The honors and awards system of the United States Armed Forces is a complex plethora of valorous recognition to blanket participation in the service branches. Keen-eyed veterans can distinguish the numerous ribbons, bars, badges, and patches on another veteran’s uniform. A handful of veterans carry the distinction of awards for high gallantry, valor, and bravery, i.e. the Medal of Honor, Navy Cross, Distinguished Service Cross. Others are more ubiquitous, i.e. the Army Service Ribbon, Air Force Training Ribbon, Honorable Discharge Button, etc. These are found throughout millions of personnel records. One medal has achieved a unique distinction amongst the routine awards. Established near the end of the Korean War, the National Defense Service Medal (NDSM) has graced the ribbon racks of millions of veterans. The Department of Defense estimates that since 1953, the NDSM was awarded at least four million times, not even counting those who apply for it retroactively. With the exception of the Good Conduct medals, the NDSM is the oldest currently issued service medal in the U.S. awards system (medals not for valor, combat, or participation in a campaign). The NDSM is authorized at the discretion of the Secretary of Defense who determines when a national emergency is present and allows the NDSM to be awarded. This means that the NDSM has gone through periods of inactivity.
On Tuesday, August 30th, 2022, the first anniversary of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin signed orders ending issuance of the National Defense Service Medal for the War on Terror. After January 1, 2023, no active duty service members that enlist after said date will receive the medal. This marks the longest period that the NDSM was authorized; 21 years, 3 months, and 20 days.
What are this award’s origins? How did this award become so procedural? The answer lies with President Dwight D. Eisenhower. During the Korean War, President Eisenhower became concerned with growing contentions in the Cold War. If the U.S. became embroiled in every ‘hot spot’, the honors system would be overwhelmed with potentially conflicting and overlapping service medals. President Harry Truman already created the Korean Service Medal for service in the Korean War. President Eisenhower conceived the idea of a ‘blanket campaign’ medal that would be issued to any honorably discharged veteran with active service during a ‘national emergency’. What stipulated a ‘national emergency’ remained at the discretion of the Secretary of Defense. No matter where they served, the NDSM signified military service. On April 22, 1953, President Eisenhower issued Executive Order 10448 ‘Establishing the National Defense Service Medal‘ outlining its basic qualifications:
“There is hereby established the National Defense Service Medal, with suitable appurtenances, for award, under such regulations as the Secretaries of the Army, Navy, and Air Force and the Secretary of the Treasury may severally prescribe, and, subject to the provisions of this order, to members of the armed forces of the United States who shall have served during any period between June 27, 1950, and a terminal date to be fixed by the Secretary of Defense…”
Executive Order 10448, April 22, 1953
This order delegated authority to the Secretary of Defense to determine eligibility dates. The Department of Defense followed up in on July 15, 1953 directive by expanding on personnel eligibility, issuance procedure, and ribbon layout. This introduced restrictions to the NDSM and made the following not eligible:
Reserve component personnel on short tours of active duty
Reserve component personnel on temporary active status for boards, commissions, etc.
Personnel undergoing physical examinations
Active duty for purposes other than for extended active duty
Like everything in the federal government, policies undergo several revisions depending on world events, budgets, and the political climate. Since 1953, the NDSM was revised by three executive orders, inactivated and reactivated four times, and expanded from active duty service to National Guard and Reservist service. The four active periods coincide with major wars; Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, and the War on Terror. In the 1960s and 1970s as the Vietnam War intensified, active duty servicemembers performing stateside service along with reservists and Guardsmen qualified for the award. The same criteria applied to Desert Storm participants. By the War on Terror, the NDSM expanded qualifications to its greatest extent. Members of the Selected Reserve Personnel (actively drilling reservists and Guardsmen) were eligible for the award. Since 9/11, service members could receive the NDSM almost as a given if they completed ninety days of consecutive active duty, not including training periods. Those who are on active duty for multiple approved time periods receive bronze star appurtenances on the NDSM and ribbon. Officer cadets that graduate from military academies can receive the NDSM along with those at Officer Candidate Schools upon their commission.
While the National Defense Service Medal is one of the most issued awards, it can sometimes be overlooked by clerks and records technicians when discharging a veteran with only a few weeks of service. Technically, if a member receives an Uncharacterized or Entry Level Separation, they are nominally entitled to the NDSM. However, the service branches don’t consider the initial training period as true active duty. If an individual drops from initial training, the award isn’t added to their DD Form 214 (separation document). Many veterans apply for a retroactive issuance of the NDSM if it doesn’t appear on their discharge and they served during one of the four authorized time periods.
Typically if a veteran served during a conflict, the NDSM would form as part of the ‘automatic’ awards for overseas service in a combat zone. Serving overseas is not a prerequisite for the NDSM, but if one is serving in a hostile area, receiving the NDSM is pretty much a given. Vietnam War veterans automatically receive the Vietnam Service Medal, Vietnam Campaign Medal, and the NDSM if they’re in country. Korean War veterans receive the Korean Service Medal, United Nations Service Medal, and the NDSM. Desert Storm; the Southwest Asia Service Medal and the Kuwait Liberation Medal along with the NDSM. With such a criteria, one can plainly see why the NDSM is the most routinely issued award in the U.S. Armed Forces.
That’ll all change after December 31, 2022. The decision by the Department of Defense signals a more peacetime posture with the limitation of troop deployments and counterterrorism operations. We’re still involved in Syria, but major combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have all ceased. Many veterans can scarcely remember a time when the NDSM wasn’t issued or couldn’t be found on a ribbon rack. Its appearance and commonality gave it a distinctive nickname, the ‘pizza stain’ for its red and yellow colors. Despite its formulaic criteria and issuance, the National Defense Service Medal for many represents their commitment at a time when the nation needed their service.
The United States Armed Forces has installations around the world and partners with critical nations for their national defense. After World War II, we created a special command for the Far East, we have a massive presence in NATO and Western Europe, and our Navy criss-crosses the globe. At the close of the Korean War, the armistice signed on July 26, 1953 may have ended the actual fighting, but no formal peace has ever occurred. With this, the U.S. has maintained a defensive garrison in South Korea. The United States Forces Korea (USFK), part of the larger Indo-Pacific Command, oversees the combined command with the Republic of Korea Armed Forces and conduct a series of military training exercises and humanitarian missions. Over 28,000 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea at any given time.
