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.