Unbreakable Navajo Marines: WWII Code-Talkers

Do you ever have those moments where you suddenly realize what you have? You’re holding something in your hand or are looking out the window when a House-like epiphany reveals itself and you run to tell someone about the discovery. That exuberant rush of excitement at the realization you’ve got something that others would certainly be impressed with. In the history field, that moment occurs more than one would think especially since it’s in our nature as historians to find what’s been overlooked or connect the missing dots. Suddenly we find it right there; history in our hands. That’s what happened to me again recently (See Entombed But Never Truly Gone)

While responding to the normal queue of requests, a peculiar name appeared on a WWII-era Marine Corps record; ‘Adolph Nagurski’. Interesting name, yeah? German-Japanese? Sino-Polish? Being born in Arizona at the height of the Roaring Twenties, the possibilities are endless. I begin my standard operating procedure of assessing the record, extracting information, and all the rest. That is until I noticed something on the discharge paperwork. The primary occupation specialty was ‘code-talker’. That only meant one thing to me (and to all other WWII history buffs): a Navajo code-talker. Confirmation was swiftly needed to satiate my intellectual curiosity. The service record book was intact and after reviewing the enlistment contract, training courses, overseas deployment, battles, campaign participation, and that crowning moment: ‘Special Skills: Navajo language’. Right there in my hand was the service record of a U.S. Marine Navajo code-talker.

Navajo Indian Code Talkers Peter Nahaidinae Joseph P Gatewood and Corporal Lloyd Oliver, June 1, 1943 (Image Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)

Now there are two versions of the Navajo code-talkers story. You could watch the 2002 film ‘Windtalkers’ and receive a heavily fictionalized accounting where the Navajo Marines are sidelined as secondary characters beneath the shadow of superstar Nicolas Cage. The second version is how Philip Johnston, a civil engineer who once lived on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico, pitched the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps that the Navajo language could be used to encrypt and transmit valuable intelligence throughout the Pacific Theater. Precedence existence for such a project; during WWI, the U.S. enlisted the aid of several Choctaw recruits who spoke their native language to relay radio messages on the Western Front in France (See Little Gun Shoot Fast). The complexity of Navajo grammar combined with its non-written feature made it ideal for transmitting encoded messages. The only drawback however was because of cultural suppression and Anglicization that there were relatively few native speakers of the Navajo language remaining.

First 29 Navajo US Marine Corps CodeTalker Recruits being Sworn in at Fort Wingate NM (Image Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)

By the spring of 1942 as the United States mobilized for war in the Pacific Theater, Marine Corps General Clayton Vogel recommended that Navajo Indians attend signals combat training. The military made a concerted effort to divert as many Native Americans with special language skills into these courses. The first batch of twenty-nine recruits arrived at Camp Pendleton in May 1942. This group paved the way for future code talkers as they developed the system for encoding messages. For weeks they learned how to operate radio equipment, memorize coded messages, survey terrain for enemy positions, and learn how to transmit and receive messages under fire. Each recruit was tested on how many messages they could translate during a firefight. If a recruit could successfully decode a three line message in under twenty seconds, they were ready for the front.

Navajo Indian Code Talkers Henry Bake and George Kirk, January 21, 1943 (Image Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)

As any cryptologist will tell you, having a key to unlock encoded messages is the vital component of any secure communication. The uniqueness of the Navajo language (or any Native American language) was its oral tradition. Nothing in Native American languages are written. There also exists a vast array of dialects and accents within each language tree, creating overlapping layers of complexity. The code talkers utilized the spelling alphabet system designating certain words with letters and improvising when they didn’t exist in the Navajo language. Words like ‘airplane’ ‘torpedo’ and ‘submarine’ had no Navajo counterpart and so the code talkers improvised. A ‘shark’ was a destroyer vessel, ‘silver oak’ was a lieutenant colonel, ‘buzzard’ was a bomber plane, and ‘iron fish’ was a submarine. These are just some examples of the Navajo code that the talkers had to memorize. Codebooks were written to train each group of recruits, but the books wouldn’t be taken into the theater. Enemy codebreakers could potentially decipher the code, but fortunately for the code talkers, small nuances and changes in the dialect and tonal inflection could result in a entirely different translated message. Nearly four hundred Navajo Marines served as code talkers throughout the Pacific. Despite being an indispensable part of American forces, they faced racial prejudices from their fellow Marines. A handful of recorded instances depict them being mistaken for enemy Japanese soldiers; by 1943, code talkers were assigned personal bodyguards. After they reported to their units, code talkers were assigned in pairs. During battle, one operated the radio while the second relayed and received messages in Navajo and then translate them. Many code talkers also performed duties as runners. Their work was especially dangerous in the Pacific as Japanese soldiers deliberately targeted officers, medics, radiomen, and code talkers. Their survival rate was considerably lower when compared to a Marine Corps rifleman, machine gunner, or mortarman.

