Medal of Honour

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Military History and War

Medal of Honour

From left to right, the Army, Navy and Air Force medals
Awarded by the United States of America
Type Single-grade neck order
Eligibility Military personnel only
Awarded for "...a person who, while a member of the Army, distinguished himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States..."
Status Currently awarded
First awarded American Civil War
Last awarded 2006- 11-10
Total awarded 3,461
Next highest None
Next lowest Army - Distinguished Service Cross
Navy - Navy Cross
Air Force - Air Force Cross

The Medal of Honour is the highest military decoration awarded by the United States. It is often colloquially referred to as the Congressional Medal of Honour because the President presents the award "in the name of the Congress". It is bestowed on a member of the United States armed forces who distinguishes himself or herself "... conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States ..."

Members of all branches of the U.S. military are eligible to receive the medal, and each service has a unique design (although the Marine Corps uses the Navy's medal and the Coast Guard's version has never been awarded). The Medal of Honour is often presented personally to the recipient or, in the case of posthumous awards, to survivors, by the President of the United States. Due to its high status, the medal has special protection under U.S. law.

The Medal of Honour is one of only two American military awards worn around the neck; the other is the Commander's Degree of the Legion of Merit. Whereas the Medal of Honour is a military award for valor — actions taken during combat operations at risk of one's own life that are above and beyond the call of duty — the Legion of Merit is a merit award. The Commander's Degree of the Legion of Merit is also not awarded to United States military personnel but to foreign dignitaries.


The first formal system for rewarding acts of individual gallantry by American soldiers was established by George Washington on August 7, 1782, when he created the Badge of Military Merit, designed to recognize "any singularly meritorious action." This decoration is America's first combat award and the second oldest American military decoration of any type, after the Fidelity Medallion.

Although the Badge of Military Merit fell into disuse after the American Revolutionary War, the concept of a military award for individual gallantry by members of the U.S. armed forces had been established. In 1847, after the outbreak of the Mexican-American War, a Certificate of Merit was established for soldiers who distinguished themselves in action. The certificate was later granted medal status as the Certificate of Merit Medal.

Early in the Civil War, a medal for individual valor was proposed (by James W. Grimes) to Winfield Scott, the Commanding General of the United States Army. Scott did not approve the proposal, but the medal did come into use in the Navy. Public Resolution 82, containing a provision for a Navy Medal of Valor, was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on December 21, 1861. The medal was "to be bestowed upon such petty officers, seamen, landsmen, and Marines as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry and other seamanlike qualities during the present war." Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles directed the Philadelphia Mint to design the new decoration. Shortly afterward, a resolution of similar wording was introduced on behalf of the Army, which was signed into law on July 12, 1862. This measure provided for awarding a Medal of Honour, which the Navy version also came to be called: "to such noncommissioned officers and privates as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action, and other soldier-like qualities, during the present insurrection."


Early Army versions of the Medal of Honor.
Early Army versions of the Medal of Honour.
Early Navy versions of the Medal of Honor.
Early Navy versions of the Medal of Honour.

The Medal of Honour has evolved in appearance since its creation in 1862. The present Army medal consists of a gold star surrounded by a wreath, topped by an eagle on a bar inscribed with the word "Valor." The medal is attached by a hook to a light blue moired silk neckband that is 1 3⁄16 inches in width and 21¾ inches in length.

There is a version of the medal for each branch of the U.S. armed forces: the Army, Navy and Air Force. Since the U.S. Marine Corps is administratively a part of the Department of the Navy, Marines receive the Navy medal. Before 1965, when the U.S. Air Force design was adopted, members of the U.S. Army Air Corps, U.S. Army Air Forces, and Air Force received the Army version of the medal.

The Coast Guard Medal of Honor, which was distinguished from the Navy medal in 1963, has never been awarded, partly because the U.S. Coast Guard is subsumed into the U.S. Navy in time of declared war. No design yet exists for it. Only one member of the Coast Guard has ever received a Medal of Honour, Signalman 1st Class Douglas Munro, who was awarded the Navy version of the medal for action during the Battle of Guadalcanal.

In the rare cases (19 thus far) where a service member has been awarded more than one Medal of Honor, regulations specify that an appropriate award device be centered on the MOH ribbon and neck medal. To indicate multiple presentations of the Medal of Honour the U.S. Army and Air Force bestow oak leaf clusters, while the Navy Medal of Honour is worn with gold award stars.

Medal of Honor ribbon.
Medal of Honour ribbon.

On a ribbon bar, the Medal of Honor ribbon is in a special position; it is worn on a single bar alone, centered 1/4 inch above the centre of the upper row of other ribbons. The ribbon is the same shade of light blue as the neckband, and it includes five white stars, pointed upwards, in the shape of an "M." For civilian wear, a rosette is issued instead of a miniature lapel pin (which usually shows the ribbon bar). The rosette is the same shade of blue as the neck ribbon and includes white stars. The ribbon and rosette are presented at the same time as the Medal.


