Oklahoma Bat: The Military History of Fred Laverne Richardson

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. 

(Fred while on furlough. He left shortly thereafter to join the 345th BG)

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. 

(Fred and his squad mates; he is on the far right with the cigarette in hand)

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. 

(American pilots and aircrews were issued chits like these wearing them on their jackets. If they bailed out or were shot down, this would message any friendly persons that they were an American pilot and needed to return to their outfit. Fred had this one and was pinned in his WWII photo album.)

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. 

(Billboard of the 499th Squadron. These were common at the airfields to show each unit’s war record and list of battles)

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:

  1. Participation in the initial landing operation of Leyte and adjoining islands from 17 October to 20 October 1944. 
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.’

The First Landing: The Navy / Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal

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.

(L) Navy Expeditionary Medal, (R) Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal

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.

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.

Valor from Years Ago: Inactive and Obsolete Awards and Decorations in the U.S. Armed Forces

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.

The Philippine Campaign Medal awarded to service members who served in any campaign during the Philippine-American War from 1899 to 1902

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.

The Medal of Honor was established during the Civil War for conspicuous gallantry and heroism, risking life beyond the call of duty. The above design existed from 1862-1895. The current design was created in 1944.

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:

  1. Certificate of Merit Medal
  2. Civil War Campaign Medal
  3. Indian Campaign Medal
  4. Spanish War Service Medal
  5. Spanish Campaign Medal
  6. Army of Cuban Occupation Medal
  7. Army of Puerto Rican Occupation Medal
  8. Philippine Campaign Medal
  9. Dewey Medal
  10. Sampson Medal
  11. Texas Cavalry Medal
  12. China Campaign Medal
  13. Mexican Service Medal
  14. Mexican Border Service Medal
  15. Army Wound Ribbon
  16. Marine Corps Brevet Medal
  17. Specially Meritorious Service Medal
  18. West Indies Campaign Medal
  19. Dominican Campaign Medal
  20. Nicaraguan Campaign Medal
  21. Second Nicaraguan Campaign Medal
The Civil War Campaign Medal. The blue and grey colors represent the Union and Confederate forces and veterans on both sides were eligible to receive the 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.

The Second Nicaraguan Campaign Medal was awarded to Navy and Marine Corps servicemen who participated in operations during the Nicaraguan Civil War from 1926 to 1933. The first campaign medal was issued in 1913 when the American occupation of Nicaragua began

Semper Paratus: Requesting U.S. Coast Guard Medals (Special Edition)

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:

  1. The Coast Guard Distinguished Service Medal: equivalent to the Navy, Air Force, and Army Distinguished Service Medal
  2. Coast Guard Medal: equivalent to the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, Army’s Soldier’s Medal, and the Airman’s Medal
  3. Commendation and Achievement medals were also established and based on existing versions of the aforementioned awards.
  4. 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.

Meritorious Service: Requesting U.S. Navy and Marine Corps Medals (4 of 4)

The history of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps is incredibly dense and overflowing with heroic stories of men battling the elements, fighting enemies in exotic locales, and being ready to deploy anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice. Towering ships like the USS Constitution, USS Missouri, USS Arizona, and the USS Hornet were at the center of momentous historical events that defined generations and military tradition. An illustrious history can even be heard in the Marines’ Hymn:

“From the Halls of Montezuma
To the shores of Tripoli;
We fight our country’s battles
In the air, on land, and sea;
First to fight for right and freedom
And to keep our honor clean;
We are proud to claim the title
Of United States Marine”

(The ‘Halls of Montezuma’ refers to the Battle of Chapultepec in the Mexican-American War and the ‘shores of Tripoli’ refers to the Battle of Derne in the First Barbary War). The Continental Congress quickly established both the Navy and Marine Corps during  the American Revolution to counter the British Navy, which was the largest in the world during the 18th century. Since the early 1800s, the Navy and Marine Corps were engaged in conflicts throughout the world. Despite their operations during the War of 1812, American Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and many other global conflicts, Navy and Marine Corps awards and decorations were established primarily after World War I and World War II.

The USS Constitution battling the HMS Guerriere in the War of 1812. The USS Constitution’s victory earned it the nickname ‘Old Ironsides’ (image courtesy of the U.S. Naval Historical Center)

The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps share a special distinction in the U.S. Armed Forces and other uniformed services: their medals are shared and awarded to both members of each branch. What many people don’t realize is that the Marine Corps is under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Navy (and the U.S. Navy is within the same department of course). On June 30, 1834, the Marines were combined with the Navy following an Act of Congress; ‘Act for the Better Organization of the Marine Corps‘:

“…That the said corps shall, at all times, be subject to, and under the laws and regulations which are, or may hereafter be, established for the better government of the Navy, except when detached for service with the Army, by order of the President of the United States.”