PFC Carl Gorman of Chinle Arizona an Indian Marine who Manned an Observation Post on a Hill Overlooking the City of Garapan while the Marines were Consolidating their Positions on the Island of Saipan, Marianas, June 27, 1944 (Image Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)

The Navajo code talkers were highly commended for their meritorious service, communications skills, and bravery under fire. They served with distinction in Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. During the Battle of Iwo Jima, Major Howard Connor of the 5th Marine Division credits the Navajo code talkers for being the reason behind the successful invasion of the island. Had they not been able to transmit and receive nearly 1,000 messages from the landings, the outcome could have been far more deadly.

Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would have never taken Iwo Jima.”

Major Howard Connor

As with any military practice involving a degree of secrecy, the Navajo code talkers were prevented from sharing details about their military service from their families or the public. The code talker program was classified from its beginning and remained so until 1968. Its declassification came at the height of the Vietnam War and with anti-war sentiment and public protests demanding more civil rights for Native American tribes, recognition for the code talkers was unfortunately sidelined. Many code talker veterans kept silent about their service. By the 1980s, stories about the code talkers began entering mainstream media as books and documentary interviews with surviving code talkers started to tell their stories. In 2001, the 106th Congress passed H.R. 4527 ‘Honoring the Navajo Code Talkers Act’ which bestowed its highest honor on each of the surviving twenty-nine first recruits; the Congressional Gold Medal. On July 26, 2001, President George W. Bush presented medals to the survivors, honoring them for their achievements and contributions to the U.S. war effort in the Pacific.

PFC Samuel Sandoval of Full Blooded Navajo Indian Extraction Relaxes under the Tori Gate in a Former Jap Park and Surveys the Scenic Beauties of Okinawa Shima, April 14, 1945 (Image Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration,)
President George W Bush Presents Medals to 21 Navajo Code Talkers at the US Capitol (Image Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)

So where does Adolph Nagurski fit into this story? As previously mentioned, the first twenty-nine code talkers weren’t the only ones in the entire war. As more Navajos entered the Marine Corps, their language skills were tested to see if they could perform as a code talker. Adolph Nagurski qualified following his induction in December 1943 in Flagstaff Arizona. He completed basic training in the following spring and in May 1944, he attended the Field Signal School at Camp Pendleton in San Diego, California. The class lasted four weeks where he and fourteen others learned every skill needed for a radio operator and memorizing the Navajo code. In December 1944, Nagurski left California for Guam, then Saipan, and Guadalcanal. On April 1, 1945, he took part in the landings on Okinawa with the 6th Marine Division. He fought on Okinawa for the full duration of the battle; over two months of some of the worst fighting in the entire Pacific war. Thousands of Marines, Army, and enemy troops were killed every week while many more Okinawan civilians were caught in crossfires. When the Japanese finally surrendered in September 1945, Nagurski sailed for China where he witnessed Japanese forces formally surrender at Tsingtao that following October. There he fulfilled occupation duties with the 6th Marine Division for six months until he finally returned to the U.S. in May 1946. He passed away in 2013, but he never received the full honors for his code talker service. A stipulation in the legislation granting the Congressional Gold Medal to the first group of code talkers was that the Congressional Silver Medal was granted to every Navajo code talker who served after the initial recruits. Nagurski was unable to participate in a subsequent ceremony for the silver medal recipients and passed away in 2011 before ever receiving it. The situation came to the attention of Senator Martin Henrich in 2018 when the Nagurski family petitioned to have this oversight resolved. In April 2018, Pvt. Adolph Nagurski was posthumously honored with the Congressional Silver Medal accepted on behalf of his surviving son, Benjamin. In the award speech by Senator Martin, he describes the harsh conditions and battlefield horrors endured by Nagurski and the other code talkers. With their indispensable role as transmitters of important messages and intelligence, the Navajo code talkers made their mark in history. The Navajo code remains unbroken and its secrecy lives now in the memories of those who ran the Pacific gauntlet into victory.

USMC Corporal Adolph Nagurski, Code Talker
(USMC awards for Adolph Nagurski, from left to right, top to bottom: Combat Action Ribbon, Navy Presidential Unit Citation, China Service Medal, American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal w/ bronze service star, World War II Victory Medal)

Reporting on “Dogfaces”: A Review of ‘Brave Men’ by Ernie Pyle

People risk their lives for a number of reasons: it’s in their job description, they’re in a medical crisis, or they’re protecting someone or something important. Without those trials, we wouldn’t come away with a better understanding of who we are or what we’re doing. Bravery sculpts us into stronger people. It also makes us capable of accomplishments we didn’t think possible.