Medal of Honor Flag
Medal of Honour Flag

On October 23, 2003, Pub.L. 107-248 was enacted, modifying 36 U.S.C.  § 903, authorizing a Medal of Honour flag to be presented to recipients of the decoration.

The flag was based on a concept by retired Army Special Forces 1st Sgt. Bill Kendall of Jefferson, Iowa, who designed a flag to honor Medal of Honour recipient Captain Darrell Lindsey, a B-26 pilot killed in World War II who was also from Jefferson. Kendall's design of a light blue field emblazoned with thirteen white five-pointed stars was nearly identical to that of Sarah LeClerc of the Institute of Heraldry. LeClerc's design, ultimately accepted as the official flag, does not include the words "Medal of Honour" and is fringed in gold. The colour of the field and the 13 white stars, arranged in the form of a triple chevron, consisting of two chevrons of 5 stars and one chevron of 3 stars, replicate the Medal of Honour' ribbon. The flag has no set proportions.

The first Medal of Honour recipient to receive the official flag was Paul R. Smith. The flag was cased and presented to his family along with his Medal. A special ceremony presenting this flag to 60 Medal of Honour recipients was held onboard the USS Constitution on September 30, 2006.

Awarding the medal

There are two distinct means for awarding the Medal of Honour. The first and most common is nomination by a service member in the chain of command, followed by approval at each level of command. The other method is nomination by a member of Congress (generally at the request of a constituent) and approval by a special act of Congress. In either case, the Medal of Honour is presented by the President on behalf of the Congress. Although commonplace, the term "Congressional Medal of Honour" is not correct. The Congressional Medal of Honour Society is so named because that is the name it was given in an act of Congress signed into law by President Eisenhower on August 5, 1958 as 36 U.S.C.  § 33.

Evolution of criteria

A year after President Abraham Lincoln signed Public Resolution 82 into law on December 21, 1861, a similar resolution for the Army was passed. Six Union soldiers who hijacked the General, a Confederate locomotive were the first recipients. Raid leader James J. Andrews, a civilian hanged as a Union spy, did not receive the medal because it was originally awarded only to enlisted men. Army officers first received them in 1891 and Naval officers in 1915. Many Medals of Honor awarded in the 19th century were associated with saving the flag, not just for patriotic reasons, but because the flag was a primary means of battlefield communication. During the Civil War, no other military award was authorized, which explains some of the less notable actions that were recognized by the Medal of Honour. The criteria for award tightened after World War I. Since the start of World War II, only 852 medals have been awarded, 526 of them posthumously. In the post-World War II era, many eligible recipients might instead have been awarded a Silver Star, Navy Cross or similar award. In all, 3461 Medals of Honour have been awarded.

In an unfortunate incident, during the Civil War, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton promised a Medal of Honour to every man in the 27th Regiment, Maine Infantry who extended his enlistment beyond the agreed upon date. Many stayed four days extra, and then were discharged. Due to confusion, Stanton awarded a Medal of Honour to all 864 men in the regiment.

In 1916, a board of five Army generals convened by law to review every Army Medal of Honour awarded. The commission, led by Nelson Miles, recommended that the Army rescind 911 medals. This included the 864 medals awarded to members of the 27th Maine, 29 who served as Abraham Lincoln's funeral guard, six civilians (including Dr Mary Edwards Walker, the only woman to have been awarded the medal, and Buffalo Bill Cody), and 12 others whose awards were judged frivolous. Dr Walker's medal was restored posthumously by President Jimmy Carter in 1977. Cody's award was restored in 1989.

Early in the 20th century the Navy awarded many Medals of Honour for peacetime bravery. For instance, seven sailors aboard the USS Iowa received the medal when a boiler exploded on January 25, 1904. Aboard the USS Chicago in 1901, John Henry Helms received the medal for saving Ishi Tomizi, the ship's cook, from drowning. Even after World War I, Richard Byrd and Floyd Bennett received the medal for exploration of the North Pole. Thomas John Ryan received it for saving a woman from the burning Grand Hotel in Yokohama, Japan following the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake.

Tiffany Cross
Tiffany Cross

Between 1919 and 1942, the Navy issued two separate versions of the Medal of Honor, one for non-combat bravery and the other for combat-related acts. Official accounts vary, but presumably the combat Medal of Honour was known as the "Tiffany Cross", after the company that manufactured the medal. "The Tiffany" was first issued in 1919, but was rare and unpopular, partly because it was presented both for combat and noncombat events. As a result, in 1942 the United States Navy reverted to a single Medal of Honour, awarded only for heroism.

