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Why are World War II-Era Purple Hearts Still Awarded?

During World War II, U.S. Navy personnel on the myriad joint Army-Navy staffs, including Chief of Naval Operations Ernest J. King himself, were party to the long-standing strategic objective of not risking that the war in the Pacific drag on for an indefinite period of time. Yet even though they were deeply involved in achieving that goal through a direct ground invasion of Japan, there always lurked the underlying assumption that the Allies would ultimately turn to the Navy’s favored strategy of a blockade and bombardment of the islands because of the sheer costs of redeploying much of the U.S. Army from Europe and the invasion itself. It was not until mid-March -- when the Army was visibly going full bore to reorganize its forces world-wide for the invasion and the Japanese had brushed off the terrible carnage of the Tokyo firebombing -- that a senior Army planner could write, “It seems at last to be acknowledged that the ultimate defeat of Japan will require the invasion of Japan proper and the defeat of her ground forces there.”

The Navy’s belated acknowledgment accelerated numerous current initiatives and prompted the go-ahead on others but came a little too late for it to fulfill (without Army help) one of its vital needs for the invasion -- sustaining morale through the immediate issuance of Purple Hearts to wounded sailors and Marines.

The U.S. Navy had displayed no interest in the Purple Heart after it was brought back into use through the efforts of then Army Chief of Staff, Douglas MacArthur in 1932. Within six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, however, the Navy had changed its tune. Army commanders were issuing the decoration to naval and Marine Corps personnel serving with its units; an occurrence that would only increase in frequency. Some sailors and Marines receiving a medal for wounds suffered in combat, while others did not, was a guaranteed morale-killer, and the Navy began to petition for its own authority to award the Purple Heart “on the same basis as the Army.”

An executive order signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in December 1942 authorized that the decoration be issued to Navy, Marine, and Coast Guard personnel. Soon, and as it had within the Army, the medal became extremely highly prized as its award criteria was rightly seen as being far less subject to the whims of commanders than other decorations, plus it proclaimed for all to see that its recipients had shed blood -- or made the ultimate sacrifice -- for their country.

Arrangements were made with the Treasury Department’s Bureau of the Mint to handle all contracting and ensure quality control of the new Navy medal, with the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia tasked with overseeing everything from the bidding process, through the final assembly and shipping of decorations. The Army Quartermaster Corps, meanwhile, continued its long-time practice of performing all the procurement functions itself through its Philadelphia Quartermaster Depot. The fact that both Services’ decorations were being procured through government sources in the same city was completely a coincidence, but would facilitate increased coordination between the two bodies as the war progressed.

Using Army specifications and samples as a guide, an initial Navy order of 135,000 Purple Hearts was contracted out to Rex Manufacturing of New Rochelle, New York, which was already producing medals for the Army, on February 1943, and finally completed exactly one year later after many delays. Schedule problems, however, were not at all confined to the Navy’s medals. Enormous technical difficulties plus the fever pitch of production involving dozens of other decorations -- all requiring scarce precious metals and extremely high levels of craftsmanship from equally scarce, highly specialized workers -- conspired to push the Army’s Purple Heart behind schedule as well.

Production was stabilized, but early delays in the December 1941 and July 1942 Army contracts for 525,000 decorations had been so severe that by the advent of the million-man “casualty surge,” which began in the summer of 1944 with the invasions of Normandy and the Mariana Islands, deliveries to the Army were 110,000 copies behind schedule and the 1943 contracts not even started. As for the Navy, it was in no hurry to receive even the items called for in its unfilled 1943 order. A representative of the Bureau of Naval Personnel felt that the Service was “pretty well stocked for the time being,” and stated that other than as possible replacements for damaged items, “he didn’t think the Navy would require any additional medals during the remainder of the fiscal year.”

The Navy’s now year-old order was finally filled in February 1944, and contracts were signed for an additional 25,000 seven months later in October. This was done purely as a contingency, and the Navy stressed -- orally and in writing -- that “this order for Purple Hearts is not pressing” in September, before the contract was let, as well as on several occasions extending into December. The Navy’s Board of Medals and Awards even considered canceling the October Purple Heart order altogether, and numerous other awards, such as Unit Commendations Bars, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and Bronze Star, were placed on a higher priority. It was not until the Navy’s realization that their proposed strategy of “blockade and bombardment” was a dead issue, and that American forces were indeed going to invade Japan, that the acquisition of Purple Hearts became overnight a matter of great urgency.

The Navy was now faced with the fact that, barring a change in national war objectives, six Marine divisions were going to fight and claw their way ashore while much of the Pacific Fleet was locked dangerously close to the Home Islands during Operation DOWNFALL’s assault components: OLYMPIC against southern Japan in the fall of 1945, and CORONET against the Tokyo area in spring 1946. Although not one medal had been delivered on the October 1944 contract, the Navy quickly got together new paperwork and, on March 23, 1945, placed an order for 25,000 more Purple Hearts while making it clear up and down the chain of command that this was now the top-priority item.

Almost immediately, the Navy staff concluded that not enough of the decoration had been ordered and the Philadelphia Mint received a phone call on March 28 to request yet another 25,000 (with a promise that the paperwork would soon follow). Additional urgency was added to the situation because Navy and Marine losses had mounted precipitously -- and unexpectedly -- in recent months. The Navy suddenly discovered that it had exhausted its reserves of the decoration. Undoubtedly, consignments of the medal were held throughout the Fleet by appropriate command and logistic elements, but the Navy Warehouse in Arlington, Virginia, had run dry.