For fifty years, South Korea was another nation in the larger geopolitical defense policy of the U.S. and a less than desirable posting. In 2002, service members finally began receiving recognition for their contributions in South Korea with the creation of the Korea Defense Service Medal (KDSM). Signed into law by President George W. Bush, the KDSM is awarded to any service member who serves at least thirty consecutive days in South Korea or sixty non-consecutive days. If someone is wounded by enemy combatants while in South Korea, they automatically receive the award, regardless of time overseas.
Under the award criteria, any veteran that was stationed in South Korea since July 27, 1954 may receive the KDSM. Within this period if a veteran served in Korea between October 1, 1966 to June 30, 1974 they can also qualify for the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal. This was in response to the Korean DMZ Conflict in the late 1960s.
The significance of this medal isn’t only for recognizing overseas service, but it’s a reminder of the legacy of the Korean War. The status quo that has remained for over sixty years may continue for decades more as the two Korean nations remained divided at the 38th parallel. The U.S. remains a staunch ally to the South Koreans and the KDSM signifies our perpetual commitment to the Republic of Korea.
When the general public looks at a veteran, how can they tell that they’ve served in combat, short of asking them directly? The U.S. Army has the Combat Infantry and Combat Action Badge, the U.S. Air Force has the Combat Action Medal, but the focus of this article is on the award given to members of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps: the Combat Action Ribbon. Every marine and sailor knows the significance of having that ribbon on their rack. This coveted ribbon is awarded on the most stringent criteria and simultaneously is one of the most retroactively issued awards in the U.S. Armed Forces.
The Combat Action Ribbon (CAR) was established on February 17, 1969 by the Secretary of the Navy. The criteria set by the Department of the Navy requires bona fide evidence that the member was engaged in direct combat with an enemy. Not only does a person need to be in combat, but they must have acted satisfactorily, i.e. not surrender or disobey orders from commanding officers. The CAR is awarded normally to ground troops or sailors stationed on board ships, but not aircrews. The Navy and Marine Corps provides Strike and Flight Numbers on the Air Medal to denote combat operations, but some can still receive the CAR at the discretion of the Secretary of the Navy. [See Aerial Heroism article for more information about the Air Medal]
For an award like this, it was to be expected that many Navy and Marine Corps veterans would want to verify their eligibility. Initially the award was made retroactive to 1961 to accommodate those serving in Southeast Asia and other special operations around the globe. In October 1999, Public Law 105-65 shifted the retroactive date to 7 December 1941. This allowed for World War II and Korean War veteran to apply for and wear the CAR. But how does the Navy and Marine Corps determine entitlement during those conflicts. Fortunately for the veteran and the NPRC reference technician who researches the service record, massive ledgers and rubrics contain the movements and engagements of every ship and ground unit since World War II. Those are broken down further to specific locations and cross-referenced with a veteran’s service record. If they were attached to a unit or ship that saw combat in their time frame, they are eligible for the CAR. Since over four million sailors and Marines served in World War II and Korea, applications for the CAR are some of the most common requests among Navy and Marine Corps awards.
Where is the Coast Guard in all of this? Historically the Coast Guard followed the same pattern as the Navy, especially when it pertains to awards. Coast Guard members attached to units that saw combat were eligible to receive the CAR. It wasn’t until 2008 that the Department of Homeland Security created the Coast Guard CAR. The majority of CGCARs were issued during the Vietnam War when servicemembers served in the ‘brown water navy’ patrolling the Mekong Delta in South Vietnam.
As per an agreement between the NPRC and the service branches, the Department of the Navy verifies the service record information provided by the NPRC and determines whether or not an individual receives the CAR. If all the specific criteria are met, they receive it. However, as with many other awards, there can be some grey areas. Simply being in a theater of operations doesn’t ensure entitlement. Many Navy veterans from World War II who served in the Pacific qualify only if they participated in certain operations, such as the Battle of Leyte Gulf or the long island hopping campaign to the Japanese home islands. Details matter when it comes to the CAR. Veterans of combat deserve to be recognized for their actions and the CAR does just that.
The U.S. Armed Forces expects the best from every servicemember from basic training to an honorable discharge. They represent the highest ideals of their service branch, striving for the highest. As a result, everyone’s performance record is tracked for posterity. Evaluations track a member’s aptitude and accomplishments which helps determine promotions and awards. One award, whose origins stretch back to right after the American Civil War, recognizes exemplary behavior, commitment, and dedication to military service: the Good Conduct Medal.
In 1869, the Navy created the first Good Conduct Medal (GCM). The purpose was to recognize a period of honorable service following a sailor’s discharge. If they completed at least three years of honorable service, they received the GCM (which was actually a badge) along with the discharge paperwork or re-enlistment contract. The award wasn’t even allowed to be worn on the uniform until 1885 when the second version of the medal was released. Between 1869 and 1996, the Navy GCM underwent four revisions, each one having a different design and criteria. Designers switched between a Maltese cross or a simple circle design with varying types of ships, anchors, or a globe (some officers rejected the globe version because it signaled ‘imperialist qualities’).
In 1896, the Marine Corps followed suit with the Navy and created their own GCM with the added feature of having the recipient’s name stamped onto the reverse side of the medal. The Coast Guard GCM came later in 1921, the Army GCM in 1941 following Executive Order 8809, and the Air Force was last in 1963. Until 1963. Air Force personnel were given the Army GCM because they shared the same regulations and award standards until the early 1960s.
