Persons of Exceptional Prominence: Celebrities in the Military

How would you react after discovering someone you served alongside with in the armed forces became a famous celebrity? Maybe a senator, writer, astronaut, or actor? That would be quite a story to say, ‘I served with John Glenn in the Marines’ or ‘I knew Isaac Asimov when he was in the Army.’ How amazing would it be to make that claim?

World Heavyweight champ Joe Louis (Barrow) sews on the stripes of a technical sergeant—to which he has been promoted (Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the Office of War Information, 1926 – 1951) View Joe Louis’ OMPF in the NARA Catalog.

The U.S. Armed Forces attracts people from all walks of life. Many took career direction during their service. Some even put aside their professional careers to enlist in the armed forces. When a veteran achieves some type of public notoriety, their service record becomes the subject of special interest. The National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) retains the Official Military Personnel Files (OMPF) for individuals labeled ‘Persons of Exceptional Prominence’ (PEP). This simply means that well-known public figures, i.e. politicians, scientists, celebrities, etc., have their records open to the public. Anyone can view these documents after following specific guidelines. You won’t see the original record due to preservation and security reasons, but the archival staff does reproduce the record.

Records for Persons of Exceptional Prominence are classified are Specially Protected Holdings (SPH). This constitutes an additional layer of security due to either the nature of work they did or the notoriety the attained in private life. Their military record becomes valuable and in order to prevent theft or vandalism, PEPs and SPHs receive distinguished protection.

Persons of Exceptional Prominence can also be exempt from some of the archival rules with the NPRC. When a service member has been separated from the military for 62 year from the date of final discharge, their record is categorized as archival. This means that now their service is public record and anyone can view it. This rule applies to all personnel records, not just PEPs. For example, you can request a complete copy of George S. Patton’s WWII service record, but not David Petraeus’ record; he was fully discharged in 2011. You could request a complete copy of Desi Arnaz’s service record (Ricky Ricardo of ‘I Love Lucy‘) but not MC Hammer’s service record since he was discharged in 1983 (Yes, the rapper and pioneer of hammer pants is a U.S. Navy veteran).

Identification photo of Bea Arthur. Before she was a ‘Golden Girl’ she was a staff sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps Women’s Reserve in World War II. View Bea Arthur’s OMPF in the NARA Catalog

Some records are more accessible than others. The National Archives manages a number of digitization projects. Scanning all types of records and documents are a priority for the agency. OMPFs for a select few personalities are fully digital and available for online viewing. A full listing is posted on the NARA website, but here is a snapshot of PEP service records that are fully digitized:

  • Charles Addams (Cartoonist, creator of ‘The Addams Family‘)
  • Spiro Agnew (U.S. Vice President and Governor of Maryland)
  • Alvin York (World War I Medal of Honor Recipient)
  • Maxwell Taylor (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Ambassador to South Vietnam)
  • Ruth Streeter (U.S. Marine Corps Women’s Reserve Director)
  • John Philip Sousa (Musician and composer of American military marches)
  • Margaret Chase Smith (U.S. Representative and Senator from Maine; joined service while serving in Congress)
  • Francis Scobee (U.S. Air Force colonel and astronaut; died in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster)
  • Theodore Roosevelt Jr. (Assistant Secretary of the Navy, son of President Theodore Roosevelt)
  • Lafayette Ron Hubbard (Science fiction writer and founder of Scientology)
  • Jackie Robinson (Professional athlete, first black baseball player to play for Major League Baseball)
  • Ernie Pyle (Journalist and war correspondent; killed in action during the Battle of Okinawa)
  • Josephine Bowman (Superintendent of the U.S. Navy Nurses Corps)
  • Robert Peary (Artic explorer who reached the North Pole)
  • John Dillinger (infamous bank robber and Public Enemy No. 1 during the Great Depression)

OMPFs for PEPs contain all the same information as any other personnel records. Enlistment contracts, training documents, transfers, disciplinary actions, citations, and more are held in said files. For more information on how to view PEPs, visit the National Archives website; Persons of Exceptional Prominence.