Military life isn’t exactly a safe occupation, especially if your MOS (military occupational specialty) is a combat role. There are non-combatant roles that can, however, place one in the line of fire. War correspondents insert themselves right the heat of battle in order to report what happens to the home front. There was certainly no shortage during the Second World War. Dozens of journalists from publishing and news companies around the world risked life and limb to relay actions and human stories to their readers. Amongst the correspondents and reporters, many point to one man who outranks all others. Someone who defined the role of the common soldier and made him, and not the generals, the true heroes: Ernie Pyle. Covering both the European and Pacific theater until he was killed in action on April 18, 1945 on Ie Shima, his dispatches, interviews, and grassroots style of hometown journalism were highly regarded by service members of every rank. A posthumous Purple Heart was awarded to his family, an extremely rare honor for a civilian. His reporting even directly impacted the lives of service members by reporting on the conduct of the war and the sufferings endured by those who were maimed or traumatized. He knew what they were going through because he traveled right alongside them.

Columnist Ernie Pyle rests on the roadside with a Marine patrol. 1st Marine Division‘ – Ernie Pyle is seated at left with a cigarette and without a helmet (Image Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)

In 1944, following his frontline journey in the Mediterranean and Western Europe, Pyle returned to the U.S. for recovery after spending over two years overseas. Everything he chronicled in hundreds of news columns and dispatches were compiled into a handful of books. One of them, ‘Brave Men‘, published in 1944, highlights the different types of combat roles in the European theater. Pyle spent most of his time with infantry units, but he also saw action with engineers, tanks, artillery, aerial bombers, and naval vessels. Pyle’s well-known folksy style is evident in every snippet. He talks to his interviewees, asks about their civilian lives, their hopes, passions, families, hobbies, and why they’re fighting. He slept on cots in tents, on the ground in foxholes, and could talk his way into any jeep, truck, tank, or boat to wherever the action was. ‘Brave Men‘ isn’t a history book in the academic sense that there’s a thesis, central argument, supporting evidence, and endless citations. The book instead is a chronicle of how soldiers experience war differently. The bombardier and rifleman face different dangers from the truck driver or stevedore. Pyle doesn’t glorify one soldier over another because each have their role in the great enterprise. The soldier is there because he wants to make a difference. His livelihood depends on making a split second decision on whether to adjust the range on a mortar or to round a corner into a dark room. There’s a profound sense of loneliness, but also belonging in military life. Pyle doesn’t make these soldiers out to be supermen, but ordinary guys making their way through an extraordinary situation. They’re from Omaha, Nebraska, Columbus, Ohio, Sacramento, California, Danville, Virginia, and Albuquerque, New Mexico. Thousands of miles from home and willing to battle a tough enemy.

Brave Men‘, despite its age, retains great relevance with our contemporaries. The stories of many of those Pyle interviewed resonant with U.S. servicemen and women today. They learn to deal with impossible situations through their own coping mechanisms. Soldiers also explore ways to remind themselves of home and why they’re serving. Pyle’s brand of journalism kept millions of people grounded to the war effort and taught them just how important their bravery was in such a cataclysmic time. He landed with the thousands who stormed the Normandy beaches on D-Day and captured the historic moment with his eloquence:

The best way I can describe this vast armada and the frantic urgency of the traffic is to suggest that you visualize New York city on its busiest day of the year and then just enlarge that scene until it takes in all the ocean the human eye can reach clear around the horizon and over the horizon. There are dozens of times that many.

Ernie Pyle – June 6, 1944

‘Brave Men’ is highly recommended for those who want to read about the Second World War, but from a grassroots perspective. We can always check out books examining the war’s causes, political backgrounds, economic impacts, military technology, and many other topical intersections, but this looks at it from those who are fighting the war itself. Everything metaphysical and intangible as geopolitics are far removed from the soldier who’s trying to make it out alive from this foxhole on the Western Front. That was Ernie Pyle’s war.

Some day I’d like to cover a war in a country as ugly as war itself.

-Ernie Pyle, 1944
This is a photo of Ernie Pyle, famous war correspondent. Fifth Army, Anzio Beachhead area, Italy. 163rd Signal Photo Co. (Image Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)

Entombed, But Never Truly Gone: The USS Oklahoma

One of the great perks of my job with the National Personnel Records Center is working with records for those who took part in major historical events. Earlier at the office, I received a request for records on a World War II U.S. Navy veteran. Pretty standard operating procedure for me since they are a routine request. While glancing at the veteran’s information, I paused: Date of Death – 12/7/1941. A Navy veteran dying on December 7th? My mind instantly assumed this veteran was killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor. I cracked open the ‘brick’ [named for the small brown service jacket holding the documents] and slowly absorbed the mountain of historical information. My assumption was proved correct as I found several Naval speed letters and telegrams from the War Department informing the family that he had been killed in the attack. At least that was the assumption in 1941 since he last duty station was the battleship USS Oklahoma. The family didn’t receive official confirmation until February 1942 as he was still unaccounted for after three months. He was one among the nearly four hundred unidentified sailors recovered from the ship. His fate was not uncommon with many Pearl Harbor casualties, especially if they were trapped inside vessels. Between December 1941 and June 1944, the Navy recovered hundreds of remains from the USS Oklahoma and other ships and interred them in Hawaii. Colleagues came by my desk looking at the record and were astonished at the story. The veteran re-enlisted on the USS Oklahoma in 1940 where it was moored on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor. What a twist of fate for him and hundreds more as they were the first target in the infamous attack. On top of asking for his service record, they requested all his awards as well, which were many given any veteran who died at Pearl Harbor automatically qualifies for several awards, including the Pearl Harbor Commemorative Medal. You receive a unique sense of satisfaction when handling something like this. It’s hard to describe; intrigue, humility, astonishment, sadness? Me personally, it’s all the above.