Since the beginning of World War II, the medal has been awarded for extreme bravery beyond the call of duty while engaged in action against an enemy. Arising from these criteria, approximately 60% of the medals earned during and after World War II have been awarded posthumously. Capt. William McGonagle is an exception to the enemy action rule, earning his medal during the USS Liberty incident; which the Israeli government claimed was friendly fire.


A 1993 study commissioned by the Army described systematic racial discrimination in the criteria for awarding medals during World War II. At the time, no Medals of Honour had been awarded to black soldiers who served in World War II. After an exhaustive review of files, the study recommended that several black Distinguished Service Cross recipients be upgraded to the Medal of Honour. On January 13, 1997, President Bill Clinton awarded the medal to seven African American World War II veterans. Of these, only Vernon Baker was still alive. A similar study of Asian Americans in 1998 resulted in President Clinton awarding 21 new Medals of Honour in 2000, including 20 to Japanese American members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (one of whom was Senator Daniel Inouye). In 2005, President George W. Bush awarded the Medal of Honour to Jewish veteran and Holocaust-camp survivor Tibor Rubin.

Authority and privileges

The grave of a recipient at the Normandy Cemetery and Memorial
The grave of a recipient at the Normandy Cemetery and Memorial

The U.S. Army Medal of Honour was first authorized by a joint resolution of Congress on July 12, 1862. The specific authorizing ordinance was U.S. Code, Title 10, Subtitle B, Part II, Chapter 357, Section 3741, effective January 26, 1998:

The President may award, and present in the name of Congress, a medal of honour of appropriate design, with ribbons and appurtenances, to a person who while a member of the Army, distinguished himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.

Later authorizations created similar medals for other branches of the service.

The Medal of Honour confers special privileges on its recipients, both by tradition and by law. By tradition, all other soldiers, sailors, and airmen—even higher-ranking officers up to the President of the United States—initiate the salute. In the event of an officer encountering an enlisted member of the military who has been awarded the Medal of Honour, officers by tradition salute not the person, but the medal itself, thus attempting to time their salute to coincide with the enlisted members'.) By law, awardees have several benefits:

  • Each Medal of Honor awardee may have his or her name entered on the Medal of Honour Roll (38 U.S.C.  § 1560). Each person whose name is placed on the Medal of Honour Roll is certified to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs as being entitled to receive the special pension of $1027 per month. As of December 1, 2004, the pension is subject to cost-of-living increases.
  • Enlisted recipients of the Medal of Honour are entitled to a supplemental uniform allowance.
  • Recipients receive special entitlements to air transportation under the provisions of DOD Regulation 4515.13-R.
  • Special identification cards and commissary and exchange privileges are provided for Medal of Honour recipients and their eligible dependents.
  • Children of recipients are eligible for admission to the United States military academies without regard to the quota requirements.
  • Recipients receive a 10% increase in retired pay under 10 U.S.C.  § 3991, subject to the 75% limit on total retired pay.
  • Those awarded the Medal after October 23, 2002 also receive a Medal of Honor Flag. The law also specifies that all 143 living Medal of Honour recipients receive the flag along with all future recipients.(14 U.S.C.  § 505).
  • As with all medals, retired personnel may wear the Medal of Honor on "appropriate" civilian clothing. Regulations also specify that recipients of the Medal of Honour are allowed to wear the uniform "at their pleasure" with standard restrictions on political, commercial, or extremist purposes; other former members of the armed forces may do so only at certain ceremonial occasions.

Legal protection

The Medal of Honor is the only service decoration that is singled out in federal law to protect it from being imitated or privately sold. All Medals of Honour are issued in the original only, by the Department of Defense, to a recipient. Misuse of the medal, including unauthorized manufacture or wear, is punishable by fine and imprisonment pursuant to (18 U.S.C.  § 704)(b), which prescribes a harsher penalty than that for violations concerning other medals. After the Army redesigned their medal in 1903, a patent was issued (United States Patent #D37,236) to legally prevent others from making the medal. When the patent expired, the Federal government enacted a law making it illegal to produce, wear, or distribute the Medal of Honour without proper authority. Violators of this law have been prosecuted. In 2003 Edward and Gisela Fedora were charged with violating (18 U.S.C.  § 704)(b) - Unlawful Sale of a Medal of Honour. They sold medals awarded to U.S. Navy Seaman Robert Blume (for action during the Spanish-American War) and to U.S. Army First Sergeant George Washington Roosevelt (for action during the Civil War) to an FBI agent. Edward Fedora, a Canadian businessman, pled guilty and was sentenced to prison; Gisela Fedora's status is unknown.