Brigadier General James Stewart. After going to Washington as Mr. Smith, Jimmy Stewart enlisted in the Army Air Force, served with distinction in Europe during World War II, and retired at the rank of brigadier general in 1968 (Image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force)

Eternal Remembrance: National Cemeteries for the U.S. Armed Forces

A calm breeze carries through wide, green, rolling hills. Blades of grass slightly bend as the fallen leaves rustle about on the ground. A handful swirl about, settling against a granite headstone and obscuring the epitaph. The words read: ‘Unknown – U.S. Soldier’ stamped in the shield relief. Stepping back from the marker, what comes into view is an entire field of unknown soldiers. They are not alone however. They are in the company of others who served honorably in the armed forces.

Unknown Soldier – this epitaph is used to denote service members who could not be properly identified after their death. The most notable use of the title is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery

The United States has an elaborate burial system for veterans and their families. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), National Cemetery System, Arlington National Cemetery, the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmens’ Cemetery, the American Battle Monuments Commission, and various cemeteries under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service all comprise the different methods for interring deceased service members. During the American Civil War as private cemeteries were unable to accommodate the increasing number of Union dead, Congress passed legislation authorizing the creation of national cemeteries. Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs, who lost his son Lt. John Meigs, was pivotal in choosing locations. What resulted was arguably the most famous cemetery in the world. Robert E. Lee’s home, Arlington House, was occupied by the Union within weeks of the war’s opening. Generals used the mansion as a headquarters for three years and in June 1864, Meigs ordered the burial of soldiers in the Arlington grounds. Meigs heavily resented Lee joining the Confederacy and historians argue there were political motivations for establishing a cemetery on his property. Union soldiers were buried and monuments were erected in later years, rendering the mansion unlivable. The government originally purchased the land in an estate sale due to delinquent property taxes, but the Lee family argued that the tax sale was improper. In the 1882 Supreme Court case, United States vs. Lee, the court ruled in favor of the Lees and returned the grounds. The victory was short-lived however since the family never occupied the house again and sold the property back to the government for a large sum. Today, Arlington National Cemetery is maintained solely by the U.S. Army, along with the Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Cemetery.

Veterans and their spouses are entitled to be buried in a national cemetery. Depending on the current regulations, spouses can choose to have a separate headstone or have their epitaph etched on the rear of the veteran’s marker.

Following both world wars, the VA worked diligently to implement an administrative system that oversaw the maintenance of military cemeteries. In 1973, administration of military cemeteries passed from the Department of Defense to the VA and they established the National Cemetery System. The NCS comprises of 147 military cemeteries, with 131 under the jurisdiction of the Veterans Administration. Another 14 of these are controlled by the National Park Service (the majority of which are battlefields). While the most famous is Arlington; Jefferson Barracks, Fayetteville, Fort Leavenworth, Quantico, and the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific all protect the remains of our deceased veterans. Veterans can interred at any active location (active defined as functioning and eligible for burials meeting environmental standards). Sites under the jurisdiction of the NPS are typically connected to Revolutionary War, Civil War, and Indian War battlefields and are preserved for historical purposes. These include ones like Gettysburg, Andersonville, Little Bighorn, and Yorktown. Modern veterans are not buried at these sites dues to environmental damage that affected any historical preservation efforts.

The above marker is the current style for military interments. Older headstones that have fallen into disrepair or destroyed by vandalism are replaced with this design.

U.S. service members are buried not only in the continental U.S., but overseas as well. The American Battle Monuments Commission administers and operates military cemeteries in countries like France, Belgium, Philippines, Italy, Luxembourg, and Panama. This independent government agency is responsible for maintaining overseas cemeteries and their activities such as wreath, remembrance, and memorial ceremonies. A handful were established as temporary cemeteries during wartime (i.e. Normandy), but many were converted into permanent locations through partnerships with the host country. The AMBC administers these sites, but the physical territory remains under the jurisdiction of the host country.