“Sailors mill about on the rolling deck of USS Oklahoma during heavy seas” (Image courtesy of the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command and the USS Oklahoma Association)

The story of the USS Oklahoma begins on October 26, 1912 when the keel was laid down in Camden, New Jersey. It was the first of a new class of battleships, coded Nevada-class. It was quickly pressed into service following its commission on May 2, 1916 as World War I ravaged Europe. At first it patrolled the Eastern Seaboard, but in August 1918, it joined Battleship Division Six in protecting shipping convoys across the Atlantic. The USS Oklahoma never saw combat action in the Atlantic; the only casualties were six sailors who died from the Spanish flu pandemic. Between 1918 and 1941, the USS Oklahoma jumped from training exercises, remodeling, and state visits in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. During the Spanish Civil War in 1936, it evacuated stranded U.S. and European refugees off the coast of Bilbao in northern Spain. A series of structural and engineering accidents in the late 1930s brought it to Pearl Harbor where it would remain permanently moored until all upgrades and repairs were made. By then though, the decision was made the retire the battleship by the spring of 1942.

The U.S. Navy battleship USS Oklahoma (BB-37) passing Alcatraz prison, San Francisco Bay, California (USA), during the 1930s (Image courtesy of the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command)

The USS Oklahoma was one of eight battleships hit during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Torpedo bombers from the Japanese aircraft carriers Akagi and Kaga hit the ship three times, almost rupturing the hull. Sailors scrambled to the main decks to return fire, but ammunition was locked in the armory. Boiler rooms and the aft bulkhead were then destroyed. This resulted in the ship capsizing. Two more torpedoes hit the ship as it continued to sink into the harbor. The ship’s large masts prevented it from completely exposing the keel. As the attack progressed, hundreds of sailors desperately tried to escape the capsizing ship. Sailors and officers like John C. England, James R. Ward, and Francis C. Flaherty helped get men to safety at the expense of their lives from the USS Oklahoma. They were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor with the exception of England who only received a Purple Heart. Another sailor, John A. Austin received a posthumous Navy Cross for his actions rescuing fifteen sailors. While reading the story of the USS Oklahoma, I’m trying to picture the veteran whose record I read struggling to survive and make it off the sinking battleship. What was going through his mind we’ll never know, but he probably offered up a sundry of prayers and let his survival instincts take over as the sounds of explosions and the buzz of warplanes was deafening. A fire broke out from the boiler rooms and engulfed the ship’s stern undoubtedly killing more sailors.

Fast forward months later, the clean-up of Pearl Harbor was still in progress. Navy officials determined that the USS Oklahoma was salvageable and began work in July 1942. The capsized ship was a navigational hazard and it required twenty-one derricks to parbuckle the ship and through it all a Navy crew was tasked with pulling out human remains. Many of the bodies decomposed after months in saltwater and were unidentifiable based on forensic techniques at the time. The unidentified bodies were turned over to the American Graves Registration Service and buried in Hawaii. By November 1942, basic repairs to the hull were completed and its armaments and guns were removed. in September 1944, the decision was made to de-commission the USS Oklahoma and in 1946, the hull was sold at auction to the Moore Drydock Company in California. It was here that the ultimate fate of the battleship came to fruition. A storm on May 17, 1947 finally sank the USS Oklahoma as it was being tugged from Hawaii to California. The wreck has not been located and the USS Oklahoma remains lost to this day. The crew that served on the ship though are not lost to time and their remains continue to be identified.

Salvage operations, USS Oklahoma (BB-37), sunk during the Pearl Harbor attack. A piece of structural wreckage, cut away by divers at about frame #70 port side, is hoisted out of the water (Image courtesy of the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command)

Ever since the end of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the federal government has carried out numerous programs aimed at identifying the missing and dead servicemembers. In the nine years since Pearl Harbor, only a few dozen sailors from the USS Oklahoma were positively identified. The remaining were interred in unmarked graves at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. In 2015, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency began utilizing DNA analysis to identify the unknown remains. By the time the program ended in September 2021, 396 sailors and Marines were positively identified from the USS Oklahoma, with the remaining reinterred in Hawaii. Programs such as this help to not only bring closure to families who lost someone in the attack, but to honor those who died in the the country’s momentous entry into the Second World War. Some are lost forever, but their memories are kept alive by the historical research and forensic work carried out by the Armed Forces, historians, and survivors’ families.