Under United States Code, (18 U.S.C.  § 704)(b), it is illegal to wear the Medal of Honor without authorization, but one can still legally claim to be a recipient unless such a claim is made with the intent of securing veteran benefits. A number of veterans' organizations and private companies devote themselves to exposing those who falsely claim to have won the Medal of Honour. Imposters are said to outnumber true Medal of Honor recipients. HLI Lordship Industries Inc., a former Medal of Honour contractor, was fined in 1996 for selling 300 fake Medals for $75 each.


A statue in Louisville, Kentucky honors MOH recipients from Kentucky.
A statue in Louisville, Kentucky honours MOH recipients from Kentucky.

In total, 3,461 medals have been awarded to 3,442 different people. Nineteen men received a second award: 14 of these received two separate Medals for two separate actions, and five received both the Navy and the Army Medals of Honor for the same action. Since the beginning of World War II, 852 Medals of Honour have been awarded, 526 posthumously. In total, 615 had their Medals presented posthumously. The last award was on November 10th, 2006.

The Army Medal of Honour was first awarded to Private Jacob Parrott during the American Civil War for his role in the Andrews Raid; the most recent award was made on November 10, 2006 to U.S. Marine Corps Corporal Jason L. Dunham, for actions that occurred on April 14, 2004, in Iraq near the Syrian border. The only female Medal of Honour awardee was Mary Edwards Walker, a Civil War surgeon. Her medal was rescinded in 1917 along with many other non-combat awards. It was restored by President Jimmy Carter in 1977.

While current regulations, (10 U.S.C.  § 6241), beginning in 1918, explicitly state that recipients must be serving in the U.S. Armed Forces at the time of performing a valorous act that warrants the award of the Medal of Honour, exceptions have been made. For example, Mary Walker worked as a military contractor, and Charles Lindbergh, while a reserve member of the U.S. Army Air Corps, received his Medal of Honor as a civilian pilot. In addition, the Medal of Honour was presented to the British Unknown Warrior by General Pershing on October 17, 1921; later the U.S. Unknown Soldier was reciprocally awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain's highest award for gallantry, on November 11, 1921. Apart from these few exceptions, Medals of Honour can only be awarded to members of the U.S. armed forces - although being a U.S. citizen is not a prerequisite. Sixty-one Canadians who were serving in the United States armed forces have been awarded the Medal of Honour, with a majority awarded for actions in the American Civil War. Since 1900, only four have been awarded to Canadians. In the Vietnam War, Peter C. Lemon was the only Canadian recipient of the Medal of Honour.

Since the withdrawal of US forces from Vietnam in 1973, the Medal of Honour has only been awarded four times, all of them posthumously. The first two were earned by Sergeant First Class Randy Shughart and Master Sergeant Gary Gordon, who were defending downed Black Hawk helicopter pilot Chief Warrant Officer Michael Durant and his crew during the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993. The others were given during the Iraq War. In 2005, a posthumous MOH was awarded to the survivors of Sergeant First Class Paul R. Smith for actions in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In April 2003, Smith killed over 50 Iraqis near Baghdad International Airport, while providing cover for an aid station full of wounded Americans to evacuate. On November 10, 2006, President George W. Bush announced that Marine Corporal Jason Dunham of Scio, New York, would be awarded the Medal of Honour posthumously for his bravery in Iraq during a combat mission for throwing himself on a grenade during an action near the Syrian border in April 2004.

By conflict
Civil War 1,522 Indian Wars 426
Korean Expedition 15 Spanish-American War 110
Samoan Civil War 4 Philippine-American War 86
Boxer Rebellion 59 Mexican Expedition 56
Haiti (1915-1934) 8 Dominican Republic Occupation 3
World War I 124 Occupation of Nicaragua 2
World War II 464 Korean War 131
Vietnam War 245 Battle of Mogadishu 2
Iraq War 2
Peacetime 193 Unknown or classified 9
By branch of service
Service Awards
Army 2401
Navy 745
Marines 297
Air Force 17
Coast Guard 1

Similar decorations

United States

The following United States decorations bear similar names to the Medal of Honour, but are separate awards with different criteria for issuance.

  • Cardenas Medal of Honour: decoration of the Revenue Cutter Service, merged into the United States Coast Guard
  • Chaplain's Medal of Honour: awarded posthumously for a single action to four recipients
  • Congressional Gold Medal of Honour
  • Congressional Space Medal of Honour: despite its name, not equal to the Medal of Honour
  • Presidential Medal of Freedom

Several United States law enforcement decorations also bear the name "Medal of Honour". The Public Safety Officer Medal of Valor, established by Congress in 2001, "the highest national award for valor by a public safety officer", is also awarded by the President, as is the highest civilian honour of all, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Foreign awards

The following countries have high military awards similar to the Medal of Honour:

The following obsolete military decorations were the highest in their country at the time:

  • