Yesterday, August 7, was an important day for U.S. military history. August 7 marks the establishment of the Purple Heart as the first military decoration of the U.S. Army, the invasion of Guadacanal, and the start of the official American involvement in Vietnam.

The Purple Heart

The first military decoration in the U.S. military dates back to 1782 with the Badge of Military Merit created by General of the Armies, George Washington. There are some who claim that the “Fidelity Medalion” was the first, but this may be incorrect for several reasons. First, it was created by the Continental Congress to specifically commemorate a signal event, the capture of British Major John Andre by three Continental Army soldiers in 1780. It was only awarded to those three soldiers and was in tune with the practice of creating commemorative awards to soldiers and sailors for singular war acts.  Congress also awarded some 15 swords to officers for military valor as well as gold and silver medals (resembling coins) to various others. These medals represented commemorations of specific battles in the European practice of rewarding commanding officers. As such, they were strictly one-off awards that did not apply to the army or navy as a whole.

In 1772, General Washington created the Badge of Military Merit along with two Honorary Badges of Distinction which any soldier in his army could earn not just for gallantry in battle but for “extraordinary fidelity and essential service in any way.” This too was a departure from the centuries-long tradition of awarding decorations only to officers for acts of valor or heroism on the battlefield. Signaling the American departure from the class-based social structure of Great Britain, Washington justified the creation of these badges by saying, “The road to glory in a patriot army and a free country is open to all.”

The first “medal” awarded to soldiers by the U.S. Army was actually made of cloth.

A soldier who was awarded the Badge of Military Merit enjoyed the unusual privilege of being able to pass guards and sentinels like an officer. This may seem a small thing, but it was a big deal. In those days a soldier in a military camp wasn’t free to leave the camp without specific orders. Posted guards and sentinels were mostly there to prevent desertions. Of course, officers were considered to be above suspicion (Benedict Arnold being the exception) and could pass through guard posts without being detained and questioned. It was also a very big breach of custom and protocol for enlisted men on guard duty to question an officer about anything. Transgressions could be punished by flogging. Nevertheless, if his orders specifically required it, a sentry could request politely that an officer wait for an Officer of the Guard to speak to about entering or leaving the camp.

In any event, General Washington did hand out Military Merit Badges like candy, but only three are known to have been awarded to sergeants in his army. There may have been more but records are unclear.

A wound badge and wound chevron were initially adopted as badges until the late 1920s when Congress decided to elevate them to medals. The Badge of Military Merit was still around until 1932 though.

General Douglas MacArthur was in charge of getting the new Purple Heart medal designed. After the adoption of this new medal, thousands of applications for Purple Hearts were received from veterans wounded in previous conflicts.

In WWII, General MacArthur was the first recipient of the new Purple Heart, which was given not only for wounds but also meritorious service. By December 3, 1942, the Purple Heart was opened to all members of all service branches, and the meritorious service criteria were removed and replaced by the newly created Meritorious Service Medal. The Purple Heart was now awarded for injury or death from enemy action.

Some Interesting Facts About the Purple Heart

  • Curry T. Hayes was awarded the most Purple Hearts in history, with 10 medals. He may also hold the unofficial distinction of being the unluckiest-lucky soldier in U.S. history. Unlucky for being wounded 10 times, and lucky for not being killed by any of those wounds.
  • John Kennedy was the only president ever to receive a Purple Heart: he was wounded in the Pacific while commanding PT-109.
  • From 1942 to 1997 Purple Heart medals were awarded to civilians under military authority.
  • Military advisors serving in Vietnam who were wounded or killed in action were not eligible because the United States was not a declared belligerent in that conflict, so the wounds received in combat were not considered to have been inflicted by an “enemy” under the award criteria. President John Kennedy amended that requirement to include U.S. servicemembers assisting friendly foreign forces.
  • Nobody really knows how many Purple Hearts have been awarded over the years, as many military records have been lost. The estimate is in the range of 1.8 million.
  • A dog named “Sgt. Stubby” and a horse named “Sgt. Reckless” were awarded Purple Hearts in WWII.

The Battle of Guadalcanal

On August 7, 1942, Allied forces began Operation Watchtower with the invasion of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. Just two months before, the U.S. Navy had destroyed four of Japan’s six big fleet carriers, and of the two remaining one was badly damaged. The Japanese had also lost a large number of planes at the Battle of the Coral Sea.

The entire balance of power in the Pacific had changed and the Allies decided to seize the initiative and go over onto the offensive. The strategic importance of Guadalcanal was murky at best. American war strategy at the time was to devote most of the war material and men to the European Theater to defeat Germany and only then fully mobilized for war against Japan. This made some sense as it took a lot less time to raise, train, and equip army divisions than build the battleships and aircraft carriers needed to defeat Japan.