-An Act for the better organization of the Marine Corps, Statute I, Chapter CXXXII, Sec 2, Twenty-Third Congress, June 30, 1834

Although the Navy and Marine Corps share the same medals, a substantial amount of research is performed to verify awards and decorations requests. This is due to the fact that geographic assignments and time served on ships plays a significant part in determining awards. Naval ships earn what are called Battle Efficiency Awards that are given for best battle efficiency competition and overall readiness for naval operations. A common request that Navy veterans make are for ship awards they believe are eligible for; if they served on the ship when it received that award though. A number of retroactive awards, especially for WWII and Korea, are available too through recent general orders from the Department of the Navy.

Let’s look at some unique medals and awards issued by the Department of the Navy:

  1. Navy Cross: second highest award for valor in combat, equal to the Distinguished Service Cross and the Air Force Cross
  2. Navy and Marine Corps Medal: awarded for non-combat heroism equal to the Soldier’s Medal and the Airman’s Medal
  3. Navy / Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal: awarded to active duty personnel who landed in foreign territory and engaged the enemy
  4. Combat Action Ribbon: awarded to sea service members who engaged in ground or surface combat against the enemy. *This is the most commonly requested award for both service branches*
  5. Sea Service Deployment Ribbon: awarded to those serving active duty onboard a vessel at sea. *Established in 1980, it is only retroactive to August 15, 1974 so any requests for the SSDR before that date are denied*
  6. Navy E Ribbon: awarded for battle efficiency competitions for readiness and overall preparedness for that vessel and crew

The Navy and Marine Corps also issue Achievement and Commendation awards as mentioned previously in the preceding articles. Appurtenances like service stars, oak leaves, and numerals are also used along with another one called the Fleet Marine Force Combat Operations Insignia. This is issued to U.S. Navy sailors attached to Marine Corps units engaged in combat operations. Both branches also have a system of weapon marksmanship awards for different weapon types.

The 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines landing at Da Nang. They were the first US ground combat troops to land in Vietnam on March 8, 1965 (photo courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps History Division)

As any technician at the National Personnel Records Center will tell you, fulfilling requests for Navy and Marine Corps awards is a labor intensive process. This is because of the numerous resources that technicians use to cross-check where a service member was located, at what time, with what unit or vessel, and length of time overseas or deployed on a ship. Individual personnel records may not completely reflect the award history of a vessel so they are checked against a massive ledger of all ship and unit awards garnered by that vessel. For World War II, Korea, and Vietnam veterans in particular, this is combined with their eligibility for foreign awards if (and this is a big IF) they were assigned to ships that were in the sovereign waters of a country where combat actions occurred. Ledgers for Presidential, Meritorious, and Navy Unit Commendations are extensive because they track every deployment and combat action of each vessel. The same goes for the Marine Corps; their deployments and attachments to specific units and ships are heavily reviewed to see whether or not they’re eligible for awards also. Additionally, combat air wings with the Navy and Marine Corps are also separated with their awards determination. A naval combat air wing can receive an award, but the aircraft carrier transporting them doesn’t necessarily receive the same. This unit stratification is important to remember when Navy and Marine Corps veterans request their medals. If you weren’t attached to a unit or ship that received an award for being in a specific time or place, then you wouldn’t be considered eligible.

Before delving into the finer details of the Navy and Marine Corps awards themselves, it’s imperative to look at the request process as well. Similar to the Army and Air Force, requests are made through the NPRC and information is verified through the personnel folder. The Navy and Marine Corps also use a form similar to the Air Force’s NA 13059 entitled a NAVPERS 1650/96 ‘Transmittal of and/or entitlement to Awards’. Replacements are also only issued once like the Air Force and so copies of this form are put in the record and then sent to the service branch office. The Navy Personnel Command in Millington, Tennessee is responsible for the verification and replacement of Navy and Marine Corps awards.