The GCM is one of the more commonly issued awards in the military; outpaced by the National Defense Service Medal and the Army Service Ribbon. Unlike some awards, the GCM has specific time requirements. Service members were to demonstrate three or four years of honorable service to qualify for the award, depending on the time period. How did an enlisted person’s superior determine honorable service? High standards of job performance and not committing any infractions or UMCJ violations are absolutely necessary for anyone hoping to receive the GCM. The Navy maintains a grade system where every 90 days, a sailor receives marks for their performance and if at any point it dips too low, they immediately become ineligible to receive the award. The same criteria extends to the Marine Corps as well. A Marine must have three years of ‘honorable and faithful service’. Prior to December 1945, it was four years, but later reduced to three. The Coast Guard GCM was established in 1921 by the Coast Guard Commandant and they used many of the same criteria used by the Navy and Marine Corps; a grading system combined with three years of honorable service (reduced from the original requirement of four years).
The Army GCM has the unique distinction of being created by the President of the United States. Under Executive Order 8809 signed by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1941, the Army GCM was established with a three year requirement. By 1943, FDR signed a follow-up order, EO 9323, amending the time requirement to one year if the United States was at war. Since the order was signed in the midst of World War II, many Army veterans unknowingly qualified for the medal since they enlisted for the duration of the conflict. Thousands of veterans applied for the medal retroactively following the war. Qualifications changed again during the Korean War when President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 10444 in 1953. It allowed service members to receive their first GCM after June 27, 1950 for a period of less than three years, but more than one year. It also included a clause allowing soldiers who were discharged from combat injuries or died in the line of duty if they served for less than a year.
The Air Force was the last to adopt a GCM. It also holds a special distinction by being the only GCM to have been authorized by an Act of Congress in 1960. In the interim years of the branch’s creation in 1947 and the first GCM awarded in 1963, Air Force servicemembers were judged by Army standards until the Air Force developed its own. Additionally, airmen serving before and after 1963 can wear both the Army and Air Force versions of the GCM. By 2006, debates within the Department of the Air Force occurred on whether or not the branch should even have a GCM. The rationale being that Air Force personnel should be held by a higher standard of conduct than any other branch. Therefore, something like a medal for good conduct was out of place since exemplary performance and behavior was the expectation, not an aberration. In 2006, the Air Force GCM was discontinued. This policy didn’t last long however. Within two years, officials began reconsidering the decision and reversed themselves in 2008. All servicemembers who would have qualified for the award in those years were retroactively issued the medal.
Now the uniqueness doesn’t end here for the GCM. Appurtenances go with almost every award in the U.S. Armed Forces; oak leaves, stars, arrowheads, etc. The Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard use bronze stars to denote multiple GCM awards; oak leaves for the Air Force. For the Army however, they use an appurtenance wholly unique to their version; a loop. The loop harkens back to when the Navy used enlistment bars on their GCM badges denoting years of service. Bronze, silver, and gold loops mark the number of subsequent awards:
Bronze loops are used for the second through the fifth awards.
Silver loops are used for the sixth through the tenth awards.
Gold loops are used for the eleventh through the fifteenth awards.
By this process, a servicemember can theoretically receive the GCM a grand total of fifteen times; meaning they could have served more than forty-five years in the military, without any infraction or judicial punishments and receive stellar ratings in every performance report. Is such a scenario possible? Yes, but only a handful of people have served in the U.S. Armed Forces for such a duration. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, John William Vessey Jr., Chesty Puller, and Omar Bradley are such record holders (Bradley with the highest record at 69 years, 8 months, 7 days).
Fidelity, exemplary behavior, and honor emulating the high standards of conduct expected of a sailor, soldier, or airman are encapsulated with the GCM. When they receive that award, they have shown that they can act and lead by example the golden standard of honor, hard work, and loyalty everyone expects of each other in the U.S. military.
General Douglas MacArthur said they were ‘my best soldiers.’ Without them, many believed that the U.S. war effort would have been vastly shorthanded. They were a vital force in North America and by the end of World War II, there were over 150,000 active duty personnel in every theater of operations.
The Women’s Army Corps was established as an auxiliary unit and activated to full duty status on July 1st, 1943, serving in communication and mechanical duties both in the United States and overseas. During World War II, the service women endured rigorous training and a great deal of slandering from WAC opponents. Some believed that women could not rise to the challenge and many others disbelieved that women should perform any wartime duties. Despite some public backlash, the Women’s Army Corps boasted over 150,000 active duty members and inspired the creation of other women’s auxiliaries; the Navy WAVES, Coast Guard SPARS, and the USMC Women’s Reserve. Like the rest of the armed forces, segregation was practiced between black and white women in the WAC, but senior leaders made it a priority to ensure that everyone received the same training and opportunities to work in different specialties.
For their service, all enlisted members of the WAC received the Women’s Army Corps Service Medal. Created by Executive Order 9365 by President Franklin Roosevelt on July 29, 1943, the medal is given to anyone who served with the WAC or it preceding organization, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. Unlike other service medals, the WACSM has no appurtenances and is only awarded once. Following the corps’ disbandment, the medal was no longer awarded, but those who still served during the necessary time frame can apply to receive the award. The observe side of the medal features a profile of the deity Athena; Greek goddess of wisdom and warfare. For many women, World War II proved that they were capable of doing many of the demanding wartime jobs and accomplishing them with great valor and gallantry.
For as long as I can remember, hearing stories about my grandpa’s World War II service was part of my childhood. They were my first history lessons outside of school. I spent many weekends and holidays with my grandparents and often heard older relatives bring up his time in the Philippines, Japan, or just talk casually about the war. Hidden at the top of one of grandma’s bookshelves was a thickly bound brown book with large white lettering; ‘WARPATH’, showing a Native American wearing a war chief’s headdress. It was a chronicle of the 345th Bombardment Group and its achievements in the South Pacific. On many occasions, I grabbed it off the shelf and thumbed through the pages looking for grandpa’s face. I knew which unit was his and when I found the respective section, no headshot or group photo. Family lore did say that in one photo taken from behind showing two men rushing out to check on a damaged plane, he was one of them (recognized by his flipped up hat bill, before Gomer Pyle made it fashionable). He very rarely shared some personal war stories and for a long time, all I told others at school or work was he served in the Pacific as a tail gunner in a B-25 bomber over the Philippines.
