Medals of the United States

Page © 1998 Micheal Shackelford
Images and data courtesy of Ray Mentzer

The Medal of Honor

The highest United States award for valor, the Medal of Honor is awarded to "any officer or enlisted man who shall, in action involving actual combat with the enemy, distinguish himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life, above and beyond the call of duty". Although created specifically for the the American Civil War, it was instituted as a permanent decoration by Congress in 1863. During the First World War, a Navy and an Army version were awarded (an Air Force version has since been authorized). As well as the breast decorations shown below, either version could be worn suspended on a ribbon around the neck.

The Navy Medal of Honor Created by an Act of Congress of December 21, 1861, and designed by Christian Schussel, this medal was awarded to Navy and Marine Corps personnel. Unlike the Army Medal of Honor, it was originally given for noncombat, as well as combat, heroism; many early awards were for lifesaving. After World War I, a new version of the medal was designed by Tiffany & Co as a combat-only decoration. On February 4, 1919, this version was authorized by Congress, primarily for personnel who had distinguished themselves in combat during WWI. The older form of the medal was awarded for noncombat heroism until 1942.

The Army Medal of Honor. The original version of this medal was authorized by Congress on July 12, 1862, and was the same as the Navy medal of the time, with a different suspension. In 1904, due to the design being copied by various veteran's organizations, a new version (left) was designed and the patent was transferred to the Secretary of War to prevent this practice. Unlike the Navy medal, the Army version was only awarded for combat action. The award of only four Army Medals of Honor was approved during the actual fighting of World War I. Five days after the Armistice, General John J. Pershing, commander of the American forces, directed that all cases in which a Distinguished Service Cross had been awarded should be investigated to see if a Medal of Honor should be conferred instead. Following this review, an additional ninety-four Medals were awarded. Twenty-five of the Medals of Honor awarded for action in World War I were given posthumously.

The Distinguished Service Cross Second only to the Medal of Honor for Army personnel, this decoration was created by executive order on January 2 1918 and authorized by Congress on July 9, 1918. It is awarded to "a person who while serving in any capacity with the Army, distinguished himself or herself by extraordinary heroism not justifying the award of a Medal of Honor; while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States; while engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing or foreign force; or while serving with friendly foreign forces engaged in an armed conflict against an opposing Armed Force in which the United States is not a belligerent party. The act or acts of heroism must have been so notable and have involved risk of life so extraordinary as to set the individual apart from his or her comrades." During World War I, approximately 100 awards of an early variation of this medal known as the "French" or "first" style were also given. In this form, the arms of the cross were ornamented with oak leaves, the eagle was mounted on a diamond-shaped plaque, and the scroll bore the words "E Pluribus Unum", rather than the present-day "For Valor".

Citation Star (Silver Star) On July 9, 1918, an Act of Congress authorized the wearing of a small (3/16") silver star upon the ribbon of a campaign medal by Army personnel. This was to indicate "a citation for gallantry in action, published in orders issued from the headquarters of a general officer, not warranting the award of a Medal of Honor or Distinguished Service Cross". World War I veterans who had received this award wore the device on the WWI Victory Medal. This was originally known in the Army as the "citation star", but was established as the Silver Star Medal in 1932. At this time, holders of a citation star were issued the new medal.

The Navy Distinguished Service Medal Once the Navy's second highest award, this medal was authorized by Congress on February 4, 1919 and was awarded to any person who while serving in any capacity with the U.S. Navy, distinguished himself by "exceptionally meritorious service to the government in a duty of great responsibility", after April 6, 1917. The Distinguished Service Medal was designed by Paul Manship and was awarded for combat or noncombat service. An earlier design, featuring an anchor with a setting sun in the background, and suspended by an eagle and a scroll with the dates: "1917-1918", was sometimes worn, but was never authorized for award. In 1942, The Navy Cross was given precedence over this medal.

The Navy Cross This decoration was originally awarded for combat and noncombat heroism. Although most of the early awards were issued for World War I service, others were presented for heroism in rescue opertions involving submarine disasters. The medal was designed by James E. Fraser and was authorized by Congress on February 4, 1919. It was made a combat-only award in 1942 and was also given precedence over the Distinguished Service Medal at this time, making it the Navy's second highest decoration.

The Army Distinguished Service Medal Designed by Captain Aymar Embury, the designer of the Distinguished Service Cross, this medal was confirmed by an Act of Congress dated July 9, 1918. It was awarded to persons who distinguished themselves by "exceptionally meritorious service to the government in a duty of great responsibility" after April 6, 1917, in a combat or noncombat role. The first awards of this medal for service in World War I were to the commanders of the Allied armies. At the direction of the President of the United States, the medal was conferred upon Marshals Foch and Joffre and General Petain of France, Field Marshal Haig of Great Britain, General Diaz of Italy, and General Gillian of Belgium. It was also awarded to US General John J. Pershing "as a token of gratitude of the American people to the commander of our armies in the field for his distinguished service."