The U.S. Navy light aircraft carrier USS Princeton (CVL-23) burning soon after she was hit by a Japanese bomb while operating off the Philippines on October 24, 1944 (Photo courtesy of the Naval History and Heritage Command)

A large number of requests for Navy and Marine Corps medals comes from World War II veterans and their families. This time period requires a significant amount of research because ships, combat air wings, and Marine Corps units attached to naval units all have a multiple lists and information to verify. Veterans who served in the Pacific Theater are eligible for awards like the Philippines Presidential Unit Citation, Combat Action Ribbons, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, Navy Occupation Medal, and the China Service Medal (given for service in waters near China between 2 September 1946 and 1 April 1957). Once a technician confirms the veteran’s on-board service, that is cross checked against that ship’s unit award history and if nothing is found, that request is complete! The same process is repeated for Korea and Vietnam veterans.

Marine Corps award requests are examined in nearly the same manner. A master list of every Marine Corps unit since the Korean War shows their unit awards, combat actions, and corresponding time frames to prove eligibility. When Marine Corps units are attached with other units that receive awards, the aforementioned Marine Corp unit receives the same unit award. Again, time and place makes a major difference in determining awards eligibility. One final, yet important disclaimer I should add here is that the NPRC only processes awards requests for veterans how have their records at the record center. Beginning in the mid-1990s, the Navy and Marine Corps began digitizing and retaining their own service records.

Let’s look at an example! Assume that all the supporting documentation exists for the veteran’s request for all entitled medals and awards:

  1. Enlisted in the U.S. Navy on January 5, 1943
  2. Served on the USS Denver from 1 October 1944 to 30 November 1945
  3. Stationed in Japan following surrender in September 1945

Here’s what we’ve got! From left to right, top to bottom:

  1. Combat Action Ribbon: participated in combat against the enemy during the Battle of Leyte Gulf
  2. Navy Unit Commendation: received for serving on board the USS Denver during the Battle of Leyte Gulf
  3. Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with bronze service star: service in the Pacific Theater
  4. World War II Victory Medal: active duty between 7 December 1941 to 31 December 1946
  5. Navy Occupation Medal: stationed in occupied Axis country, Japan
  6. Philippine Presidential Unit Citation: meritorious service in the Pacific Theater and actions in the Philippines
  7. Philippine Liberation Medal: participated in the liberation of the Philippine Islands from Japanese forces

Now let’s look at a Marine Corps example. Again, assume that all the supporting documentation exists in the personnel folder:

  1. Enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps on 10 June 1964
  2. Served in Vietnam with the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines from 30 August 1965 to 15 November 1966
  3. Participated in Operation Prairie and Deckhouse
  4. Wounded once in combat
  5. Received a commendation for heroic acts

Here’s what we’ve got! From left to right, top to bottom:

  1. Purple Heart: sustaining wounds during combat
  2. Navy and Marine Corps Commendation: for heroic acts performed during combat operations
  3. Combat Action Ribbon: participated in combat operations against the enemy
  4. National Defense Service Medal: for active duty service during a conflict
  5. Vietnam Service Medal with one bronze service star: received for serving in the Republic of Vietnam
  6. Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Unit Palm Citation: received the foreign unit award for being attached to the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines while serving in Vietnam
  7. Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with 1960 device: foreign award for serving in Vietnam

These examples are not meant to be 100% accurate, but they are to give a general conception of what typical awards are eligible for Navy and Marine Corps veterans. For more information on Navy and Marine Corps awards and decorations, you can visit the Navy Personnel Command website here: Navy Personnel Command.

I hope this article series on U.S. Armed Forces awards and decorations has been informative and helpful! You can also visit the National Personnel Records Center website to begin the request process for medals (NPRC website). Happy researching!

For Heroic Acts: Requesting U.S. Air Force Medals (3 of 4)

The U.S. Air Force is the youngest service branch of the U.S. Armed Forces (I know there’s the Space Force, but that’s a story for another day and as of right now, they’re just using the same medals as the Air Force). Prior to the Cold War, aerial warfare was part of the Army with the sub-branches of the Army Air Corps and the Army Air Force. The National Security Act of 1947 established the U.S. Air Force as a separate branch and on September 18, 1947 the Air Force became independent and began its own operations and forming commands.

Gen. Merrill McPeak, former Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force. Gen. McPeak served as a fighter pilot in Vietnam and oversaw Air Force operations during the Gulf War (photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force)

During the Air Forces’ early years, they borrowed heavily from the Army’s list of awards and decorations. It wasn’t uncommon for a Air Force veteran that served during the Korean War to be awarded the Army Good Conduct Medal. Following the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Air Force began drafting its own award system and designing the decorations. More awards were established during and after the Vietnam War and with the creation of the Space Force, proposals for new awards have been issued too. Ribbons and medals made especially for the Air Force include, but are not limited to the Air Force Cross, Airman’s Medal, AF Longevity Service Ribbon,  AF Training Ribbon, AF Special Duty Ribbon, and the Aerial Achievement Medal. While the Air Force does not issue extensive marksmanship badges as the Army does with all the different weapon bars, they do issue ribbons that indicate proficiency with small arms and receive appurtenances for multiple awards. The Air Force does issue a wide arrange of badges that cover everything from pilot wings, to flight surgeons, and to one of the most coveted, the astronaut badge.

