Aerial Heroism: The History of the Air Medal

The 1949 film ‘Twelve O’Clock High‘ portrays a fictionalized 8th Air Force bomber crew fighting over Europe. Their hard-luck outfit suffered immensely from relentless attacks by the Luftwaffe, but slowly they regain their courage and complete a dangerous mission when other squadrons are called back. Their story, coupled with real-life counterparts, illustrates the heroic achievement and valor accompanying the brutal air war. Beginning in 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt, Congress, and the War Department created several new awards and decorations for the U.S. Armed Forces. These were meant not only to recognize service in the theaters of operation, but for heroic achievement, valor, gallantry, and meritorious service. One personal award has undergone several changes since its creation in World War II; the Air Medal.

Michael J. Novosel: Medal of Honor recipient who completed over 12,400 flying hours, 2,038 combat hours, and was awarded the Air Medal a record number of sixty-four times

Established on May 11, 1942 under Executive Order 9158, the Air Medal was created with the stated purpose:

“…to any person who, while serving in any capacity in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard of the United States subsequent to September 8, 1939, distinguishes, or has distinguished, himself by meritorious achievement while participating in an aerial flight.”

Executive Order 9158, May 11, 1942

The Air Medal (AM) criteria was slightly different from an earlier award honoring aerial service, the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC). Candidates needed to complete a set number of operations under certain flight conditions. If they were exposed to enemy fire, the AM would be awarded more frequently. During the war, commanders occasionally altered these criteria to fit the conditions of the theater. European air space was deemed especially dangerous and under complete enemy control, while the Pacific theater was not. Therefore theoretically, an air crewman could receive more AMs and DFCs in Europe because of the assessed danger. At one point, a ‘score card’ system was in place to track the number of engagements and corresponding heroic achievements in order to differentiate between awarding the AM or DFC. This practice ended in August 1943 when the Army Air Force Headquarters ordered a re-evaluation of AM and DFC criteria. The number of flying hours alone was not an accurate determination and commanders needed to take into account the dangerous nature of operations also. The DFC was ordained as the higher award based on its distinction of recognizing aerial heroism above the call of duty. This re-organization did not diminish the AM’s significance though as it continues to recognize significant individual achievement and meritorious service in the air.

My grandfather’s Air Medal with a Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster, circa 1945

In the tradition of awards and decorations of the Armed Forces, each service branch used similar appurtenances on the medals and ribbons (i.e. oak leaf clusters, service stars, etc.) but in later years and between different branches, awarding the AM evolved into a complex process. Between 1942 and 1968, the Army used oak leaf clusters (OLC) but were replaced with numerals to show additional awards. Nowadays when veterans request replacement medals and the AM is in their record, the Army retroactively applies numerals and not OLCs. Let’s see an example:

A Korean War veteran received the Air Medal along with 4 OLCs; if he were to request it today, it would be issued as an Air Medal with a numeral 5. When awards are shown in a record, the numeral is always the same as the total number of awards. As with others, the medal itself is always the first award. Need some help? Well….

Air Medal with Numeral 5

Let’s do some (long drumroll) MATH!

AM w/1 OLC = AM with Numeral 2

AM w/16 OLC = Am with Numeral 17

AM (6th award) = AM with Numeral 6

AM w/14 OLC & V = AM with Numeral 15 and “V” device

AM w/1 SOLC & 1 BOLC = AM with Numeral 7

Moving onto the U.S. Air Force, oak leaf clusters have been used since the branch’s establishment. This was to recognize aerial achievements rather than the number of missions. Combat duties, operations, and support missions are central in assessing these achievements. Interesting enough, the “V” device wasn’t authorized for the Air Force until October 21, 2004. The addition of the device was not retroactive however; only from that date onward can Air Force service members receive the device. This was done to recognize heroism in combat flight, but are not eligible for the Distinguished Flying Cross.

All the preceding information sounds easy when compared to how the AM is issued by the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. Numerals are preferred over OLCs and the “V” device has been worn since the 1970s. What sets the USN and USMC apart is AMs are awarded for individual action and ‘Strike/Flight’ by participating in aerial and combat operations. What does that mean? Strikes are missions (sorties) that directly engage the enemy, such as:

  1. Firing ordnance against the enemy, i.e. long range bombing
  2. Delivering or evacuating personnel
  3. Combat sorties that encounter enemy opposition

Flights are sorties that do not encounter enemy opposition. Search and rescue operations fall under this category since they are operating, but not against an enemy. Strike/Flight are also indicated by numerals as in the example shown below:

Image courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps Uniform Regulation Code

Here we see the arrangement of award issuance, strike/flight, and the “V” device for a USN/USMC medal. The service member received the award twice, was cited for valor, and participated in 38 strike/flight sorties. The number is not broken down into combat and non-combat missions; they are counted together. A veteran would have to request their service record and their unit records to determine the nature of each operation.

But wait, there’s more! Members of the U.S. Coast Guard can receive the AM under similar criteria as the U.S. Air Force. Aerial achievement and meritorious service are recognized and the “V” device is given only if the USCG member actively engages enemy combatants. The kicker for this service branch however is that they don’t use any of the previously listed appurtenances. Instead of OLCs or numerals, they use gold and silver stars to indicate multiple awards; silver for each one after the first and the gold representing five or more.

Why do the Armed Forces do things differently with these medals if they’re all used the same way? Answers to that have evolved in tandem with the evolution of the U.S. military. While minute details for criteria determining flights, strike, meritorious service, and heroism have changed, the spirit of the Air Medal has not. Thrusting oneself into the skies and facing the prospect of never returning to the runway is a frightening thought. Pilots and crews fly away and never come back. Their bodies vanish into the sea or burn up as the plane plummets to the ground. Perhaps this is why President Roosevelt created the Air Medal: citing those who propel themselves into the air and become heroes.

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