For the sailor whose record landed on my desk, Fireman 1st Class Andrew Schmitz was accounted for on September 18, 2019 and returned home to Amelia Court House, Virginia.

U.S. Navy Fireman 1st Class, Andrew Schmitz (Image courtesy of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency)

Reporting from Vietnam: A Review of ‘The Uncensored War: The Media and Vietnam’ by Daniel Hallin

News reports can sometimes be the most depressing things we see and hear on a daily basis. So much information is pumped out and consumed by the general public. The advent of social media and constant sharing of facts and misinformation has made communication among the people a harsh landscape. Stories and images shape our perception of the world and its people so we must be careful of what we internalize. Fifty years ago, news stories that occupied major time blocks prominently featured the Vietnam War. Given the divisiveness of the Vietnam War, many have argued that media and news outlets played a prominent role in the United States’ negative outcome. The high amount of reporting on stalemates, low troop morale, and coverage of the anti-war movement fostered conditions where the American public killed any support and led to the collapse of South Vietnam. This attitude amongst historians, journalists, and veterans has altered over the years, but there will likely never be a definitive answer. One historian, Daniel Hallin, made it the point of his dissertation-turned-book ‘The Uncensored War’ to analyze the finer details of news media coverage on the Vietnam War. This includes not only social and political investigation, but down to the minute analysis of news metrics.

Walter Cronkite in the city of Hue during the Tet Offensive. Cronkite’s reporting on the Vietnam War was followed by millions of Americans and many believed his statements following the Tet Offensive impacted American morale on the war (Image courtesy of the U.S. Army)

The point of this review is not to confirm or deny the role of the U.S. media in the Vietnam War, but to look at how journalists and news anchors walk a fine line between reporting events and the interpretation as such. Hallin’s book demarcates into two sections; newsprint and television. In each section he emphasizes the conduct by U.S. Presidents, State and Defense Department sources, and military field commanders on controlling the narrative on unfolding events. The progression of the Cold War created two sources of information for reporters; the official press releases from the White House, and leaked sources that commonly ran contrary to the approved narrative. Bitter behind the scenes debates amongst multiple White House administrations had a tremendous impact on how news reports were presented. According to Hallin, from as early as 1963, the reporting began to have a polarizing effect on U.S. domestic readers. A polarization that would eventually lead to the U.S. leaving South Vietnam in 1975. The press corps in Saigon was another realm entirely. South Vietnam’s Diem regime was routinely the subject of news coverage and often framed in the context of the Cold War. A lone country supported by the U.S. against the Communist onslaught. Despite such images, stories about the regime’s reluctance to fair, democratic representation began to overshadow its role in geopolitics. Hallin doesn’t dissuade from this notion and in fact, places it as a crucial factor in shaping how the country’s perception of South Vietnam gradually changed over the years. Looking at the war from a socio-political lens is crucial when discussing the impact of the news media because as coverage changes, so does public support and sentiment towards the government. Perhaps this is why many have referred to the press as the unofficial fourth branch of government.

CBS reporter Morley Safer delivered multiple stories on South Vietnam, the most notable of which was on the village of Cam Ne showing the burning of homes and attempted to show more realistic depiction of what was happening in Southeast Asia. Many in the U.S. military did not condone with his approach (Image courtesy of CBS)

Hallin’s examination of media metrics puts factual data behind many of his arguments in ‘The Uncensored War‘. The models show changes on reporting methods and news content typically around election years or dramatic in-country events in South Vietnam. The classic example is the Tet Offensive in January 1968 when thousands of NLF and PAVN troops attacked U.S. and RVN installations throughout South Vietnam. As news of the Tet Offensive was released, more and more media outlets and journalists began questioning official sources and obtaining information themselves. The depiction of South Vietnamese government were also increasingly depicted in a negative light, which Hallin can attribute to which news organization leaned towards politically. Hallin goes to great lengths obtaining such data and while it would be foolish to recount every detail in a short review, the summary is that a clear trend emerges when the United States began openly questioning its resolve in Southeast Asia. This goes without saying that the Pentagon Papers had their own impact on journalism during the Vietnam War. Hallin doesn’t spend an enormous amount of time covering the Pentagon Papers, but its relative absence is telling in its own right because Hallin shows that optimistic reporting on the war was already declining by then.

‘The Uncensored War’ has its own particular charms if one enjoys reading statistics combined with succinct historical narrative. Are other Vietnam War history books engaging on an emotional level? Yes, there are, but as the war was measured by statistics, we can’t help but analyze it in such a capacity. Whether that’s counting the number of news reports with positive spins on South Vietnam or dodging the issue of escalation, Hallin’s research shows how powerful journalism can be on how we learn about our world. Without it, democracies cannot exist and certainly wars cannot be fought without purpose.

