Within the military ranks it is common knowledge that the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award presented for gallantry in combat, has three variants. The type of medal that an individual receives is based on the recipient’s branch of service. The U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy all have versions of the Medal of Honor. U.S. Marines and Coast Guardsmen receive the Navy Medal of Honor, also known as the Navy and Marine Corps Medal of Honor, and in the event that a U.S. Space Force Guardian earns the Medal of Honor, for now, they would receive the Air Force version.
The Navy Medal of Honor has some unique history that separates it from the other branches, so we thought it would be great to share the top five things you might not know about the Navy Medal of Honor.
1. The Navy Medal of Honor was the first
The Navy Medal of Honor is our country’s oldest continuously awarded decoration. Some might argue that the oldest and first U.S. medal would be the Purple Heart, originally named the Badge of Military Merit and created by George Washington in 1782. But the Badge of Military Merit was awarded only to a handful of Army soldiers and then it became dormant for more than 150 years before Gen. Douglas MacArthur created the Purple Heart Medal based on the Badge of Military Merit.
The Navy Medal of Honor, like the Purple Heart, has changed in its appearance, but since it was created for American sailors with a huge push from Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles on December 21, 1861, it has been steadily awarded making the Navy Medal of Honor the oldest continuously awarded decoration.
The Navy Medal of Honor was also the first Medal of Honor created for the U.S. military; even before the Army’s which was created about seven months later in 1862. The U.S. Air Force formally adopted their variant in 1965. The Navy Medal of Honor was the nation’s first medal to recognize valor.
2. It has its own day
The Navy Medal of Honor and its sister service variants are recognized each year on March 25. According to the Navy’s history office, in 1990, “President George H. W. Bush signed into law the designation of March 25 as National Medal of Honor Day” because public awareness of the medal had declined in recent years and the U.S. Congress hoped Medal of Honor Day would restore the decoration to its rightful place in American culture and society.
March 25 is now set aside to honor the Medal of Honor and its recipients of all branches and not just the Navy Medal of Honor.
3. There were 2 types of the Navy Medal of Honor
As the United States entered World War II, the Navy was issuing two Medals of Honor. According to the U.S. Navy history office, “One was the traditional medal, based on the 1860s design, for gallantry in line of one’s profession, not necessarily in combat. The other was the ‘Tiffany Cross,’ so called because Tiffany and Company of New York City had designed it, for gallantry in combat. The Navy retired the Tiffany Cross in the 1940s and eventually ceased bestowing Medals of Honor for noncombat heroism.”
However, prior to the 1940s, the Navy awarded the Navy Medal of Honor with a generosity that ultimately diminished the prestige of the decoration. Fifteen medals were presented to Sailors and Marines who “took” a series of halfheartedly defended forts on the east coast of Korea in 1871. Some sailors received the Navy Medal of Honor for actions outside of combat, like battling hurricanes.
According to the U.S. Navy, even when medals came to sailors as a result of their actions in combat, those actions were not often as spectacular as those of today's recipients of the Navy Medal of Honor. While the sailors deserved recognition, the problem was that the Navy Medal of Honor was at that time the only decoration the Navy could offer, so it had to apply to a broad range of sacrifices made in combat and otherwise.
It was during the World War I era the Navy Medal of Honor became what it is known today: the highest honor for heroism in combat. Not long after WWI, Congress enacted clarifications placing special emphasis on the Navy Medal of Honor as a decoration for heroism in combat. The act, passed in February 1919, read: “…the President of the United States be, and is hereby, authorized to present, in the name of Congress, a medal of honor to any person who, while in the naval service of the United States, shall, in action involving actual conflict with the enemy, distinguish himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty and without detriment to the mission of his command or the command to which attached.”
The law helped raise the bar considerably for the Navy Medal of Honor while also authorizing the creation of other medals to honor sailors whose sacrifices did not quite qualify for the highest award.
4. 34 Stars not 50
The Navy Medal of Honor is a five-pointed star with a circle on the front of the medal. The circle has a 34-star border that surrounds Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and war.
The 34 stars on the Navy Medal of Honor represent the 34 states of the United States that were a part of the union when the Civil War began. This includes the 11 confederate states. Given the Navy Medal of Honor was established during the Civil War, this makes sense.
5. Hidden meaning in the medal
According to the U.S. Navy’s Naval History and Heritage Command, the central motif of the Navy Medal of Honor “…is an allegory in which Columbia, in the form of the goddess Minerva uses the shield of the republic to put down the figure of Discord, plainly a reference to the unfolding split in our nation.”
The nation was in a civil war and the creators of the award wanted to show meaning and substance that illustrated the importance of the medal. On top of Minerva’s helmet is a perched owl, which represents wisdom. The man next to Minerva holds snakes in his hand, representing discord. The insignia is commonly referred to as “Minerva repulsing discord.”
On the ribbon of the award are 13 stars representing the original colonies.
(Editor's note: This article was compiled using articles written and published by the Naval History and Heritage Command.)