World War I Victory Medal Although it had been the custom of nations to award victory medals to allied troops, the number of belligerents involved in the First World War made this impractical. As a solution it was resolved that each nation would create it's own victory medal, suspended by a ribbon common to them all and featuring a winged Victory. The actual design of the medal itself would be left up to each individual country. The US Victory medal was authorized in 1919 for members of the US armed forces who served on active duty between April 6, 1917 and November 11, 1918; also included was Russian and Siberian service. Various clasps bearing the names of battles, countries, or duty stations were authorized for wear on the ribbon of this award:

Battle Clasps
Cambrai November 20 - December 4, 1917
Somme Offensive March 21 - April 6, 1918
Lys April 9-27, 1918
*Aisne May 27 - June 5, 1918
Montdidier-Noyon June 9-15, 1918
Champagne-Marne July 15-18, 1918
*Aisne-Marne July 18 - August 6, 1918
Somme Offensive August 18 - November 11, 1918
Oise-Aisne August 18 - November 11, 1918
*Ypres-Lys August 19 - November 11, 1918
*St Mihiel September 12-16, 1918
Vittorio-Veneto October 24 - November 4, 1918
*Meuse-Argonne September 20 - November 11, 1918

Campaign names preceeded by an asterisk* indicate that the
clasp may be worn by Navy and Marine Corps personnel.

Service Clasps
England April 6, 1917 - November 11, 1918
*France April 6, 1917 - November 11, 1918
Italy April 6, 1917 - November 11, 1918
*Russia November 12, 1918 - August 5, 1919
*Siberia November 12, 1918 - April 1, 1920

Clasps preceeded by an asterisk* indicate that the clasp
may be worn by Navy and Marine Corps personnel.

Additional Navy Service Clasps
Overseas Armed Guard Atlantic Fleet Aviation
Destroyer Escort Grand Fleet Mine Laying
Mine Sweeping Mobile Base Naval Battery Salvage
Subchaser Submarine Transport West Indies

Above clasps are for service in Haiti, Dominican Republic, Cuba and

the Virgin Islands between April 6, 1917 and November 11, 1918

White Sea

For service in Russia (November 12, 1918 - August 5,1919)
and Siberia (November 12, 1918 - April 1, 1918)

The Purple Heart was originally established by George Washington in 1782. The medal was reestablished in 1932 by the War Department for Army personnel and in 1943 by the Navy Department for the Navy and Marine Corps. It is awarded to military personnel who are wounded in action while serving with the armed forces of the United States. It is also awarded posthumously to the next of kin of persons killed or having died from wounds received in action after April 5, 1917.

- Good Conduct Medals were authorized for award to Navy and Marine Corps enlisted personnel. They were given for three years' service considered above average in conduct and proficiency. Marine Corps veterans of the First World War were eligible for this medal if they had enlisted for the duration of the war but had been invalided out due to injuries received in the line of duty. Marine Corps Reservists assigned to active duty between April 6, 1917 and November 11, 1918 were also eliglble for the award.

The Army of Occupation of Germany Medal was established on November 21, 1941 for members of the US military(or next of kin) who served in Germany or Austria-Hungary between November 12, 1918 and July 11, 1923. The obverse bears a profile of General Pershing with four stars overhead, and the inscription "General John J. Pershing". To the right of the portrait is a sheathed sword, pointing upward and surrounded by a laurel wreath, with the dates "1918" and "1923" on either side. The reverse (shown above) bears an American eagle standing on Castle Ehrenbreitstein with the inscription "U. S. Army of Occupation of Germany" and three stars. The ribbon is black, flanked on either side by blue, white and red.

- Mexican Service Medal. The US Army, Navy and Marines issued a medal for Mexican service. The Mexican Service Medal for Navy and Marine Corps personnel. While barely connected with WWI, the Zimmerman Telegram incident prompts including this medal, as well, it may show up among WWI vets' awards.
It was originally authorized 11 February 1918 for award to officers and enlisted men who served ashore during the Vera Cruz expedition between April 21 and 23, 1914. Eligibility was quickly expanded to include personnel serving aboard 121 specific ships during specified periods from 21 April to 26 November 1914 and from 14 March 1916 to 7 February 1917. Navy and Marine Corps personnel who served in engagements with hostile Mexican forces outside those specific time periods were also eligible for award of the Mexican Service Medal.

The Army medal had on its obverse, a yucca shrub in flower, with moutains in the back ground. Around this, the text "MEXICAN SERVICE" -- "1911-1917."
The Navy and Marine Corps medal (shown above) depicted San Juan castle in Vera Cruz, with the same text surrounding it. The ribbons were the same for all branches. The reverses varied by branch, but were typical of their branch's medals. Reverse of Army medal.

In all, about 16,000 Navy personnel were awarded the Mexican Service Medal with "United States Navy" on the reverse and about 2,500 Marines received the medal with the United States Marine Corps reverse.

Special thanks to Ray Mentzer for his efforts in locating images, and writing much of the text for this page.