2012-08-17 / Columnists

It’s My Turn

The National Purple Heart Hall Of Honor
Commentary By Stephen Yaeger

Yaeger is a former Beach Channel High School Science Teacher, Wave columnist and community activist. He served as an MP in the U.S. Army.

On Tuesday, August 7, my wife and I along with another couple drove up to New Windsor, New York to an event at the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor. The event was a program celebrating the Purple Heart and an important WWII battle. Before we entered the building, however, an incident occurred which I’ll explain at the end of this column. The program was scheduled for August 7 because that date is historically important for two reasons: August 7, 2012 marked the 230th Anniversary of the Badge of Military Merit, which became the inspiration for the Purple Heart and the 70th Anniversary of The Battle of Guadalcanal. The program included presentations entitled, “Why We are Here: Purple Heart Appreciation Day” and “The Battle of Guadalcanal: Where we stopped the Japanese.”

During the Revolutionary War General George Washington, by order of Congress, could not promote nor commission any soldier for his merit. On August 7, 1782 Washington, to sidetrack Congress’ orders, issued a general order stating that any soldier who acts meritoriously will be permitted to “wear on his facings, over his left breast, the figure of a heart in purple cloth or silk edged with narrow lace or binding.” The inscription read, “MERIT.” Three soldiers were awarded the Badge of Merit which entitled them to the same respect given an officer. On August 7, 1942 the US Marines began a land-sea-air campaign known as The Battle of Guadalcanal. It lasted until February 8, 1943 when surviving Japanese troops left the island. This was the first attempt to roll back the Japanese Empire in the Pacific, but it would not have been successful except for the first major sea battle between the United States and Japanese Navies. The Japanese possessed the most powerful Pacific Naval force at the time; however, The Battle of the Coral Sea on May 7-8, 1942 proved that the US Navy was a force to fear. Coral Sea was a tactical victory for the Japanese, but also an operational and strategic defeat for them allowing the United States to take advantage of the situation.

After the Revolutionary War the Badge of Merit was all but forgotten for more than 150 years. In 1918 General John “Blackjack” Pershing suggested, as Washington did, that soldiers should be recognized for merit, but nothing came of it until after World War I when General Charles Summerall, Army Chief of Staff proposed that a bill be submitted to Congress to revive the “Badge of Military Merit.” But it was not until 1931 that the then Chief of Staff, General Douglas MacArthur, resurrected the proposal. On February 22, 1932 the 200th anniversary of George Washington’s birth, the War Department (now the Department of Defense) issued General Order No. 3 stating “By order of the President of the United States, the Purple Heart established by General George Washington at Newburgh, August 7, 1782, during the War of the Revolution, is hereby revived out of respect to his memory and military achievements.” By Order of the Secretary War, Douglas MacArthur, General, Chief of Staff.”

On May 28, 1932 on the site of the New

Windsor Cantonment (the final encampment of the Continental Army, winter 1782-1783) at Temple Hill, New Windsor, New York, 138 World War I veterans were issued newly created Purple Heart badges. When three surviving Civil War Veterans heard of the awards they applied for recognition and received their Purple Hearts too. Today the Purple Heart is awarded in the name of the President of the United States to any member of the US Armed Forces who, while serving after April 5, 1917, under competent authority in any capacity, has been wounded, killed, or has died after being wounded. The present Purple Heart is heart-shaped with a gold border surrounding a purple background holding a profile of Washington. Above the heart is Washington’s coat of arms. The heart is held by a blue ribbon with two white side stripes. The reverse has the inscription, “FOR MILITARY MERIT.”

The National Purple Heart Hall of Honor was established to commemorate “the extraordinary sacrifices of America’s servicemen and servicewomen who were killed or wounded in combat.” The Hall of Honor actively collects and preserves the actions of “Purple Heart recipients from all branches of service and across generations to ensure that all recipients are represented.” One of the most striking features of the Hall is its History Time Line along the gallery wall leading to the main exhibition. The Time Line reveals, in numbers, how many men and women were killed and wounded in all US wars from 1776 through 2011. Walking along this wall is a moving experience. A visitor can use computers to view the Hall’s Purple Heart database listing all Purple Heart Recipients registered therein.

Now, after I parked we proceeded to remove my friend’s wheelchair from the car. At that point I saw a man in an electric scooter coming up a narrow path between my car and a small grassy area. I moved out of his way, but he waved me off saying, “No, don’t rush, it’s OK.” Then he suddenly stopped next to me, put out his hand to shake mine and said, “Thank you for your service.” He obviously noticed the cap I was wearing indicating that I was a veteran (US Army Military Police). I was floored and, frankly, don’t recall what I said to him because this gentleman was wearing a cap and a shirt indicating that he was a Purple Heart recipient and a member of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. What I couldn’t grasp and what made me so flustered was the fact that here was a former combat soldier, a Purple Heart recipient, thanking me, a between the-wars (Korea/Vietnam)-veteran, for my service. I hope that I thanked him too. Throughout the entire program I couldn’t take my eyes off the Purple Heart recipients seated in the audience and wondered what their stories were. I surmised that one was a WWII veteran, four were Korean War Veterans and two were Vietnam Veterans.

For a full description of the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor the reader can view its web site at www.thepurpleheart.com. There are numerous Halls of Fame, but this is the only Hall of Honor. It’s worth a visit to this hall of real heroes.

My graphite drawing, “Another Purple Heart,” accompanying this column was inspired by our visit.

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