There are symbols aplenty to denote brave deeds, good conduct, service in a theater of operations, marksmanship, and innumerable other worthwhile accomplishments. But the nature of the Purple Heart puts it in a class by itself, and the medal’s absence -- or worse yet, sporadic, uneven distribution -- would not only have a profoundly adverse affect on morale, but also had the potential of generating severe political repercussions at home. The Treasury Department’s Director of the Mint, Nellie Tayloe Ross, openly feared that she might “be held up on the floor of Congress as one whose organization has fallen down on a job that means so much to the fighting forces.”

Although the Purple Heart was by far the most politically sensitive decoration, the steep increase in fighting had pushed up the demand for the full range of combat-related awards. The Navy was pressing hard for decorations that could be made available to Iwo Jima casualties (or to the families of the dead), which, in the case of the Purple Heart, would undoubtedly have been available if the October 1944 order had been fulfilled. Inexplicably, the Navy was slow to upgrade the production of decoration from its AA-3 priority (the War Department maintained the Army’s at AA-1 due in no small part to the Army Chief of Staff’s absolute insistence that awards be issued immediately), thus it was not until April that the Mint could wave “top priority” in front of suppliers. And although there was ample documentation that it was the “Sea Service” that had bounced the medal back in the production line-up, Tayloe Ross, as bureaucrats are wont to do, passed the heat down to her subordinates:

We are failing to meet the great responsibility that has been placed upon us to provide for these fighting heroes the awards for valour [sic] which the Government has determined they shall have. Think of the 20,000 heroes at Iwo Jima, due to receive Purple Hearts which we are unable to supply.

Production was, in truth, just barely eking along, but it was not for lack of willingness at the Philadelphia Mint. All Army planning had been governed by the expectation that U.S. forces would fight it out with Imperial field armies on Japanese soil, and Purple Heart orders (obviously among a vast number of corresponding decisions and acquisitions) reflected that expectation. As an institution, the Army had regularly dealt with mass death -- and casualties running into the high five and even six figures for individual battles and campaigns -- consequently, it had started its acquisitions process far earlier than the Navy which had held fast to the idea of only conducting a blockade. The result, when combined with limited resources, was that the Army had effectively sucked up nearly all of the commercial medals production capacity beyond the confines of the Mint building in Philadelphia.

By the time that the realization hit at the Navy Department in March 1945, that “Oh my God, we’re actually going in” -- resulting in back-to-back Purple Heart orders being placed with the Mint -- neither supplies nor specialized manpower could be obtained in a timely manner. The situation relating to the decoration’s distinctive ribbon that month is an excellent case in point as the Navy’s acquisition of approximately 6,300 yards turned out to be a task fraught with delays and complications including a general unwillingness of contractors to bid on the comparatively small amounts needed for its medals. But within the same month that the pair of Mint contracts amounting to 50,000 additional Navy Purple Hearts were issued (and found impossible to execute), Army quartermasters were confident that their earlier orders would be filled and that they would shortly receive a stunning 125,000 yards of the same white-edged, “pansy”-purple ribbon that the Navy was struggling to obtain. Indeed, one Army supply officer even promised that “Every effort will be made by this Depot to increase the above quantities.”

As late as April 9, two months after the launch of the Iwo Jima battle, there had been no Purple Heart deliveries whatsoever to the Navy, although its contractor had finally acquired the resources to begin fabrication of the medal’s pendants. By May 14, one and a half months into the brutal Okinawa Campaign, the Philadelphia Mint had received enough pendants and other materials to complete the final assembly of 5,275 decorations from the October order of the previous year. But while Army personnel in Okinawan field hospitals were receiving their Purple Hearts, wounded Marines in the cots next to them were not. The Navy had finally had enough, and the Bureau of Personnel, white hat in-hand, went to their Army brethren and asked if they could please “borrow” 60,000 Purple Hearts.

Stock transfers between the Philadelphia Quartermaster Depot and Navy’s Arlington Warehouse were quickly initiated, and Treasury Department officials immediately perceived that a useful opportunity was presenting itself to the Mint.

Treasury floated the idea that, with the U.S. Army galloping to the Navy’s rescue with commercially produced medals, perhaps the Mint’s Purple Heart production priority could be suspended, and thus allow other backlogged decorations to be pushed ahead while simultaneously relieving the Mint of some of its burden. The Navy, already badly burned over the medal, was noncommittal from the start, but Treasury officials were so sure that the Navy would jump at the chance to get other needed items earlier, that the Bureau of the Mint’s acting director, Dr. Leland Howard, drafted a letter to Philadelphia Mint supervisor Dressel instructing him to “slow down production of the Purple Hearts, and concentrate on the Air Medal and Bronze Star.” The Navy, however, said ‘no thanks,’ and Howard’s letter was later found in the archives with a large “X” scratched across the text.

The 60,000 loaned Army decorations would finally allow awards to be issued for Iwo Jima, and recent naval operations, but the even more costly Okinawa battles then raging on land and sea would soon consume much of the Army’s largess. With Operation OLYMPIC less than six months in the future, it was past time to follow the Army’s lead on acquiring medals. The Rex Manufacturing Company had reached the point where it could now ship an average of 1,500 Purple Heart pendants per day to the Philadelphia Mint for final assembly, and the Navy was in no mood to see those shipments stop.

The sudden and unexpected surrender of Japan three months later, after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Soviet Union’s declaration of war, put an immediate halt to all medals production by the U.S. Army. But though the armed services were cancelling production contracts as quickly as the paperwork could be cranked out, the Navy did not cancel its Purple Heart order. It continued to receive the medal for several months as the Army’s loan still had to be paid back and the Navy needed to maintain its own reserve stock.

In the end, approximately 495,000 Purple Hearts were retained by the services and they filled all military needs through the Vietnam War. Today, significant numbers of the World War II medals, refurbished between 1985 and 1991 and mixed in with more recent production, continue to be issued to personnel wounded in action or to the families of those who made the supreme sacrifice.