Army and Air Force awards are varied in their qualifications and design, but it doesn’t end there. How Air Force medals requests are processed is different too. In the previous post on Army Medals (For Distinguishing Service), an Army veteran just needs to submit a request through the National Personnel Records Center, a technician submits the pertinent information to the Army TACOM, who re-issues the medals; a process that be done multiple times. The process for Air Force veterans is marginally different and here’s why:

  • The U.S. Air Force allows a one-time submission for the re-issuance of awards and decorations. When requested, this cannot be repeated by another party in the future

The F-16 Fighting Falcon jet fighter. The F-16 is famous for having multiple variants and was the primary USAF fighter jet used during the Gulf War and is still in operation today (Photo courtesy of the USAF)

NPRC technicians submit Army medals information directly to the Army via online through TACOM which generates an immediate request number for veterans to follow-up on later. For Air Force medals, technicians complete an NA Form 13059 ‘Transmittal of And/Or Entitlement to Awards‘. The form is a long list of every medal, ribbon, and decoration issued by the Air Force and a technicians checks off boxes corresponding to the veteran’s entitled award.  Unit awards are also included and technicians compare OMPFs to these lists, similar to the Army unit awards. The completed form is copied three times:

  1. First copy is placed inside the Official Military Personnel Folder to show that the awards have been issued previously
  2. Second copy is mailed to the requester
  3. Third copy is forwarded to the Air Force Personnel Center, located at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio, TX

Awards and decorations come directly from the AFPC, not the NPRC. Once they have the NA Form 13059, it remains in their queue until completed. The Air Force keeps this document to ensure that the medals are only re-issued once. Depending on the nature of the request (wanting replacements, petitioning for a new medal, etc.) sometimes the process can take months or even years; it all depends on the AFPC’s priorities.

Award eligibility is slightly different between the Air Force and Army too. What are automatic awards for one branch are reciprocal for the other. A signature example is the Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Unit Palm Citation. This foreign award was retroactively awarded to all Army veterans, but not to the Air Force. Only those who were awarded the medal while serving in Vietnam can request it again. Air Force veterans that served in Vietnam do automatically receive the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with 1960 device for service in country.

Let’s look at some examples of Air Force medals! Assume that for the following scenarios that the veteran has the supporting documentation in their record:

  1. Served in Vietnam from 2 April 1968 to 22 February 1969
  2. Qualified expert marksman for the M-16
  3. Enlisted on 30 March 1967 and discharged on 15 September 1971
  4. Served in the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing throughout Vietnam tour

From left to right, top to bottom: Air Force Outstanding Unit Award (AFOUA), National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal with three bronze service stars, Air Force Longevity Service Award (AFLSA), Small Arm Expert Marksmanship Ribbon (SAEMR), Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with 1960 device (for educational purposes only)

  • Veteran received the AFOUA because he served with the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing which received the award while stationed in Vietnam
  • The VSM with three stars and the RVN Campaign w/1960 device because he served in Vietnam in that time frame
  • Veteran doesn’t receive the Cross of Gallantry because it’s not an automatic unit award and was not awarded to the 37th Tactical Wing
  • Received the AFLSA for at least 4 years of honorable service in the branch
  • Received the SAEMR for being qualified with the M-16

That was pretty easy! Now let’s do a more difficult one. Again, assume the veteran has all the supporting documentation:

  1. Served in both Operation Desert Shield and Operation Enduring Freedom
  2. Enlisted on 7 June 1989 and discharged on 6 June 2009
  3. Received all good conduct marks throughout service
  4. Qualified expert marksman with the M-16
  5. Completed 10 combat missions with the 455th Air Expeditionary Group stationed at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan
  6. Cited for valor in combat against the enemy, worthy of the Air Force Cross

From left to right, top to bottom: Air Force Cross, AF Combat Action Medal, Meritorious Unit Award with bronze oak leaf cluster, AF Good Conduct Medal with silver and bronze oak leaf cluster, National Defense Service Medal with bronze service star, Southwest Asia Service Medal with bronze service star, Afghanistan Campaign Medal with two bronze service stars, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal (GWOTSM), Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal (GWOTEM), AF Overseas Long Tour Ribbon, AF Longevity Ribbon with oak leaf clusters, Small Arms Expert Marksmanship Ribbon, Air Force Training Ribbon.