Opinion: Why I Love Wilson’s Creek Battlefield

Yesterday as I perused my Twitter feed (@Hoghighlander for those who want to follow for more great history content!), the anniversary of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek was trending. Many of the historians, bloggers, and podcasters I follow were posting about the battle, outcomes, significance in the American Civil War, and the central character that died while leading the Union Army, Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon. Some Civil War historians have overlooked this small battle (small from a military statistics perspective when compared to Gettysburg, Chancellorsville, Chickamauga, Stones River, and others). However, the significance lies more with the impact it has on the Midwest and the Trans-Mississippi Theater. Missouri was precariously situated between free and slave state supporters and there was a race to tip the balance and solidly secure the state. On August 10, 1861, Confederate soldiers from Arkansas, Louisiana, and the Missouri State Guard (pro-Confederate Missouri soldiers) commanded by Sterling Price and Benjamin McCullough were attacked by a smaller Union army led by Nathaniel Lyon and Franz Sigel. The fierce fighting carried on for eight hours, but early on, a bullet ripped through Lyon’s chest, killing him almost instantly. By 4:00 pm, Union forces pulled from the battlefield and left the nearby town of Springfield to the Confederate army. However, due to the losses the Confederate army suffered at Wilson’s Creek, Price and McCullough were split on how to proceed. Price wanted to pursue the Union further north, but McCullough wanted to remain close to Arkansas to maintain supply lines. Springfield would occasionally shift allegiance, but Lyon’s determined stand would later cement Missouri for the Union.

This post isn’t about the battle itself (for a great discussion on the background, action, and aftermath of Wilson’s Creek, listen to this wonderful podcast from the Civil War Breakfast Club: Battle of Wilson’s Creek-CWBC. Instead I wanted to explain why I love visiting this battlefield, now a National Park. The park was created in 1960 with a small visitors center and some museum displays. While the park only preserves 1,750 acres, there’s a lot of natural and historic beauty in those acres. I was born in Springfield, Missouri, less than 15 miles from the battlefield and it was one of the first national parks I ever visited as a child. My fiery history passion was stoked by frequent visits, gift shop coloring books, re-enactments, and moonlight tours where actors portrayed various personalities in the battle’s aftermath. It didn’t dawn on me until high school that the actor playing the Union chaplain was my high school history teacher, Mr. Elkins, who works part-time for the National Park Service (lucky dog).

Split rail fencing is a common sight at Wilson’s Creek Battlefield. Many volunteers and park employees have painstakingly recreated the fences as they would have appeared back in 1861.

The museum underwent some amazing updates recently; new exhibits, historical items, an upgraded fiber optic map of the battle (that was my favorite attraction as a kid and it still is today), and an expanded Civil War research library. Anyone who wants to research the Trans-Mississippi Theater and the war in Missouri must find visit this library and take advantage of all the resources it offers. Upon passing through the gate, you come up to the first Confederate encampment and the small farm buildings run by the Sharps and Rays who were the local families when the battle broke out. The stunning rolling hills of corn and wheat are quite a sight in the fall. As a kid, I often imagined the two sides thrashing one another, even when I came to see historical re-enactments. The billowing smoke and bayonets shining in the hot August sun, it’s hard to forget such an impression.

The park may be small, but damn is it chock full of amazing things.

The Ray House is only original building on the battlefield featuring much of what would have been in the house. In fact the bed frame in there now is the same that was used to lay out General Lyon’s body. The house was used as a field hospital treating both Union and Confederate troops, and during the fight, the family hid in an underground cellar. The house is a popular place for tours and is the centerpiece of their moonlight tours. When you walk through there and see people in period dress, bloody rags laying everywhere and screaming men trying desperately to get rid of the pain, you feel as if you were right there in the thick of it. You’re transported back to that warm humid evening of August 10, 1861.

The Ray House is meticulously maintained to preserve its original condition. There are some modern features like climate control to preserve the artifacts, but visitors can see what the house was like during the Civil War.

What really draws me to Wilson’s Creek are the vast ranges of fields and forests that look so well maintained. Underneath it all is a bloody historical narrative though. Missouri witnessed intensely savage fighting during the war years with bands of roaming guerrillas and bushwackers slashing each other. The social and political divisions here ripped families apart and vendettas scarred relationships for decades after. To be a farmer in Missouri back then was an almost riskier occupation than a Union or Confederate soldier; you didn’t know if you would die today or by who’s hand.

Finally, as you wind around the one-way roads, you make your way up steep elevation. Whenever I rode my bike, this was a struggle and ended up with me dismounting and just pushing the bike up the hill. But to the Civil War aficionado, this is the climax of visiting Wilson’s Creek; Bloody Hill. The bulk of Lyon’s army was situated on the hill controlling the high ground. They repelled four separate Confederate assaults and artillery pounded on their positions, trying to dislodge the Union from their position. Lyon himself led one charge which cost him his life unfortunately. Today a concrete marker stands in the spot where veterans say his fell.