He passed away in 2006 and that was when I began to learning more. He received medals he never mentioned before and soon there was a cache of old photos and documents filling in the gaps. Since working for the National Archives stirred my history passions and learning about military records, I spent last year and all two months of this year putting together a narrative of his military service. An unexpected miracle happened yesterday when in a vain attempt to find his discharge documents (see the 1973 National Personnel Records Center fire) finally paid off. I randomly placed a call to the Garfield County records office in Oklahoma asking if they had any copies. To my surprise they did! Returning WWII veterans normally filed a copy of their discharge documents with the county they returned to in order to receive VA or other government benefits. Thankfully his was still intact and that completed the narrative. My grandpa’s war record here is the best that I have researched with all the available materials. While some information will be lost forever because of the 1973 fire, this is an obstacle facing all military history and genealogy researchers.
Technical Sergeant Fred Laverne Richardson (Service Number 38563209) served in the U.S. Army Air Force from July 20, 1943 to January 14, 1946. Throughout his World War II service, Fred served with the 499th Bombardment Squadron under the 345th Bombardment Group in the V Bomber Command with the 5th Air Force. While overseas, Fred was stationed in Biak, the Philippines, and Ie Shima, participating in aerial combat operations throughout the South Pacific and Sea of Japan. At the end, Fred took part in a handful of major battles in the Pacific Theater of World War II and in the American occupation of Japan. He was twice decorated with the Air Medal for heroic achievements in aerial flight and was later awarded multiple medals for his part in the liberation of the Philippine islands.
Researching World War II-era service records presents a unique challenge because a significant number of records were destroyed in a massive fire in 1973 at the National Personnel Records Center. Approximately 80% of Army records from 1912 to 1960 were affected with varying degrees of damage. Fred’s record was substantially affected by the fire and only a handful of documents survive attesting to his military service. The information given here is extracted from surviving records in Ancestry, Fold3, FamilySearch, Army unit records, local county records, and WWII reference materials.
Fred Laverne Richardson was born on April 26, 1925 in Enid Oklahoma to Fred Richardson and Millie Pearl LeGrand. They lived at 508 N. 9th Street and Fred was a senior at Enid High School when he registered for the draft. Local Board #1 in Garfield County recorded his entry the day after his eighteenth birthday on April 26, 1943. Sometime in June 1943, he received a draft notice and was ordered to report to Oklahoma City, where he was formally inducted into the U.S. Army on July 20, 1943. During World War II, inductees were required to serve for the duration of the conflict, plus six months after. This meant that for as long as the war went on, Fred remained in the Army unless he was dishonorably discharged, critically wounded, or killed. Following induction he was transferred to the Enlisted Reserve Corps and was placed on active duty on August 3, 1943. According to family history, he completed basic training at Amarillo Army Airfield in Amarillo, Texas. Aerial defense, air artillery, and forward observing courses were taught at Amarillo AAF and if Fred was later assigned to an Army Air Force unit, he would have received physical and aerial warfare training there. The airfield trained recruits on B-17 Flying Fortresses; four engine long range bombers capable of flying hundreds of miles and dropping thousands of pounds of bombs individually.
Aerial combat training was tremendously harsh and a small percentage completed the physical battery. Those who passed went onto flight education and armament training. Fred’s recently discovered Notice of Separation (discharge summary) shows he attended two service schools: Aircraft Armament Training School at Lowry Field, Colorado, and Aerial Gunnery Training School at Fort Meyer, Florida. One family story is that his aerial gunner training consisted of shooting skeets with shotguns out the back of a moving truck. Service schools offered specialized training for enlisted personnel. Enlisted men did not serve as pilots, navigators, or bombardiers. Commissioned officers served these roles.
Fred completed all training by approximately July 1944. From family photographs taken before shipping out, he received his assignment to the U.S Army Air Force and was promoted to the rank of Corporal. This is shown by the chevrons on the sleeve and shoulder patch. The separation document lists his military occupational speciality as Airplane Armorer Gunner. The job duties included inspecting, repairing, and maintaining all aircraft armament, including bomb release mechanisms, airplane cannons, machine guns, and auxiliary equipment. He made daily inspections and repaired equipment such as bomb racks, bomb release mechanisms, aerial gun sights, flare racks, and chemical carrying release mechanisms. He also installed armament equipment on airplanes, and placed bombs in bomb racks. The last portion was to man a machine gun position if combat occurs during flight.
Family history states that Fred was originally ordered to report to the European theater and while in New York, his orders changed and was transferred to the 345th Bomb Group. Fred traveled to Camp Stoneman near San Francisco, California. This was a staging area for servicemen joining their units in the Pacific. On October 17, 1944, Cpl. Fred Richardson departed the United States. By the autumn of 1944, the U.S. had pushed the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy out of the southern Pacific and began prepping for the liberation of the Philippines. The country had been under Japanese occupation since May 1942 after the Battle of Bataan. Invasion plans had been in the works since 1943, but the outlying territories needed to be retaken first.
History of the 345th Bombardment Group
Air warfare changed drastically since the First World War. Technological innovations created larger and faster planes with increased carrying capacity. Long and medium range bombers were capable of dealing out tremendous damage. The new B-25 Mitchell debuted in 1941 and the Army Air Force was eager to use it in combat. It was a medium range bomber equipped with twelve .50 caliber machine guns, a 75mm cannon, and could carry up to 3,000 pounds of bombs and incendiaries. Each plane carries five crew members; pilot, navigator / bombardier, gunner / engineer, radio operator / waist gunner, and tail gunner. On November 11, 1942 the 345th Bombardment Group was activated under the 3rd Air Force and trained until April 1943 when they moved to Camp Stoneman and entered combat in New Guinea in June 1943 where it became part of the 5th Air Force. The group comprised of four squadrons:
From Left to Right: 498th Bomb Squadron ‘Falcons’, 499th Bomb Squadron ‘Bats Outta Hell’, 500th Bomb Squadron ‘Rough Raiders’, 501st Bomb Squadron ‘Black Panthers’
The unit was intended for service in the European Theater of Operations, but U.S. Army General George Kenney specifically requested them to redeploy to the south Pacific following successful bombing campaigns near Australia. New Guinea and the Bismarck Islands were the first stage of the 345th’s campaign. Their actions performing reconnaissance missions, dropping supplies, and attacking Japanese ships through the Bismarck Sea arguably prevented a serious threat to Australia. Between April 1943 and July 1944, the 345th relentlessly attacked the Japanese garrisons and ships running through the sea. The triple approach of high level bombing, heavy machine gun strafing, and skip-bombing (bouncing the bomb off the water similar to skipping a stone across a pond) was effective in breaking Japanese control and opening the way for the liberation of the Philippines.