  • Received the Air Force Cross following in record citation
  • Participated in aerial combat after 2007 so eligible for the AF Combat Action Medal (retroactive to 11 September 2001)
  • Received the Meritorious Unit Award twice while serving with the 455th Air Expeditionary Group (awarded twice when stationed in Afghanistan)
  • Received appurtenances with the Good Conduct Medal for multiple years of good marks and performance
  • The National Defense Service Medal has a bronze service star because the veteran served in two conflicts (Gulf War, War on Terror)
  • Received the Southwest Asia Service Medal and Afghanistan Campaign medal for participating in Desert Shield and Enduring Freedom
  • Received the GWOTSM and GWOTEM for service overseas during the Global War on Terror
  • Overseas Long Ribbon for completing more than two years overseas
  • Completed 20 years of service so veteran received AFLSA with oak leaves
  • AF Training Ribbon for completing basic military training

On top of all these awards, because there’s documentation that he’s a combat pilot, he gets a pilot’s badge above the ribbon rack:

USAF Pilot Badge

I hope that you’ve enjoyed reading about U.S. Air Force awards and decorations! For my next installment, I’ll have a combined U.S. Navy / Marine Corps article as they share nearly all of the same types of medals. Additionally, the Navy and Marine Corps have a huge array of retroactive award policies, specific rules on automatic and unit awards, and awards for naval ships and vessels too. Even though the share many of the same medals, there are a couple of tiny differences between the Navy and Marine Corps, but we’ll go through it all!

Distinguishing Service: Requesting U.S. Army Medals (2 of 4)

For as long as the United States Army has existed, there have been awards and decorations that were given for acts of valor and heroism.  Since the American Revolution, such awards were not specifically regulated until World War I, but ones like the Badge of Military Merit were forerunners to the Purple Heart. The Medal of Honor, established during the American Civil War, was the first to be regulated following Congressional legislation and was accompanied by benefits. At the turn of the 19th century, the Spanish-American War resulted in the first use of campaign medals and the creation of retroactive medals like the Civil War and Indian War campaign medals. It wasn’t until World War I and during World War II that the Department of the Army, Congress, and the White House began instituting more types of medals for its service members.

Sgt. William Harvey Carney, the first African American soldier to receive the Medal of Honor. He was decorated for his courage under fire and valor in saving the regimental colors during the Battle of Fort Wagner in the American Civil War. He didn’t receive the medal for at least 37 years after the battle (Photo courtesy of James Reed, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University)

Since 1917, there have been dozens of new medals and updated version of obsolete ones. We’ve seen the creation of the Purple Heart, Silver Star, Bronze Star, Distinguished Service Cross and Medal, the Soldier’s Medal, and the Army Commendation Medal and Army Achievement Medal. These don’t even include the large number of service awards like the Army Service Ribbon, NCO (Non-commissioned Officer) Professional Development Ribbon, Overseas Service Ribbon. It still doesn’t even account for all the Army Reserve awards either or even the Weapons Qualifications badges either. Unit awards are a whole other category as well with the Presidential Unit Citation, Valorous Unit Citation, and much more. Within the Department of the Army (DOA), there are civilian-grade awards as well for public service and meritorious achievement which are given to civilian employees within the Army. In summary, the U.S. Army has exponentially grown its list of personal awards and even more so with each conflict that the U.S. Army engages with the enemy overseas. This article continues from the previous post (Gallantry and Valor) by describing various types of U.S. Army medals, what medals belong to which conflict, retroactive awards, and how veterans can request their medals through the National Personnel Records Center. Because of the immense catalog of awards and decorations, more in-depth research can be done privately on the history of Army awards and so here we’ll highlight some of the most common facets and types of medals.

As previously stated in ‘Gallantry and Valor‘ awards are divided into categories such as personal decorations, service, campaign, weapon badges, and unit awards. There are those a veteran receives for meritorious and heroic actions, for participating in a campaign during wartime, for personal achievement, and for serving with a specific unit that is decorate as a whole. Within each category, there’s a system of appurtenances to denote multiple issuance of the same award (oak leaf clusters, service stars, numerals, devices, etc.). These are used by all the service branches of the United States Armed Forces.