A military marker is simplistic and straightforward in design and function. The Department of Veterans Affairs confirms the name, date of birth, date of death, final rank at discharge, service branch, wartime service period, and personal awards. A religious designation symbol is placed at the top (if space allows, a personal description is allowed at the family’s request)

So how does a veteran become eligible for burial in a military cemetery? The basic criteria stipulates that a veteran must not have received a bad character of service discharge and provide the required paperwork (DD Form 214, Notice of Separation). A veteran who is killed while on active duty, especially in combat, are guaranteed a burial. National Guard and Reserve members must meet time-specific requirements or been mobilized at any point. What disqualifies a veteran from a military burial would be any of the following:

  1. Other than honorable discharge and lower; i.e. bad conduct or dishonorable.
  2. Convicted of capital crimes (murder, rape, child pornography, terrorism, etc.)
  3. Convicted of sex crimes
  4. Engaged in subversive activities against the United States
  5. Enlisted but never served (referred to as an Uncharacterized Entry Level Separation)

For more information on military burials, visit the VA Burials and Memorials Page.

These cemeteries are solemn, sacred places. Their symbolic value lies in with the soldiers who died serving the nation and are remembered for their deeds. As President Abraham Lincoln stated in his Gettysburg Address:

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”

These cemeteries and the memorials built to honor the past and living memory of the deceased and the conflicts are in many ways immortal. People can come and go, but the names are etched, stamped, and emblazoned for eternity in hallowed grounds around the world.

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!

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.


The Spirit of Woman Power in WWI

‘The Spirit of Woman Power’

Every war has its battlefields; air, land, and sea (and space if it’s science fiction). Soldiers and sailors clash arms as armies and navies combat to seize the opportunity and win the day. Behind the front lines though, there’s another battlefield. Another less bloody, but equally critical to the military. The home front provides its nation’s military with every demand it makes. Essential resources, armaments, factory workers, and societal support can make or break an army. The Great War tested the economies of nearly every country on the globe and in the United States, a specific group dedicated itself to supporting the home front effort in every facet of the definition. Women’s committees were the backbone of local, regional, and national defense programs through their grassroots networking, training, overall production, and collaboration with federal agencies. A premiere group of specialized workers, the Women’s Committee on the Council on National Defense oversaw a multitude of defense projects during the war. The home front directed factory production, agricultural sustainability, and local community energies to the war effort in World War I.

British and French women undertaking heavy war work (Correspondence and Data of the Women’s Central Committee on Food Conservation, 1917 – 1918
Record Group 4: Records of the U.S. Food Administration, 1917 – 1920, National Archives and Records Administration)

Before the United States intervened in Europe, programs aimed at raising funds and providing goods for the Allied powers were in practice. Aid packages to Britain and France were common and provided essential resources such as food and fuel. By 1917, the U.S. became increasingly involved overseas, culminating in its war declaration in April 1917. Local and regional energies and dozens of civilian and government committees were formed to contribute to the war effort. This was done not only to compensate for any manufacturing shortfalls, but to bind the country in a common goal. Communities saw it as a point of patriotic pride by ingratiating themselves with home front activities. The Women’s Land Army of America placed thousands of volunteers on farms and ranches to compensate for the loss of labor. Thousands volunteered for the Red Cross and the Women’s Committee, whose primary goal was registering member’s skills and directing food donations.

The Women’s Committee worked in conjunction with the US Food Administration and its director, future U.S. President Herbert Hoover. Women’s Committee chapters operated locally, orchestrating food drives and agricultural practices in their community. Local food production was essential and securing enough for the armed services meant coming up with creative solutions at home that would not put additional pressure on the economy. One focus of the Women’s Committee was to educate children and participate in school activities. These primarily included teaching children how to start a local garden, run food drives and can food. Each of these taught children and their families how they could save and preserve their food supply. This allowed people to conserve and stretch their groceries further, thereby leading to less food consumption. Every change was done to increase their output capacity.