They took to the skies again from July to November of 1944 hitting targets in the southern Philippines. Biak was the next step in the unit’s path and after taking the island, could run missions over the Celebes Sea. The Japanese knew that the United States would reclaim the country and the 345th made it a point to cut a path to Luzon and clear the war for the American recapture. Mission after mission, the 345th lost hundreds of crews and bombers as they were shot down by Japanese fighter planes or hit by flak from enemy ships. During the Battle of Leyte Gulf, a kamikaze hit a group of 345th personnel stationed on the ground before they could get airborne. By the beginning of 1945, the 345th began bombing missions as far north as the Sea of Japan, hitting shipping and communication lines down through China and southeast Asia. Destroying such targets were necessary for military planners as operations were drawn up for the long anticipated invasion of the Japanese home islands (Operation Downfall). Both the United States and Japan knew that the cost in human lives would be astronomical. Intelligence analysts at the time estimated that casualty figures would easily reach into the millions as the Japanese military and civil defense organizations prepared for invasion.
By July 1945, the 345th was positioned on Ie Shima in the Okinawa island chain ready to receive new combat orders. On August 6th and 9th when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were hit with the first atomic bombs. Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender six days later on August 15th and now the 345th had a different set of orders: to escort the Japanese emissaries for the formal surrender before General MacArthur. Three B-25s and fighter planes were ordered to escort the Japanese detachment to the Philippines where they began discussing the terms of surrender and allied occupation of Japan. The escort was not without some hiccups though; hard-line nationalists in the Japanese military wanted the escort shot down because tradition held that surrender was worse than death. These fears were assuaged as the 345th escort mission formed a bracket around the Japanese planes and chaperoned them safely to Manila. Surviving airmen of the 345th remained stationed on Ie Shima until they received orders to rotate back to the United States and on December 29, 1945, the unit was deactivated.
Throughout the Pacific campaign, the 499th squadron carried out its own specific missions. Fred left the U.S. on October 17, 1944 and arrived in the Pacific theater on November 23, 1944. The 499th conducted operations between Biak and the Philippines attacking Japanese shipping convoys and battleships. Between December 1944 and July 1945, Fred and his squadron flew from San Marcelino and Clark Air Fields hitting targets all over the Philippines. The longest range mission that they ever carried out was an attack on Saigon in southern Vietnam in April 1945. It was by far the most dangerous mission they ever undertook, but it earned them a Distinguished Unit Citation.
While in Ie Shima, Fred became part of the occupation force following Japan’s surrender. An old family photo album containing pictures from WWII includes some unique ones; photos of the Japanese surrender delegation. The images are quite small, but when seen through a magnifying glass, one can see the Japanese wearing traditional garments and presenting instruments of surrender. Unfortunately there are no captions on the reverse side of the pictures making it hard to determine when or where the photo was taken, but from judging the content, many pictures were taken in the Philippines and Ie Shima. Cultural landmarks and buildings place some early pictures in Manila. Fred took a lot of pictures of local people and he even collected a large amount of foreign currency and Army scrip.
Between Fred Richardson’s personal achievements and assignment with the 499th Bombardment Squadron and 345th Bomb Group, he received a substantial number of awards, both U.S. and foreign awards. The following are the most complete listing of awards he is entitled to from World War II.
Aerial Gunner Badge: this military aeronautical badge was given to those who qualified and endured hazardous conditions as an aerial gunner. A winged bullet fixed on the standard observers badge, Fred received this badge for his military occupational specialty as an Airplane Armorer Gunner a B-25 bomber.
Air Medal: Established in Executive Order 9158, the Air Medal recognizes acts of heroism or meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight. Flight conditions, combat missions, and the number of sorties were taken into account when determining who received the Air Medal. Between October 1944 and December 1945, Fred received the Air Medal twice, giving him an Oak Leaf Cluster. Both awards were issued by a General Order from 5th Air Force HQ for meritorious service with the 345th Bomb Group.
Good Conduct Medal: The Good Conduct Medal recognizes servicemen who served honorably for a specific amount of time. Criteria for the Army Good Conduct Medal has changed via executive orders in subsequent presidencies. The medal was also established during World War II and each service branch has its own version. The medal can also be awarded to any servicemen who completes at least one year of honorable service while the United States is at war. Fred met this criteria and received the Good Conduct Medal.
American Campaign Medal: Established in Executive Order 9265, the American Campaign Medal is awarded to all service members who were stationed in the American Theater of Operations (ATO). This includes the continental American territory and the surrounding waters of both North and South America. Servicemembers must have served at least one year within the continental limits of the U.S., 30 days outside the continental U.S. within the ATO, or 60 days onboard a vessel in American waters. Having served at least one year within the continental limits of the U.S. while stationed at Fort Sill, Fred received the American Campaign Medal.
Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal: Established in Executive Order 9265 along with the American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal is awarded to all service members who performed military duties in the Asiatic-Pacific Theater (APT). This includes air, naval, and ground operations. Service stars denote participation in a campaign. Because air operations were ongoing from the beginning to the end of the war (with the exception of some isolated campaigns) Fred received service stars for the following campaigns:
Air Offensive, Japan (5 June 1943 – 2 September 1945)
China Defensive (5 June 1943 – 4 May 1945)
New Guinea (5 June 1943 – 31 December 1944)
Bismarck Archipelago (15 December 1943 – 27 November 1944)
Leyte (17 October 1944 – 1 July 1945)
Luzon (15 December 1944 – 4 July 1945)
Western Pacific (17 April 1945 – 2 September 1945)
China Offensive (5 May 1945 – 2 September 1945)
World War II Victory Medal: Created by an Act of Congress on July 6 1945, this service medal recognizes all personnel who served in the U.S. Armed Forces from December 7 1941 to December 31 1946. No minimum time in service is needed to award the World War II Victory Medal. Over 12 million service members are eligible for the award, making it the second-most awarded medal in the U.S.; the most being the National Defense Service Medal created in 1953. Having served in World War II, Fred automatically received the subsequent victory medal.