The Lyon Marker sits at the bottom of Bloody Hill. While it’s quite a hike to get there, you can’t help but experience the transcendental feeling of being where men died and their remains could quite possibly be right under your feet.

Every few years, park employees or visitors find artifacts in the battlefield grounds. Stories are still popping up about who had ancestors that fought or died at the battle. In a recent discovery, I learned that my 5x great-grandfather Presley Beal was responsible for building a makeshift coffin for General Lyon in order to transport his body back to its final resting place in Connecticut. Who would have known? My Wilson’s Creek connection just got stronger. Even now that I live in St. Louis, I still try to visit the battlefield whenever possible. The draw is undeniable. The scenery is beautiful, the history is rich, and the people who keep it open for public enjoyment are the most endearing and educated history keepers I know. Wilson’s Creek will always hold a special place in my heart as I continue to travel the country seeing historic places. No matter how far I go, I’ll always know right where to come back; to a small, winding creek in southwest Missouri where the birds sing, the wheat shines, and the soil gives up the dead and tells a story of our nation’s struggle and reconstruction.

For more information about the battlefield and park, visit the NPS website: Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield

Protecting the Tiger: The Korea Defense Service Medal

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.

Lieutenant General William Harrison and General Nam Il signing the armistice at Panmunjom. ROK President Rhee refused to sign the armistice and no formal treaty has been ratified between the two nations (Image courtesy of Department of Defense)

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 Korea Defense Service Medal (KDSM). Only one medal is issued no matter how long; no oak leaves, service stars, or other appurtenances are authorized

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.

Contact and Brawls: The Combat Action Ribbon

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 Navy and Marine Corps Combat Action Ribbon

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.

The Coast Guard Combat Action Ribbon

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.

Marine Corporal Eugene Sledge participated in some of the deadliest combat in the Pacific Theater of WWII, including Peleliu and Okinawa. The ribbons shown in above picture are before the creation of the CAR.
Marine Corporal Eugene Sledge’s ribbons with all retroactive awards showing, including the CAR first in the order of precedence.

Efficiency, Honor, Fidelity: The Good Conduct Medal

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.

Good Conduct Medal from each service branch. Left to right; Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard

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’).

Navy Good Conduct Medal, circa 1886 (Image courtesy of the Naval History and Heritage Command)

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.

Elvis Presley returning to the US after serving three years in the Army. He received the Good Conduct Medal (wearing the appropriate ribbon in the above picture) along with a handful of weapon qualification badges, circa 1960 (Image Courtesy of the Graceland Archives)

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.

‘Unternehmen Walküre’: Killing Hitler (Almost)

“This is General Olbricht, calling on behalf of General Fromm, commander of the Reserve Army. The Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, is dead. A group of radicals in the SS are attempting to seize control of the government. Initiate Operation Valkyrie.”

Bill Nighy delivered that line as General Friedrich Olbricht, one of the participants in the famous July 20 plot intended to assassinate Adolf Hitler, arrest members of his inner circle, and negotiate an armistice with the Allies. The bomb failed to eliminate their intended targets and the plotters were quickly arrested and executed. For a brief moment though, men like Claus von Stauffenberg, Ludwig Beck, Friedrich Fromm, Werner von Haeften, Henning von Tresckow, Carl Goerdeler, and Erwin von Witzleben believed that they had incapacitated the Nazis and rescued Germany.

Adolf Hitler, the target of over twenty assassination attempts since 1934. With every escape from death, his hubris and ego grew to mammoth proportions (Image courtesy of the German Federal Archives)

Popularized in the 2008 film, Valkyrie, the July 20 plot became the most famous assassination attempt against Hitler, who by than had avoided death more than a dozen times. Members of the German Resistance were comprised of senior political, military, and private sector businessmen who lost faith that Germany could prevail against the Allies. U.S., British, and Canadian forces were in the midst of liberating France and renewed offensives by the Soviet Union on the Eastern Front placed Germany in an untenable position. In the early summer of 1944, after a failed bomb assassination, a new plan was put forward to resistance leaders.

Colonel Henning von Tresckow, a July 20 plotter, tried detonating a bomb on Hitler’s plane in 1943, but it failed. He later rewrote the Valkyrie plan to meet the plotters goals of removing the Nazi government (Image courtesy of the German Federal Archives)

The German Reserve Army (or Replacement Army) retained operational plans for maintaining law and order during a national emergency. Codenamed ‘Operation Valkyrie’, General Olbricht believed that it was possible to retool the plan to use the Replacement Army if a coup d’état were to erupt. Resistance members recruited the commander of the Replacement Army, Friedrich Fromm, who agreed to keep silent in exchange for a senior position in the new regime. Colonel Henning von Tresckow (who tried to kill Hitler in 1943) drafted a new copy of the Valkyrie plan and distributed it to various Nazi installations across Europe over a period of several weeks. The new draft required seizing communication hubs, government offices, and concentration camp offices so as to quickly secure German infrastructure.