Lt. Gen. James H. Doolitte pictured with his awards and appurtenances. Doolittle became famous for the raids on the Japanese home islands following the attack on Pearl Harbor. They became known as the ‘Doolittle Raids’ (photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force)

A new award is established primarily by these methods:

  1. The DOA establishes criteria for a new award or decoration.
  2. Congress authorizes an award by passing specific legislation.
  3. The President signs an executive order creating a new award.
  4. The Department of Defense (DOD) establishes criteria for a new award.

Medals and awards are not normally established during peacetime. Between the Spanish-American War and World War I, there were practically no new medals and even fewer recipients because the peace-time army was so small. It’s only during wartime that you can see the explosion of new medals and decorations. These are created to recognize the type of conflict and whether or not a person directly participated in combat actions or served in another capacity. Service members can receive awards automatically for being on active duty.

The National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) and DOA follow a specific criteria for determining an Army veteran’s medals, which is pulled directly from their Official Military Personnel Folder. Technicians review records thoroughly and cross-check it with lists and ledgers from the DOD to ensure that they are eligible for unit awards. Here’s a breakdown of automatic medals eligible to veterans by directly participating in a campaign overseas against an enemy:

World War I

The World War I Victory Medal (the medal was affixed with battle clasps denoting the battle the soldier fought in as well)

World War II

From left to right, top to bottom: American Defense Service Medal (active duty before December 7th, 1941), American Campaign Medal (service in the American Theater), Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal (service in the Pacific Theater), European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal (service in the European Theater), World War II Victory Medal (active duty between December 7, 1941 to December 31, 1946), Army Occupation Medal (for serving in the occupation forces in WWII Axis countries).

Korean War

National Defense Service Medal (active duty during an armed conflict), Korean Service Medal (active duty service in South Korea between June 27th, 1950 and July 27th, 1954), United Nations Service Medal (international award issued with KSM), Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation (retroactive unit award issued by the Republic of Korea for veterans that participated in conflict)

Vietnam War

National Defense Service Medal (active duty during an armed conflict), Vietnam Service Medal (active duty in the Republic of Vietnam from July 4, 1965 to April 30, 1975), Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Unit Palm Citation (foreign medal awarded retroactively to all U.S. Army veterans with Vietnam service), Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with 1960 device (foreign medal awarded retroactively to all U.S. Army veterans with Vietnam service)

Desert Storm / Gulf War

National Defense Service Medal (active duty during an armed conflict), Southwest Asia Service Medal (active duty service in Southwest Asian region between August 2, 1990 and November 30, 1995), Kuwait Liberation Medal (Saudi Arabia version, active service in the Persian Gulf), Kuwait Liberation Medal (Kuwait version, participated in Operation Desert Storm)

Global War on Terrorism (Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, etc.)

From left to right, top to bottom: National Defense Service Medal (active duty during an armed conflict), Afghanistan Campaign Medal (service in Afghanistan from October 24, 2001 to present day), Iraq Campaign Medal (service in Iraq from March 19, 2003 to December 31, 2011), Inherent Resolve Campaign Medal (direct participation in Syria combat actions from June 15, 2014 to present day), Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal (deployed overseas against terrorism from September 11, 2001 to present day) Global War on Terrorism Service Medal (supported operations to counter terrorism from September 11, 2001 to present day),

Medals and other awards can also be issued retroactively if a veteran fits certain eligibility. A large number of awards requests submitted to the NPRC are for retroactive awards that a veteran wants or needs for things such a admission to a VFW or American Legion or VA benefits. Here are some common instances of retroactive Army awards that are given based on certain qualifications:

  1. World War II veterans that received the Combat Infantryman Badge or the Combat Medical Badge are also eligible for the Bronze Star Medal.
  2. Service members who were stationed in South Korea since July 28th, 1954 qualify for the Korea Defense Service Medal. The KDSM was established in December 2002 and is the most requested retroactive Army award.
  3. Service members that served in specific countries within a set time frame are eligible for the Armed Force Expeditionary Medal (criteria set and approved by the Department of Defense.
  4. Veterans of the Korean War that served on active duty in South Korea were eligible to wear the Korean War Service Medal. This is a foreign award that initially was declined by the DOA to wear. In 1999, the Army finally authorized the wearing of the medal.