Army of Occupation Medal: Established by the War Department in 1946, the AOM recognizes personnel who participated in any duties in occupied countries following the cessation of hostilities in both Germany and Japan. At first the medal was only for ground forces, but it was later amended in 1948 to include any Army Air Force units. The medal has an accompanying clasp for where the service member was stationed. The 345th Bomb Group served for six months on the island of Ie Shima, technically considered occupied enemy territory. This entitles Fred the Army of Occupation Medal with the ‘Japan’ clasp.
Philippine Liberation Medal: The liberation of the Philippines was a major moment during the war in the Pacific. They were the first major U.S. possession to fall to the Japanese and thousands suffered as POWs. In commemoration of those who took part in the campaign, the Philippine government created the Philippine Liberation Medal. Initially only a ribbon, a medal was created later in July 1945. The PLM also included service stars similar to the APCM. Stars were awarded for the following criteria:
Participation in the initial landing operation of Leyte and adjoining islands from 17 October to 20 October 1944.
Participation in any engagement against hostile Japanese forces on Leyte and adjoining islands during the Philippine Liberation Campaign of 17 October 1944, to 2 September 1945.
Participation in any engagement against hostile Japanese forces on islands other than those mentioned above during the Philippine Liberation Campaign of 17 October 1944, to 2 September 1945.
Served in the Philippine Islands or on ships in Philippine waters for not less than 30 days during the period.
The 345th did not participate in the initial landing operation on Leyte on October 17-20 (Fred was also en route to Biak from Camp Stoneman). Fred does meet the other three criteria so he received three service stars on the PLM.
Philippine Independence Medal: After the Japanese surrender, the Philippine government wanted to recognize all those who served in both the initial defense of the nation and the subsequent liberation. The Philippine Independence Medal was created to recognize those who took part in either one of the conflict stages. Because Fred took part in the liberation campaign, he received the PIM.
Presidential Unit Citation: President Franklin Roosevelt created this unit citation, (originally entitled the Distinguished Unit Citation) via Executive Order 9075. A unit citation was a new type of award for the U.S. military; it was meant to recognize the gallantry and heroism of a unit that endured dangerous conditions. The 499th received three PUCs for its entire wartime service; Fred served with the squadron when it received its third citation and his only one for actions over Indochina.
Philippine Presidential Unit Citation: Similar to the U.S. Presidential Unit Citation, the PPUC was awarded by the Philippine government to recognize the meritorious service and heroic achievements to those who participated in any Philippine operations. Because Fred served with the 499th which operated in the Philippines, he received the PPUC.
All U.S. Army, Army Air Force, Navy, and Marine personnel who were honorably discharged also receive the Honorable Service Lapel Button, nicknamed the ‘Ruptured Duck’. This was given to all those that were honorably discharged during World War II. The award had a twofold purpose: to show proof of military service while wearing civilian clothing [the lapel button was not worn with military uniform] and to receive recognition from agencies and private companies that the wearer was a veteran and could receive benefits such as reduced fares or free services. Since Fred completed his service honorably, he received the Ruptured Duck. A diamond shaped cloth patch was also issued for a veteran that could be worn on their Class A uniform for a subsequent 30 days.
Fred’s separation document (discovered February 18, 2021) shows that he also received a weapons marksmanship badge. Recruits are tested on their weapons proficiency during basic training and are scored on accuracy, technical skills, and speed. There are three categories of badges; Marksman, Sharpshooter, and Expert. Individual weapons bars are attached on each badge denoting the level of proficiency with that weapon. Fred was awarded the Sharpshooter badge with the Carbine bar on October 7, 1943.
Fred returned to the U.S on January 3, 1946 and was sent to Fort Leavenworth for separation. The Army was demobilizing thousands of troops a week, sending them to various locations across the country to expedite the process. On January 14, 1946, Fred was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army Air Force. His wartime service was over. He served for two years, five months, and twenty-five days; a year and two months of which was overseas.
According to family oral history, he completed forty-two missions with the 499th and made it out physically unscathed. The path he traveled took him across the United States, the entire width of the Pacific Ocean, and to foreign countries that a regular kid from Oklahoma might never have seen in his lifetime. Seven months after his discharge, he married Roberta Davis on August 18, 1946 and began a career with the Frisco Railroad. On 25 June 2006, Fred Laverne Richardson died from natural causes at the age of eighty-one. Four years later, Roberta joined him; together they both completed ‘well-finished lives.’
Picture this: gigantic waves crash against a ship’s hull causing it to pitch back and forth. Far off in the distance is an enormous, sandy beach. Lowered into the water are smaller transports and rope ladders stretching down from the deck. Dozens of men clamor their way down and the transport ferries them to shore. It pulls into shallow water at low tide, the causeways open, and soldiers quickly file out. They’re prepared for anything the moment they hit the beaches. They’re the vanguard of an expeditionary force for the U.S. Marine Corps brought there by the U.S. Navy.
Continuing with the ongoing series of U.S. Armed Forces awards and decorations, the Navy and Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal (NEM, MCEM) are two of the oldest actively awarded medals. They also hold the distinction of being the only two whose retroactive criteria extends back into the 19th century. Established by an Act of Congress in 1919 (MCEM) and 1936 (NEM), both can be awarded to any Marine or Navy personnel who participated in an expeditionary operation on foreign soil dating back to 1874. Qualifications for the NEM and MCEM include the following:
Participated in a landing on foreign territory
Engaged in operations against a hostile enemy force
Operated under circumstances that warrant special or meritorious recognition
In a prior post on Navy and Marine Corps medals, the two branches share the same awards. The NEM and MCEM are exceptions though. Only veterans in either branch are eligible to receive that respective award, i.e. only Navy veterans can receive the NEM. Additionally, the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal (AFEM) can be awarded to Navy and Marine Corp personnel in lieu of the NEM or MCEM, provided they meet specific criteria. The AFEM has been authorized for over forty military campaigns since 1958 and a minority include operations that doubly qualify for a NEM or MCEM. More recent operations such as Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom, and Inherent Resolve are campaigns qualifying only the Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal (GWOTEM). Unfortunately, with each foreign nation where U.S. operations are ongoing having their own campaign medal and newer awards like the GWOTEM, issuance of the NEM and MCEM have declined.
The veteran’s Official Military Personnel Folder (OMPF) typically lists the name of the operation that qualified them for the award. In some cases however where the nature of said operation is classified, that information is omitted and what remains is only the order authorizing the award. This is especially important for Navy review boards overseeing changes to OMPFs or providing duplicate copies of awards and decorations.
For a complete list of authorized Navy and Marine Corps expeditions that can receive the NEM and MCEM, visit the Naval History and Heritage Command webpage: Navy/MC Service and Campaign Awards.
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.
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.
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….
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:
Firing ordnance against the enemy, i.e. long range bombing
Delivering or evacuating personnel
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:
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.
The history of medals and awards in the U.S. Armed Forces has expanded and contracted as much as the size of the military over the past century. Awards creation exploded during World War II and in the post-WWII era as the country experienced the largest military establishment since the Civil War. Medals for meritorious service, personal valor, heroism, and campaign ribbons for conflict around the world became routine in the 20th century. This wasn’t always the case though. As our military changed and adapted, so did our honors systems for our veterans.
During the austere years of the young American republic, medals and decorations were considered almost luxuries (and reminiscent of the awards and honors worn by European nobility). Personal valor and heroism was enshrined more through dispatches and certificates, citing the actions of soldiers and sailors. The Continental Congress established the first military award, the Fidelity Medallion, and then George Washington pushed for establishing the Badge of Military Merit, but it was never formally ratified (the Fidelity Medallion was only issued once to four men who captured Benedict Arnold’s accomplice John Andre). Medals, awards, and decorations were not at the foremost of needs in the War Department or Congress in the antebellum period either. This can be largely attributed to the notion that the United States was isolationist on the world stage in the early and mid-19th century and things like overseas ribbons and campaign medals were unnecessary. The U.S. peace-time army numbered less than 100,000 troops and even they were posted on the western frontier to fight Native American tribes. Isolationist attitudes changed at the beginning of the 20th century when the United States began to adopt a more internationalist (some would argue imperialist) role in world affairs. Commemorative and retroactive service medals were issued at first, but then campaign medals became commonplace as the United States became engaged in more conflicts.
From 1890 to 1930, Congress authorized the creation of several new service awards and campaign medals for the Spanish-American War, World War I, and other military expeditions in the Western Hemisphere. Many of these medals were established later and applied retroactively following the conflict. The War Department also authorized the creation of service medals for the Army and Navy, but only on rare occasion. Today the federal government considers these awards obsolete because they were superseded by another award or inactive as the time period for current awarding has passed. A surviving veteran who served during a conflict with an inactive campaign ribbon can still receive it though, which are issued by the various service departments. For example, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal from WWII is labeled ‘inactive’ because now that the conflict has ended, the medal is now awarded to recipients who qualify from that time period. Obsolete awards are considered those that were replaced with another award or were only given a limited issuance. Obsolete criteria also applies to those medals where there are literally no more veterans from that time period and thus no one can claim those medals for their military service. For example, the previously mentioned Badge of Military Merit was succeeded by the Purple Heart. Despite not begin formally adopted by Congress, its heart shape and purple color were incorporated to create the modern Purple Heart medal in 1917; making the Purple Heart one of the oldest military decorations still awarded.
Below is the most comprehensive list of inactive or obsolete campaign and service awards from the Armed Forces:
Certificate of Merit Medal
Civil War Campaign Medal
Indian Campaign Medal
Spanish War Service Medal
Spanish Campaign Medal
Army of Cuban Occupation Medal
Army of Puerto Rican Occupation Medal
Philippine Campaign Medal
Texas Cavalry Medal
China Campaign Medal
Mexican Service Medal
Mexican Border Service Medal
Army Wound Ribbon
Marine Corps Brevet Medal
Specially Meritorious Service Medal
West Indies Campaign Medal
Dominican Campaign Medal
Nicaraguan Campaign Medal
Second Nicaraguan Campaign Medal
A unique trait with awards like the Dewey Medal and the Texas Cavalry Medal share is that a limited of number were issued to service members. Additionally, many soldiers who would have qualified for retroactive awards died before they could be claimed in their lifetime, e.g. the Civil War medal was established 40 years after the war ended when many veterans were deceased.
One question that gets asked most often regarding these awards: does the federal government still issue these medals? Yes and no, to be honest. Because of the rarity of these medals, hardcore collectors of military antiques searched for these medals. Medals from the Spanish-American War period are highly sought after and are not issued by the federal government anymore. Because the service branches rely on personnel records to confirm the recipients entitlement to an award and records from this time period rarely mention them, service branches don’t re-issue obsolete medals. Inactive awards however are still issued upon request when there’s a matching service record providing evidence of the veteran’s active duty.
Unless you’re overly lucky as a collector of military memorabilia, you’ll most likely see many of these obsolete medals in a museum. No veterans of the Civil War, Spanish-American War, or World War I are alive anymore and so their medals are falling away into obscurity. These come from a formative time in our nation’s history as we injected ourselves more into global affairs and sent expeditionary forces into international conflict. More ribbons and medals will be created as conflicts arise, adding onto the vast repository of awards already amassed by the United States. But as we go forth, we cannot forget how far we’ve come as a nation, and remember all that we’ve done.
When you ask someone ‘what branches make up the U.S. Armed Forces?’ they’ll typically answer ‘Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines’ but one that they’ll routinely forget is the U.S. Coast Guard. Indeed the Coast Guard is a service branch of the Armed Forces, but it can be overlooked occasionally. However, the U.S. Coast Guard has been in existence since the country’s founding and was championed by a notable Founding Father: Alexander Hamilton. A coastal defense and maritime law enforcement branch was personal for Hamilton, stretching back to his early days in the Caribbean when he worked for a shipping firm. Pirate raids and privateers were a constant nuisance for merchant vessels so creating a service designed specifically for coastal defense and law enforcement at sea was critical. Originally, named the Revenue-Marine, it became the Revenue Cutter Service, and following a merger with the U.S. Life Saving Service under the 1915 Coast Guard Act, the modern U.S. Coast Guard was born.
Seal of the United States Revenue Cutter Service (image courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard)
If you’ve read the preceding articles about awards and decorations for the Armed Forces, it was numbered to focus on the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. So why is this post about the Coast Guard labeled ‘special edition’? Concerning awards and medals, the Coast Guard has a special distinction that none of the other service branches can claim: only one Coast Guard service member was awarded the Medal of Honor and no member has received the second-highest medal, the Coast Guard Cross. We’ll go over those in a bit!
Requesting Coast Guard awards and decorations works similarly to the Navy and Marine Corps process outlined in the previous post (Meritorious Service). The veteran’s Official Military Personnel Folder is reviewed by a technician at the National Personnel Records Center and then forwarded to the service branch personnel center. For the Coast Guard, this would be the Commander, Personnel Service Center in Washington D.C. There is however one important caveat to note with the Coast Guard: records are not cross-checked with lists of ship unit awards or combat actions. The technician only completes a medals request with those awards expressly noted in the service record. If a veteran believes they are entitled to an award that is not listed in their record, that request is forwarded to the service branch for verification.
Now onto the two great distinctions for the Coast Guard! During wartime, the Coast Guard transfers personnel and operations to the Department of the Navy. This has only been performed twice, during World War I and World War II by presidential order. During peacetime, the Coast Guard is under the authority of the Department of Homeland Security (before that it was the Department of Transportation, and prior to that it was the Department of the Treasury). Coast Guard members are eligible to receive Navy medals, but beginning in the late 1940s, Congress established Coast Guard versions of Navy medals to make them eligible for those service members:
The Coast Guard Distinguished Service Medal: equivalent to the Navy, Air Force, and Army Distinguished Service Medal
Coast Guard Medal: equivalent to the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, Army’s Soldier’s Medal, and the Airman’s Medal
Commendation and Achievement medals were also established and based on existing versions of the aforementioned awards.
The Lifesaving Medal is the oldest award within the Coast Guard that is still active. The medal (divided into two awards, the Gold and Silver Lifesaving Medal) is given to those rescuing people from dangerous waters. The medal was created in 1874 and the higher of the two, the Gold Medal, has only been awarded about 600 times. Technically it is not considered a military decoration and can be awarded to the public also.
On October 15 2010, Congress passed Public Law 111-281 establishing the Coast Guard Cross. The newest award was created equivalent to the Navy Cross and is given to service members who perform extraordinary acts of heroism that do not merit the Medal of Honor. The award is meant to acknowledge those distinguishing acts while serving in only a Coast Guard capacity. Despite the award being nearly 10 years old, the Coast Guard Cross has never been awarded. Not even once.
The Coast Guard Cross. The reverse side of the medal reads ‘For Valor’ (image courtesy of the U.S. Army Institute of Heraldry)
Onto the second distinction! During the Second Battle of Matanikau in the Guadalcanal Campaign of World War II, Signalman 1st Class Douglas Albert Munro used his Higgins landing craft to shield Marines that were redeploying under heavy fire from the Japanese. Leading up to the battle, Munro and his shipmate Raymond Evans were stationed at Naval Operating Base Cactus conducting support operations for the Navy and Marine Corps. On September 27, 1942, the Marines were ordered to attack Japanese positions on the Matanikau River and Munro was placed in charge of landing craft and Higgins boats sending Marines to their positions. While ferrying injured Marines back and forth, the Marines at Matanikau faced a counter-offensive and were in danger of being overrun. Munro quickly returned to the beach and laid suppressing fire on the enemy while Marines boarded the landing craft and waited until all were secure. A couple of the landing crafts became stuck on sandbars near the beach and Munro directed other boats to move in and pick up any remaining Marines. It was at this moment that Munro was shot in the head. Evans held Munro as he was dying and before he finally died, Munro asked if all the Marines made it out safely and smiled when Evans nodded yes.
News of Munro’s heroism reached back to the United States. Munro was immediately awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor presented to his family at the White House by President Franklin Roosevelt. The citation reads:
“For extraordinary heroism and conspicuous gallantry in action above and beyond the call of duty as Officer-in-Charge of a group of Higgins boats, engaged in the evacuation of a Battalion of Marines trapped by enemy Japanese forces at Point Cruz, Guadalcanal, on September 27, 1942. After making preliminary plans for the evacuation of nearly 500 beleaguered Marines, Munro, under constant risk of his life, daringly led five of his small craft toward the shore. As he closed the beach, he signaled the others to land, and then in order to draw the enemy’s fire and protect the heavily loaded boats, he valiantly placed his craft with its two small guns as a shield between the beachhead and the Japanese. When the perilous task of evacuation was nearly completed, Munro was killed by enemy fire, but his crew, two of whom were wounded, carried on until the last boat had loaded and cleared the beach. By his outstanding leadership, expert planning, and dauntless devotion to duty, he and his courageous comrades undoubtedly saved the lives of many who otherwise would have perished. He gallantly gave up his life in defense of his country.”
-Medal of Honor Citation for Signalman 1st Class Douglas Albert Munro
Munro’s name has been memorialized in Coast Guard vessels, facilities, monuments, VFW Posts, scholarships, and as of today is the only non-Marine to be listed in the National Museum of the Marine Corps’ Wall of Heroes. Memorial observances are held at the Coast Guard Training Center at Cape May annually with new recruits.
Douglas A. Munro Covers the Withdrawal of the 7th Marines at Guadalcanal, (1989) by Bernard D’Andrea
The U.S. Coast Guard has an incredible history and reading material about the early days of the Revenue-Marine, Revenue Cutter Service, and the U.S. Life Saving Service is extensive. For more information about the Coast Guard and its award and decorations, visit the Coast Guard’s Personnel Services Division.