Marine Corps History: The Medal of Honor

Cpl Dakota Meyer

Source: Reference Branch, USMC History Division

The Medal of Honor is the highest award for bravery that can be given to any individual in the United States. In judging men for receipt of the medal, each service has established its own regulations. The deed must be proved by incontestable evidence of at least two eyewitnesses; it must be so outstanding that it clearly distinguishes the recipient's gallantry beyond the call of duty from lesser forms of bravery; it must involve the risk of his life; and it must be the type of deed which, if he had not done it, would not subject him to any justified criticism.

The idea for the Medal of Honor was born during the Civil War as men fought gallantly and oftentimes displayed great heroism. George Washington originated the Purple Heart in 1782 to honor brave soldiers, sailors and Marines. From that time until the Civil War, Certificates of Merit and a "brevet" system of promotions were used as military awards. The first military decoration formally authorized by the American Government as a badge of valor was the Medal of Honor for enlisted men of the Navy and Marine Corps. It was authorized by Congress, and approved by President Abraham Lincoln on 21 December 1861. The medal for the Army and Voluntary Forces was authorized on 12 July 1862.

The medal is awarded "in the name of the Congress of the United States" and for this reason, it is often called the Congressional Medal of Honor. It is only on rare occasions, however, that Congress awards special Medals of Honor. An Executive Order, signed by President Theodore Roosevelt on 20 September 1905, directed that ceremonies of award "will always be made with formal and impressive ceremonial" and that the recipient "will, when practicable, be ordered to Washington, D.C., and the presentation will be made by the President, as Commander in Chief, or by such representative as the President may designate."

Since 1862, 296 Marines have been awarded the Medal of Honor. The first recipient was Corporal John F. Mackie, who during the attack on Fort Darling at Drewry's Bluff, Virginia, "fearlessly maintained his musket fire against the rifle pits on shore, and when ordered to fill vacancies at guns caused by men wounded and killed in action, manned the weapon with skill and courage." Sixteen other enlisted Marines were awarded the medal during the Civil War. Another 63 Marines would receive the Medal of Honor in the 1871 Korean Campaign, the Spanish-American War, the Philippine Insurrection and the Boxer Rebellion. Marine and Navy officers were first declared eligible for the award in 1913, and in the next year nine medals were awarded to officers for the landing at Vera Cruz, Mexico. The "Banana Wars" saw a total of another 13 medals conferred on enlisted Marines and officers. Only two Marines, Major General Smedley D. Butler and Sergeant Major Daniel Daly were awarded Medals of Honor for two separate actions: Vera Cruz (1914) and Haiti (1915) for Butler, and Peking (1900) and Haiti (1915) for Daly. Although only 7 Marines received the medal for actions during World War I, 82 medals were given to Marines during World War II, 42 were awarded for the Korean War, and another 57 for the Vietnam War. The most recent Medal of Honor awarded to a Marine was for gallantry in action during Operation Enduring Freedom.

There have been four major variations in the Navy Medal of Honor since its inception, the most distinctive change being the "Tiffany Cross" which was instituted in early 1919 and used until the current medal was re-established in 1942. The Navy Medal of Honor is made of bronze, suspended by an anchor from a bright blue ribbon, and is worn about the neck. The ribbon is spangled with a cluster of 13 white stars representing the original States. Each ray of the five pointed star contains sprays of laurel and oak and is tipped with a trefoil. Standing in bas-relief, circled by 34 stars representing the 34 states in 1861, is Minerva who personifies the Union. She holds in her left hand the fasces, an ax bound in staves of wood, which is the ancient Roman symbol of authority. With the shield in her right hand, she repulses the serpents held by the crouching figure of Discord. The reverse of the medal is left blank, allowing for the engraving of the recipient's name and the date and place of his deed.

The most recent Marine to be awarded the Medal of Honor was Corporal Dakota L. Meyer, who is the first Marine Corps Medal of Honor recipient for Operation Enduring Freedom, was born 26 June 1988.

Learn more about Cpl Meyer’s acts heroism.

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From their debut in 1775 when the Second Continental Congress passed a resolution creating “two Battalions of Marines be raised,” to the mountains of Afghanistan, the United States Marine Corps has earned the world’s respect as an elite and reliable fighting unit wherever put into combat. November 10, 2013 marks the Marine Corps’ 238th birthday -- please join us in wishing the Corps a Happy Birthday.
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