Women and children aid in getting food conservation pledges signed. View of the Food Conservation Commission office in New York where the 600,000 food pledges are being filed. Hundreds of women and children aided in getting signatures. The office was at 124 West 42nd Street (American Unofficial Collection of World War I Photographs, 1917 – 1918, Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs, 1860 – 1952, National Archives and Records Administration)

These interactions were not without some disagreements and compromises though. During the war, women’s suffrage activism was largely suspended in order to support the war effort; suffrage organizations who participated in home front work received widespread acclaim during the war, and that later played a critical role in passage of the 19th Amendment. Women’s suffrage activities might have lessened, but they did not postpone themselves outright. Pockets of suffragist groups still petitioned state and federal government, advocating for the right to vote.

President Woodrow Wilson stated that “it is not only an army we must shape and train, but also a nation.” Women’s organizations in World War I played a crucial role on the home front and integrated the war effort into every community and home.

*Header Image:

“Will you help the Women of France? Save Wheat. They are struggling against starvation and trying to feed not only themselves and children- their husbands and sons who are fighting in the trenches.” (Records of the U.S. Food Administration, 1917-1920, World War I Posters, 1917 – 1919, National Archives and Records Administration)


The End of a German Dynasty

Europe experienced a level of death, carnage, and destruction unlike any war ever fought before. The Great War mounted millions of casualties, governments were overthrown, economies were crippled, and civilians were suffering nearly as much as the soldiers dying in the trenches. By 1918 with the entry of the United States, Germany had begun seeing the writing on the wall for their army and country. German armies had stagnated in their offensives and were running low on supplies. They faced a dire situation, but military leaders like Ludendorff and Hindenburg took desperate measures to keep the German war effort alive. As Germany continued to fight, a civil conflict broke out internally; a revolution that brought down the old monarchy and would pave the way for Germany’s turbulent interwar years.

German armies conducted large scale offensives from January 1917 to September 1918 but were unable to dislodge or break out from their trenches and gained little ground. While French, German, US, Belgian, and other armies clashed, there was a power struggle at the highest levels of the German government. Kaiser Wilhelm II, whose military skills were being increasingly questioned by the General Staff, had relinquished most of his power to the two top generals, Erich Ludendorff and Paul von Hindenburg. For nearly two years, Germany was managed equal to a military dictatorship between the two generals with the Kaiser serving in a more honorific capacity. Ludendorff believed sharply that Germany could not secure military victory, but could at least sue for an armistice and negotiate a peace settlement. Ludendorff and other General Staff officers did not see it as a defeat, but did so to retain some form of dignity and cohesion. Simultaneously, German civilians who suffered from the extreme pressures of wartime began organizing and formed political parties focused on toppling the German government. Social Democrat Party members demanded an immediate cessation of hostilities and looked at the example set by the Russian Revolution in 1917. In early November 1918, the German Revolution began, and all 21 German princes and monarchs were forced to resign.

The Kaiser’s abdication ended the monarchical rule of the Hohenzollerns; a noble dynastic family that had ruled as German emperors, princes, electors, kings, dukes and barons since the Medieval period.

Kaiser Wilhelm II and his chancellors faced a dire situation. Combined with the threat of mutiny under the military dictatorship of Ludendorff and civil unrest throughout Germany, the Kaiser abdicated on November 9th, 1918 and afterwards fled to Holland, where he would spend the remainder of his life. Abdication did not have the desired impact he hoped as revolutionary councils were established and Friedrich Ebert, leader of the SDP, became the de facto German Chancellor. Two days later, November 11th, the armistice was announced, and all combat ceased in Europe.

The killing had stopped, but Germany would face another decade of economic, social, and political strife. The 1920s saw some of the worst inflation, job crises, and revolutionary fervor in Germany as they were penalized heavily by Allied powers in the Treaty of Versailles. That same anger and belief of being ‘stabbed in the back’ by traitors would serve as a powerful tool for the rising Nazi party and its malevolent leaders.

American Preparedness in WWI

Armies in the millions were the norm at the turn of the 20th century. European armies were larger than they had been even before the outbreak of World War I. Millions served on both sides and with them were the most technologically sophisticated and advanced military machinery of the day. Thousands of patents on weaponry were granted in the decade leading up to the war itself. More than 13 million men served in the German Army alone and were widely regarded as the most disciplined army in the world. The British Navy was outfitted with dreadnoughts, the most advanced battleships of the day, and Germany launched the first U-boats, soon to be the terror of Atlantic shipping lanes. When war was declared in 1914, these military mega-powers utilized the maximum potential of their manpower.

Across the Atlantic Ocean though, the U.S. military fell significantly short of their European counterparts. Voices in the United States were echoing the need to prepare the nation’s army and navy for the eventual declaration of war. However, the size and power of the United States’ armed forces paled in comparison, and prominent individuals recognized these detriments. They voiced their concern that the United States was woefully unprepared to fight any war overseas because it lacked the training and resources for large scale combat. A grassroots movement soon developed called the Preparedness Movement where people such as General Leonard Wood, Elihu Root, Henry Stimson, and former President Theodore Roosevelt argued for increased military spending, setting up officer schools, and establish training camps (which eventually formed into the Citizens Military Training Camp in Plattsburg, NY). The Preparedness Movement gained significant traction in 1916 as people advocated for military intervention and increased spending. Reports about trench warfare and poison gas alarmed the U.S. military as well since they had no recent experiences or countermeasures to these new weapons.

(President Woodrow Wilson in Preparedness Parade, Washington D.C., June 1916, American Unofficial Collection of World War I Photographs 1917-1918, Records of the War Department General and Special Staff, 1860-1952, National Archives and Records Administration)

Despite the push for a stronger military, isolationist sentiment in the United States still dominated much of Washington politics. President Woodrow Wilson and the Democratic Party were opposed to the Preparedness Movement and concentrated more on achieving some form of compromised peace or non-intervention pact with Europe. Democratic politicians voiced their concerns of intervening abroad, warmongering, and giving too much political power to big business, which would profit from a rapidly expanding military. President Wilson and Congress routinely debated over the issue, presenting numerous compromises to preparedness advocates in increasing the size of the army and building training camps.

During this time, however, Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare policy was wrecking havoc on American shipping in the Atlantic, galvanizing the Preparedness argument.Events in North America and not Europe would push Congress to pass legislation sought by the Preparedness Movement. Pancho Villa’s raid on Columbus, New Mexico, called for retaliation by the U.S. Army to neutralize him and his forces. This combined with the long running harassment of U.S. shipping by German U-boats, President Wilson finally threw his support to the Preparedness cause.

On June 3, 1916 the National Defense Act was passed to reorganize the National Guard, expanded the army, created officer training corps, and gave the president authority to federalize troops during a national emergency. The Preparedness Movement accomplished its goal and when the United States intervened in April 1917, its military was better equipped to fight the Central Powers. While trench warfare ferocity was unparalleled in previous wars, US soldiers were now prepared to face such terror that awaited on the Western Front.

The Committee on Public Information: Would You Like to Know More?

President Woodrow Wilson struggled to maintain United States neutrality with the outbreak of war in 1914. Social and political forces lobbied for supporting intervention or isolation. Despite restraining the country for three years, the declaration of war in April 1917 fundamentally altered federal domestic and foreign policy. President Wilson understood that to maintain public support, the US government needed to create an agency that centered on public affairs. An independent agency would be solely responsible for interpreting and creating messages about the home front and the war and on April 13, 1917, President Wilson signed Executive Order 2594 creating the Committee on Public Information (CPI). For the next two years, the CPI was responsible for running a propaganda campaign for the sole purpose of maintaining positive public support for American intervention in Europe.