But how to kill Hitler himself? There had been twenty-one attempts, including shooting, stabbing, bombing, and even poisoning (allegedly Hitler’s vegetarian diet spared him that fate). The answer came with Colonel Stauffenberg’s appointment as Chief-of-Staff of the Replacement Army. This granted him access to Hitler’s advisors and itinerary, which was manna from heaven to the Resistance. Armed with the knowledge of Hitler’s moving location and retinue, they could decide the method for killing Hitler. Two bombs armed with chemically timed pencil detonators inside a leather briefcase was the best option. The bomb would detonate inside a concrete bunker at the Wolf’s Lair complex in East Prussia and the resulting concussive blasts would instantly kill anyone in the room. Stauffenberg’s job required him to attend military briefings and so he volunteered to deliver the bombs.

Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg before sustaining injuries and receiving his signature eye patch (Image courtesy of the German Federal Archives)

The planners originally chose July 11 to carry out their mission, but there was a hiccup. Resistance members understood that if only Hitler was killed, he would be replaced by a close associate like Himmler or Goering. Ultimately the plan was aborted because Himmler wasn’t present at the briefing. A second attempt occurred on July 15 since Himmler and Goering were in attendance, but Hitler was called out for another meeting and Stauffenberg hastily removed the detonator from the bombs. Simultaneously as the Resistance carried out their plans, the Gestapo were investigating the alleged plotters and many concluded that some assassination attempt was in the works. Stauffenberg, Beck, Tresckow, Olbricht, and others resigned themselves to the fact that even if Hitler miraculously survived, they needed to complete the second half of their plot of seizing control of the German government. Failure meant facing the firing squad.

July 20, 1944: Stauffenberg and his adjutant, Lieutenant Werner von Haeften, arrived at the Wolf’s Lair and under the pretense of using a washroom, the two armed the bombs and walked to the briefing. A last minute change occurred when the meeting was moved from the concrete bunker to a wooden cabin with large windows: it was an especially hot and humid day. Stauffenberg placed the bomb as close as possible to Hitler and left the room quickly thereafter under the pretense of a phone call. At 12:42 PM, an explosion ripped through the cabin, shattering windows, ripping off doors, and splintering rafters. Believing Hitler was dead, Stauffenberg and von Haeften sped away from the Lair and flew back to Berlin where plotters received the flash: “HITLER IS DEAD.”

Hermann Goering and Martin Bormann inspect damages following the bomb blast

Hitler wasn’t dead. General Fellgiebel, another plotter present at the Wolf’s Lair, saw Hitler and informed other members, but when Stauffenberg arrived in Berlin, he maintained the Hitler was still dead. At 4:00 PM, Operation Valkyrie was initiated and the Replacement Army quickly went to work arresting ‘conspirators’ in the Nazi Party and Wehrmacht. As the plot continued though, news of Hitler’s survival began undermining the plan. Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel deduced that Stauffenberg planted the bomb and orders for his and others arrests went out.

At around 7:00 PM, Hitler recovered enough from his mild injuries to begin making phone calls to Berlin. Members of the coup who wavered in their support for the Resistance shifted sides after hearing of Hitler’s survival. The coup quickly disintegrated and the plotters were ordered to be taken alive. In an attempt to prove loyalty, General held an impromptu court-martial and pronounced death sentences to all the conspirators. They were escorted to the courtyard of the Bendlerblock (administrative offices for the War Ministry), lined up, and shot to death.

Conspirators for the July 20 Plot appear before Nazi German judge Roland Freisler. Conspirators stand as their names are called out. German officers and other people seated. Judge Roland Freisler seems more intent on intimidating and chastising the accused, than eliciting testimony.

In the weeks and months following the July 20 plot, dozens more conspirators were identified, admonished before kangaroo courts and summarily executed. It was the last assassination attempt against Hitler, but after World War II, it became the most famous attempt of them all since it came the closest to possibly ending the war. In those six hours on July 20, the Resistance had their chance of stopping the most savage fighting in all of Europe. They made the most of those hours before facing the gallows. Stauffenberg and his fellow conspirators became heroes in postwar world and their actions were later recognized by the German government in 1980 with the Memorial to the German Resistance. A plaque hangs above the spot where the plotters were executed, displaying a four solemn lines attributing to their cause:

You did not bear the shame.

You resisted.

You bestowed the eternally vigilant signal to turn back

by sacrificing your impassioned lives for freedom, justice and honour.

American Pallas Athene: The Women’s Army Corps Service Medal

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.

The Women’s Army Corps Service Medal

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.