Requesting awards and decorations from the NPRC can be a lengthy process depending on the nature of the request. If a veterans wants all awarded and eligible medals, the technician reviews documents citing awards such as the DD Form 214, DA 20 Chronological Record, orders, and DOD unit awards lists. Once this is completed, the technician submits the information to the Army TACOM in Philadelphia, which oversees the heraldry office that re-issues medals. All the submitted information is verified and if there’s any conflicting item, the Army Human Resources Command at Fort Knox gives the final say in determining a medal. The NPRC’s only role is providing documentation; the awards come from the Army itself. In the case of the Army, only the next-of-kin can request medals and can be issued multiple times under certain conditions. Awards information can also be obtained by the public through a FOIA request, but the physical medals won’t be; the NPRC only sends a list.

That was a lot to read! But let’s give a sample scenario:

A U.S. Army veteran requests his medals and gives these criteria (and let’s assume that the record contains all supporting documentation):

  • He served in Vietnam from 1 July 1966 to 30 June 1968
  • His MOS was Infantry
  • He was wounded in combat twice
  • There are citations for a Bronze Star Medal with “V” device
  • He served with the 4th Infantry Division the entire time overseas
  • He was briefly captured by the North Vietnamese Army and has bonafide documentation as a prisoner of war

  1. The veteran received the Combat Infantryman Badge for his combat role.
  2. Bronze Star Medal with “V” device because of in-record citation.
  3. Purple Heart with a bronze oak leaf cluster because of being wounded twice in combat.
  4. Prisoner of War Medal for being a captive of enemy forces.
  5. National Defense Service Medal for active duty during an armed conflict.
  6. Vietnam Service Medal with four bronze service stars for time in country.
  7. Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Unit Palm Citation (automatic award for all U.S. Army veterans who served in Vietnam).
  8. Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with 1960 device (automatic award for all U.S. Army veterans who served in Vietnam).
  9. Presidential Unit Citation with bronze oak leaf cluster because unit received award twice while attached to the 4th Infantry Division.

Hopefully this information has been helpful! Check back for the next chapter that will focus on the U.S. Air Force awards and decorations, eligibility, and request process.


Gallantry and Valor: Requesting Military Medals (1 of 4)

In the 1970 film ‘Patton’, George C. Scott, who portrays the titular character, clicks his heels and salutes as the bugler sounds off the Third Army call. In multiple camera shots, you see the general coated in numerous awards, decorations, and badges. People have always had a fascination in seeing the brightly colored ribbon bars and see it as a sign of an accomplished veteran. Those awards are kept with them throughout their lifetime, but as well all know, the uncertainties of life can interfere. Things get lost in a move, a natural disaster claims our valuables, or are simply lost to time and never found again. Fortunately, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) provides a valuable service to veterans along with giving them access to their records; requesting their service awards and decorations.

Doris Miller received the Navy Cross for his heroism and courage during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He was the first African-American to be awarded the Navy Cross, the second highest award in the Navy (Photograph of Doris Miller Showing Navy Cross Received in Ceremony at Pearl Harbor, 12/7/1941, General Records of the Department of the Navy, 1804 – 1983, NARA)

The Department of Defense and the Armed Forces have specific criteria on who and what is eligible for receiving a veterans’ awards and because that criteria is so varied and lengthy, this is the first of a four part article on how to request awards from each of the service branches. This post will discuss the research process and determination of awards, decorations, and badges. There are a plethora of private vendors selling decorations, but requesting them through the National Personnel Record Center is a bonafide way of receiving authentic and the correct awards.

Military decorations can be broken down into the following categories:

  1. Personal decorations: awards for gallantry, distinguished service, heroism, commendation, achievements, and meritorious service.
  2. Unit awards: given to all members of a military unit who participated in action within a specific time frame.
  3. Service awards: given to those with exemplary actions and personal achievement during active duty service.
  4. Campaign awards: given those that participated in a designated military action within the duration of a campaign against a hostile enemy force.
  5. Training ribbons: awarded to individuals that excelled in basic training courses and graduated from training schools with honors.
  6. Marksmanship badges: awarded to individuals based on their proficiency with a variety of weapons.

Requesting medals through the National Personnel Records Center ensures that a veteran will receive all medals that they are entitled to, as they could be a recipient of a retroactive award (e.g. service members who served in Korea since 1954 are eligible for the Korea Defense Service Medal, which was established in 2002). Unlike most requests for military records, medals requests are only allowed by the veteran, spouse, and next-of-kin. John Q. Public can’t write in asking for their friend’s Sgt. John Doe’s medals as a surprise birthday gift; it’ll get denied faster than an overdrawn debit card at the liquor store.