Japan had landed a small garrison on Guadalcanal and was constructing an airfield. General MacArthur, who was building up to invade the Philippines, wanted the airfield neutralized as Japanese planes from Guadalcanal could disrupt his long supply lines from the American West Coast to Australia. He himself might not have cared about the island being seized but the U.S. Navy had just obliterated Japan’s striking power in the Pacific and Admiral King at the Joint Chiefs of Staff had the political cloud to bend resources away from MacArthur’s command in Australia to Admiral Nimitz at Pearl Harbor. In the Pacific Theater there existed a divided command structure that pitted General MacArthur and Admiral Nimitz against each other in competition for men, material, and fuel. MacArthur commanded the SW Pacific Theater and Nimitz the Pacific Ocean Theater. At Guadalcanal, the lines of jurisdiction almost touched each other and had to be adjusted to preserve the unity of command. As a result, Guadalcanal was entirely a navy show, unsupported by MacArthur.

Resources were so tight that the campaign was called “Operation Shoestring” by participants.

The initial landings surprised the Japanese garrison which was mostly construction engineers who fled into the jungle.  What followed was a grueling seven-month campaign with 60,000 thousand troops to take an island 90 miles long and 20 miles wide. American and Japanese naval and air forces, already weakened by previous losses, would fight no fewer than seven major naval engagements and more air battles that can be counted. When it was all over, the U.S. Navy would find itself almost in the same position as the Japanese were seven months earlier. Only two American fleet carriers remained in service. The losses were so appalling that they were kept secret from the civilian population.

Allied forces would suffer more than 7,000 dead and an equal number wounded. The Allied navy would also lose two aircraft carriers, six heavy cruisers, 14 destroyers, 14 submarines, and nearly 700 aircraft. Japan’s losses were similar in magnitude, although it lost three times as many men.

The end came with an unnerving silence as one morning U.S. troops found that the Japanese were just gone. During four nights in February, Japanese destroyers had evacuated over 10,000 troops from the island. By August of 1943, Guadalcanal had become an isolated backwater as Allied forces advanced towards the Japanese home islands. The island’s facilities were either abandoned or destroyed.

Official US Involvement in Vietnam Begins

On August 7, 1964, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution giving President Johnson blanket authorization to “take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression” by the armed forces of communist North Vietnam. It’s so-called because of two attacks on U.S. Navy destroyers in international waters in the Tonkin Gulf.

On August 2, the destroyer USS Maddox was attacked by three North Vietnamese torpedo boats in a running battle that lasted about 22 minutes. And on August 4 the USS Turner Joy reportedly came under attack. Nevertheless, the veracity of the account is disputed. A combination of failed equipment, weather anomalies, a jittery crew, and confusing messages from the skipper of the Turner Joy led the Johnson White House to believe the ship had been attacked.

For decades, the questions and mysteries surrounding the attacks went unanswered because the relevant documents were classified. Documents released in 2005 and 2006, showed a confusing series of events surrounding the alleged attack on the Turner Joy. Some historians claim that the Johnson administration used the existence of a second attack as a pretext to widen U.S. involvement in Vietnam. A very good and fairly balanced account of those documents can be read here.

The verdict of historians is that the Johnson administration lied to Congress and the American people about those attacks in order to justify U.S. involvement. This may be a little misguided and driven by an inclination to attribute bad faith to the Johnson administration, which historians, in general, do not remember fondly.

It is one thing to make up a lie out of nothing (which many now accuse Johnson of doing). It is quite another to make an incorrect assessment of faulty information, which I think is more the case in the attack on the Turner Joy. Given the attacks on the Maddox only a few days earlier, it’s justifiable for the administration to have erred on the side of believing the Turner Joy had been attacked.

Many of the critics of the American involvement in Vietnam, didn’t believe that the South being forcibly reunited with the communist North was a bad thing. Nor did they believe that the U.S. should have prevented Soviet and Chinese-backed Marxist revolutions from succeeding in Asia, the Mide-East, and Latin America.

But the aftermath of that forcible reunification should have convinced them of how wrong they were. When the population of the South faced the prospect of being reunified with their communist brethren in the North in 1975, many took to any means of escape available to them. For the decade after reunification, some historians put the figure of Vietnamese refugees fleeing their country at 1.5 million, of people who died at sea while trying to escape at 250,000. And it is calculated that as many as Vietnamese 155,000 were executed during the same time period.