President Wilson installed both Secretary of War and Navy, Newton Baker and Josephus Daniels respectively, as government ex officio directors. President Wilson established the CPI as an independent agency of the Executive branch, but rather than having it run by a Cabinet member, a civilian would serve as the sole operating director. The committee’s chairman George Creel, a Midwest newspaper man, embarked on a national propaganda campaign that incorporated nearly every type of medium; newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, advertising, radio, and early films to spread a positive message about war. This was crucial because Creel claimed to interpret the definition of ‘propaganda’ differently than the German style, which he described as: ‘not propaganda as the Germans defined it, but propaganda in the true sense of the word; propagation of faith.’ Creel’s previous career as a journalist influenced the CPI’s method of information gathering and emphasized they base their message on factual evidence rather than embellishment. This did not rule out the CPI’s practice of spinning factual evidence to make a positive observation however. Building stories on evidence was paramount to Creel as he wanted to separate the CPI from more xenophobic organizations such as the American Defense Society.

‘Artists and Publicity Men in the Government’s Service…, April 2, 1918’ American Unofficial Collection of World War I Photographs, 1917-1918, Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs, 1860-1952, NARA (George Creel is standing in center of the photograph, behind man in pinstripe suit and in front of man with blurred face turning his head)

Over 75,000 people, mainly volunteers, served the CPI during the war. One signature practice Creel developed to efficiently disseminate pro-war support was the Four Minute Man program whereby public speakers gave a four-minute presentation on multiple topics in social settings. Four Minute Men Director William McCormick Blair managed thousands of speakers who developed succinct, compact speeches that could be altered to fit a specific top and audience.

‘William McCormick Blair, Director Four Minute Men, January, 17, 1919’ Committee on Public Information, American Unofficial Collection of World War I Photographs, 1917-1918, Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs, 1860-1952, NARA

This formal, personal tactic combined with a deluge of daily propaganda through news and radio, demonstrated the effectiveness of CPI propaganda methods. Four Minute Men speeches were arguably the first instance of ‘viral marketing’ by modern standards. By the end of the war, over 7 million speeches were delivered to over 5,000 communities. Simultaneously, Creel argued that what the CPI practiced was not propaganda, but that it was meant to educate people rather than willfully deceive. Creel believed that the German propaganda was filled with unsupportive lies while the CPI went to great lengths to ensure truthful accuracy; ‘We did not call it propaganda, for that word, in German hands, had come to be associated with deceit and corruption. Our effort was educational and informative throughout…’

Four Minute Men of Nebraska, 1918, Committee on Public Information, American Unofficial Collection of World War I Photographs, 1917-1918, Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs, 1860-1952, NARA

Despite this however, messages were still crafted to show only the positive aspects about the American home front and the viciousness of the enemy. The thoroughness by which the CPI distributed its message and using every medium available, the war became part of one’s daily life.

Works Cited

Creel, George, Rebel at Large: Recollections of Fifty Crowded Years, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1947

Creel, George, How We Advertised America, Harper and Brothers, New York, 1920

Little Gun Shoot Fast: The Choctaw Army Code-talkers

In World War II, a group of Navajo Indians enlisted with the Marines for the purpose of developing unique communications codes. These Marines came to be known as the ‘Code-talkers’; soldiers who developed signals and messages based on native languages with English counterparts that when translated spelled out specific messages. The code-talkers became famous for their ingenuity in adopting their native language to military code, but were by no means the first. During World War I, American units with various Native American soldiers used their own languages to communicate between the lines and send messages to headquarters. Within a few months of combat, Choctaw Indian code-talkers developed and implemented a rudimentary system for communicating and translating vital battlefield information.