Once the request is submitted, NARA technicians research the record by looking at specific documents listing awards; DD Form 214, DA-20, general orders, citations, etc. Additionally, NARA cross-checks the veterans service dates and foreign service against lists of unit awards to see if they’re eligible. These lists break everything down by division, battalion, regiment, and company so reviewing these documents can be time consuming. The payoff though is entirely worth it as the veteran can get every decoration and award they’re entitled to for sure. In those cases when there’s a problem verifying a medal or the veteran claims they were awarded a certain medal, the service branch has the final say in such a matter. When the research is done, the information is submitted to the appropriate service branch for verification. NARA doesn’t manufacture the medals, only supplies the information to the service branch.

Ribbon rack of a U.S. Army veteran who served in Vietnam. From top to bottom, left to right: Silver Star, Soldier’s Medal, Purple Heart, Army Commendation Medal, Army Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal with three bronze stars, Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Unit Palm Citation, Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with 1960 device (created for educational purposes only, not from an OMPF)

Along with the medal ribbons are what are called appurtenances. These are small bronze, silver, or gold shapes affixed on the ribbons to indicate multiple issues of said award or special recognition. These include, but are not limited to the following:

  1. Oak leaf clusters: placed on personal awards like a Purple Heart or Achievement Medal. If a veteran was wounded twice, they receive the Purple Heart and a bronze oak leaf cluster. Bronze clusters indicate one award and silver indicates five awards.
  2. Service stars: indicate the time spent in a campaign in a hostile area. If a veteran served in Iraq or Kuwait between August 1990 and April 1991, they receive two bronze stars on their Southwest Asia Service Medal. Bronze stars indicate one award and silver indicates five awards.
  3. Numerals: similar to the oak leaf cluster, numerals are used to indicate multiple issuance of a specific award.
  4. “V” device: indicate acts of valor during combat. If a veteran acted with valor during combat and was awarded the Bronze Star Medal, they also receive a “V” device.
  5. Loops: indicates multiple issuance of the Good Conduct Medal.
  6. Arrowhead device: awarded to service members who participated in an assault, combat jump, or first amphibious landing.

Ribbon rack of a U.S. Navy veteran that served in the Korean War. From top to bottom, left to right: Combat Action Ribbon, Navy Presidential Unit Citation, Navy Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Korean Service Medal with two bronze service stars, Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation, United Nations Service Medal (created for educational purposes only, not from an OMPF)

Awards aren’t only for gallantry, heroism, and personal achievement, but also for marksmanship abilities. Each service branch uses a system of evaluating a person’s proficiency with a weapon and is given a corresponding badge. There are three commonly used levels; marksman, sharpshooter, and expert. Underneath that is a small bar reflecting the type of weapon with that proficiency level. If a soldier scored high enough marks with an M-16 and .45 pistol, they’d receive that badge and a Rifle and Pistol bar attachments.

U.S. Army marksmanship badges; Expert, Sharpshooter, and Marksman, plus a weapon bar.

Commonly, veterans request their medals for personal usage, such as creating a shadowbox or passing them onto their children or grandchildren. In addition, veterans routinely request their awards upon hearing that they qualify for awards retroactively. This happens when a new award is created by the service branch, DOD, or Congress or eligibility of an existing award is expanded.

Combat Infantryman Badge

A famous example is the issuance of the Bronze Star Medal to World War II veterans. If a veteran received the Combat Infantryman Badge (CIB) while serving a theater of operations during World War II, they are immediately eligible for a Bronze Star Medal. As the World War II generation continues to shrink daily, more and more medals requests like these are becoming commonplace. Another routinely requested award is the Combat Action Ribbon for Navy and Marine Corps service members. The Department of the Navy maintains a strict accounting of every ship and Marine Corps unit that engages in combat and when those ledgers are updated, veterans can apply to see if they’re eligible for the CAR.

This all seems overwhelming, doesn’t it? While the process seems daunting on the surface, the real nitty-gritty occurs with the technicians who need to be 100% accurate in their research. Not just the NARA techs, but the service members who verify and approve the information. All it takes is one mistake or miscommunication to render a veteran’s award application ineligible. This is why it’s so terribly important to be as detailed and truthful through every stage of the medals process.

This has been a basic (and I mean VERY basic) introduction to U.S. military awards and decorations. For more information, you can visit the different heraldry offices for the Armed Forces and read about every award that is currently issued. The next chapter will look exclusively at Army medals, how to request them, and see how they’ve changed through the United States’ involvement in global conflicts.

George C. Scott as General Patton, standing in front the U.S. flag, the iconic image from the 1970 film ‘Patton’