on Washington’s 200th birthday. The new medallion was designed by Elizabeth Will, an Army heraldic specialist, and featured a profile image of Washington. As before, the medal was awarded for meritorious service, but now soldiers were eligible if the enemy had wounded them.

The proclamation that revived the medal also made it retroactive to the last conflict, so veterans of The Great War were eligible. To kick off the new commemoration, the first reissued Purple Heart was awarded to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, serving as Army Chief of Staff at the time. Those who revived the medal could not have predicted that a greater war was coming, but nine years later, the United States was in the thick of World War II, a conflict that saw a record 1.07 million Purple Hearts awarded.

Recounting the entire history of The Purple Heart would be a worthy endeavor, but sadly, this column could not sustain the length of such comprehensive coverage. So, our VA disability lawyer would like to offer a few highlights, key facts, and trivia about America’s oldest combat commemoration.

Multiple Purple Heart Winners

The record for winning Purple Hearts is 10, claimed by three service members, Charles Barger, William White, and Curry Haynes. A WWI veteran, Barger also won the Medal of Honor. White was a Marine for 11 years before joining the U.S. Army in 1941. He received nine Purple Hearts in the European theater of World War II and picked up his tenth serving in Korea. Haynes earned his Purple Hearts in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968.

Staff Sergeant Albert Ireland served his country for 12 years, spanning two wars from 1941 to 1953, and was wounded nine times. Ireland fought in the Pacific theater with the Marines during World War II, sustaining five wounds. Ireland was wounded four more times during the Korean War, the last being severe enough to earn a medical discharge.

Eight-time recipients include Lt. Col. Richard J. Buck (Korea and Vietnam), Maj. Gen. Robert T. Frederick (WWII), Col. David H. Hackworth (Korea and Vietnam), Capt. Joe Hooper (Vietnam), Col. Robert L. Howard (Vietnam), Col. William L. Russell (WWII and Korea), and Sgt. Maj. William Waugh (Korea and Vietnam).

The most decorated U.S. soldier of World War II was Audie Murphy, who went on to have a solid career in Hollywood. Murphy earned the Purple Heart three times, in addition to every combat award for valor available from the Army, including the Medal of Honor. France and Belgium also threw in a couple of citations for heroism.

Four-Legged Winners

Service animals are still used in warfare, and for a time, these four-legged fighters were eligible for the Purple Heart. A horse, Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Reckless, received a Purple Heart twice for wounds sustained in the Korean Conflict. Army Sgt. Stubby, a dog whom members of the 102nd Infantry Regiment smuggled to Europe, earned the Purple Heart twice during World War I, after being wounded in a gas attack and by a grenade. Another WWII dog, named Chips, also received the award.

Alas, service animals are no longer eligible for Purple Hearts, under the revised standards that Pres. John F. Kennedy, the only U.S. president to win the award, put into effect in 1962. Instead, animals are eligible for the Dickin Medal.

Our VA Disability Lawyer Recognizes Notable Purple Heart Recipients

Some Purple Heart recipients are noteworthy for their roles in combat, and others for their lives after the conflict ended. Two recipients that bear mentioning are Chief Nurse Beatrice Mary MacDonald and journalist Ernie Pyle. MacDonald was assigned to a British Clearing Hospital in Belgium during World War I. In 1917, German aircraft bombed that hospital, and she lost her right eye. MacDonald continued to serve until the armistice. She was one of the retroactive recipients, receiving her commendation in 1936. This made her the first woman to earn a Purple Heart.

Ernie Pyle was the beloved war correspondent who wrote about life in the trenches for the average foot soldier. Pyle is undoubtedly one of the most famous civilians to earn the Purple Heart. (As of 1997, however, civilians are no longer eligible for this award.) Pyle’s life and writings were memorialized in the Hollywood film Story of G.I. Joe (1945), with Burgess Meredith portraying Pyle. Pyle’s reportage was also said to have inspired the classic WWII film Battleground (1949). William Wellman directed both films. Sadly, Pyle was killed in the Battle of Okinawa.

Speaking of Hollywood, many stars on the silver screen earned Purple Hearts, including:

  • James Garner and Charles Bronson, whose credits include The Great Escape
  • Lee Marvin and Telly Savalas, who starred together in The Dirty Dozen
  • Art Carney, famous for playing Ed Norton on The Honeymooners
  • James Arness (at six foot eight, the future Marshall Matt Dillon made quite a target)
  • Russell Johnson, the Professor from Gilligan’s Island
  • Jack Palance, the hired gunslinger from Shane
  • Don Adams of Get Smart
  • Dan Blocker, Hoss from Bonanza
  • Frank Sutton, who played Sgt. Carter on Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.
  • Efrem Zimbalist, jr., who played Inspector Erskine on The F.B.I.
  • Dan Rowan of Laugh-In
  • Lex Barker, who played Tarzan
  • Rod Serling, creator of The Twilight Zone

Athletes who earned Purple Hearts include:

  • Rocky Bleier, Pittsburgh Steelers running back. Drafted into the U.S. Army shortly after being drafted into the NFL, Bleier saw combat in Vietnam and sustained a serious injury to his foot. Feeling himself damaged goods, Bleier offered to let Steelers’ owner Art Rooney out of the contract, but Rooney refused. Bleier repaid his boss’ confidence by becoming an integral member of the Steelers dynasty in the 1970s.
  • Warren Spahn, pitcher for the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves. While still a minor leaguer, the future Cy Young Award-winner and World Series champion enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1942, serving in Europe. He sustained a shrapnel injury, but posted a 20-year, Hall of Fame career. Despite the fact that military service delayed his major league career until age 25, Spahn finished with more wins (363) than any other southpaw and is today considered the greatest left-handed pitcher in history.

Finally, fans of surreal fiction should know that American novelist Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. served in Europe during World War II, and fell into the hands of the enemy. His experiences as a P.O.W. inspired his existential antiwar novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, and many other works throughout his prolific career.

Of course, most Purple Heart recipients returned to their everyday American lives. Having served their country in a time of crisis, these citizen soldiers wanted only to return to the peaceful existence that is the birthright of a free people. VA disability lawyers can only hope that present and future generations are willing to serve and sacrifice as past veterans have so this great country can continue to be a beacon of freedom for the rest of the world.

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