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Navy Medal Of Honor: 5 Things You Didn't Know

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.”

Navy Medal of Honor in Tiffany Cross Design

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.

modern image of medal of honor

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.)

What Are The 3 Types of Medals of Honor? A Guide

Medal of Honor MOH with ribbon

The Medal of Honor is the highest decoration awarded by the United States to members of the armed forces for combat valor. It is presented by the president of the United States in the name of Congress. To date, as of Jan. 12, 2022, there have been 3,530 medals awarded in the medal’s 160-year existence.

The medal was first authorized in 1861 for sailors and Marines, and then in 1862, soldiers were authorized to receive it. But the medal almost did not come to fruition, rejected in the early years of the Civil War by Army Gen. Winfield Scott, however, the Navy recognized the value of recognizing valor in battle and a public resolution was passed containing a provision for the Navy Medal of Valor which President Abraham Lincoln signed into law on Dec. 21, 1861. The medal would be bestowed to petty officers, seamen, landsmen and Marines who distinguished themselves by their gallantry in war.

About seven months later in 1862, the Army got their own version of the valor award, but the Army called it the Medal of Honor and in 1862 it was approved and signed into law to be awarded to noncommissioned officers and privates who distinguish themselves by gallantry in action. Although it was created for the Civil War, Congress made the Medal of Honor a permanent decoration in 1863.

Types of Medals of Honor
As previously mentioned, the Navy and Army created their Medals of Honor during the Civil War. Today, however, there are three types of Medals of Honor because the Air Force was created in 1947 as a separate branch of service.

The Army Medal of Honor is one of the types of Medals of Honor. The Navy, which awards Medals of Honor to Navy personnel, but also the Marine Corps (a part of the Department of the Navy) and Coast Guard (during federalized active-duty service with the Navy) personnel is one of the other types of Medals of Honor. Lastly, the Air Force is one of the final types of Medals of Honor which for now is also presented to Space Force Guardians.

Army’s Medal of Honor
The Army version of the Medal of Honor has a bust of the Roman goddess Minerva, the helmeted goddess of wisdom and war in the center of the medal. The medal itself is a gold star with the words “United States of America” surrounding Minerva. The star and Minerva are surrounded by laurel leaves, a symbol of victory. Dark green oak leaves highlight the points of strength on the star.

Over the star is a rectangle with the word “Valor” that acts as a perch for an eagle, a national symbol, to sit atop it. A light blue ribbon, a variant of blue, a color representing valor, has 13 stars that represent the 13 original colonies. This is one of three types of Medals of Honor.

The first recipients of the Army Medal of Honor were recognized for their daring acts of bravery deep behind enemy lines in April 1862 when they destroyed enemy bridges and railroad tracks.

Navy’s Medal of Honor
The Navy’s version of the Medal of Honor also uses a star shaped medal, but in the middle of the medal is a full body of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and war, and she is depicted warding off discord clutching snakes. The shield in Minerva’s hand is representative of the United States. The owl perched on Minerva’s helmet is representative of wisdom.

There are 34 stars encircling Minerva. These represent the number of stars on the U.S. flag in 1862 when the medal was created. Clusters of laurel and oak leaves located on each of the star’s five points represent victory and strength. And rather than an eagle holding the medal from the ribbon, the Navy version uses an anchor to hold the medal on the ribbon. It represents the sea services. This is the second of three types of Medals of Honor.

There has been only one U.S. Coast Guard Medal of Honor recipient. He was Signalman 1st Class Douglas Munro. Munro earned his Medal of Honor during World War II at Guadalcanal on September 27, 1942 where 500 Marines had been dropped off to establish an inland patrol base, but were at risk of being overrun not long after landing. Hearing that the Marines were under attack by a huge enemy force, Munro volunteered to evacuate the battalion. Munro saved more than 500 men by positioning his boat between Japanese gunfire and the Marines. He also helped ferry Marines back to safety. He was killed in action and his last words were “Did they get off?”

Air Force’s Medal of Honor
The Air Force version of the Medal of Honor has the Statue of Liberty centered in the medal. There are dark green oak clusters located in each of the star’s five points that represent strength and like the Navy’s design, there are 34 stars encircling the Lady Liberty that represent the number of stars on the U.S. Flag in 1862.

The wreath of laurel leaves, a symbol of victory, was carried over from the Army’s Medal of Honor design. The medal’s ribbon is the same as the Army and Navy’s medal, but the lightning bolts at the top of the medal are borrowed from the Air Force’s coat of arms. This is the third of three types of Medals of Honor.

Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker was the first airman to receive the Medal of Honor in 1918. He received it from the U.S. Army (the Air Force did not yet exist) for his heroic actions during World War I as a member of the 94th Aero Squadron where he became an ace with 26 kills. But his Medal of Honor was earned for his actions on September 25, 1918, when he spotted seven enemy aircraft and aggressively shot down two while flying a solo patrol.

The Army has awarded more than 2,400 of its types of Medals of Honor, the most of any branch. More than half of the Army types of Medals of Honor were awarded during the Civil War with 1,522 recipients, including the only woman to ever receive the Medal of Honor, Dr. Mary Walker, a Civil War physician recognized for her medical service during the war.