Securing lines of communication are vital in war and on every battlefield. If the enemy broke this security, they can quickly learn of impending attacks, logistical situations, and thwart their opponents at every opportunity. German radio operators and code-breakers were adept in their monitoring and deciphering of enemy communications. Germans broke numerous American codes after entering the war and officers continuously looked for innovative methods that would make their codes impossible to crack. Fortunately for the American Expeditionary Force, Native American languages became a valuable asset that pioneered an innovative communications practice.

Choctaw code-talkers attending basic training, where they developed their unique communication tools (Photo courtesy of Mathers Museum, University of Indiana, Bloomington)

Choctaw Indians regularly spoke in their native languages within their group. Colonel A.W. Bloor of the 142nd Infantry Regiment overheard a conversation between two Choctaws and realized something extraordinary; if he couldn’t understand what these Indians were saying, then the Germans would have an arduous time trying to decipher messages, neutralizing their mastery of English in breaking Allied codes. Native American languages possessed uniqueness in that they are not typically written down and due to geographic distance, were relatively unknown to Europeans. Bloor immediately recognized the value of utilizing these languages as a new communication tool:

‘While comparatively inactive at Vaux-Champagne, it was remembered that the regiment possessed a company of Indians. They spoke twenty six different languages or dialects, only four or five of which were ever written. There was hardly one chance in a million that Fritz would be able to translate these dialects, and the plan to have these Indians transmit telephone messages was adopted. The regiment was fortunate in having two Indian officers who spoke several of the dialects.’

Bloor utilized these Choctaw soldiers to develop a military code using their specific dialects. An obstacle however was much of the US military vocabulary did not have a corresponding word in Choctaw dialects. This forced them to improvise certain words that related to their messages. Bloor described this process in a report to his commanding general’s headquarters:

‘It had been found that the Indian’s vocabulary of military terms was insufficient. The Indian word for “big gun” was used to indicate artillery. “Little gun shoot fast” was substituted for machine gun, and the battalions were indicated by “one, two, three grains of corn.” It was found that the Indian tongues do not permit verbatim translation, but at the end of the short training period at Louppy-le-Petit, the results were very gratifying…the enemy’s complete surprise is evidence that he could not decipher the messages’

Bloor cited instantaneous results with the adoption of the Choctaw codes. German code-breakers who routinely deciphered American messages were stumped by the innovative use of Choctaw dialects. Repeated surprises by AEF assaults confirmed that Germans could not understand the new Native American codetalkers. Captured German soldiers later stated that the use of Native American languages confused them and could not gain any useful information.

The Choctaw Code was integral during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive and is widely credited for securing small victories over the course of the battle. Despite their achievements in France, the Choctaw code-talkers were largely forgotten after the end of the war. The prominence of Navajo code-talkers in World War II overshadowed much of the Choctaw’s former accomplishments in encoding military messages. In the 1980s, they received posthumous honors from both the Choctaw Nation and France for their contributions and in 2008, President George Bush signed the Code Talkers Recognition Act (Public Law 110-420) which posthumously recognized every codetalker that served in the military during World War I and them a Congressional Gold Medal for the Choctaw nation. These medals are now retained by the Smithsonian Institution, with silver and bronze duplicates held by private individuals. The innovations by these Choctaw soldiers not only saved thousands of soldiers’ lives, but pushed the military to look at Native Americans in a new light, recognizing their valuable contributions as both soldier and citizen.

Choctaws in training in World War I for coded radio and telephone transmissions (Photo Courtesy of Oklahoma Historical Society)

[Block-quoted text extract from; Letter from the Commanding Officer of the 142nd Infantry to the Command General of the 36th Division, stating how messages would be transmitted during World War I in Choctaw as the enemy “could not decipher the messages”, January 23rd, 1919, Records of the American Expeditionary Forces (World War I, 1848-1942), National Archives and Records Administration]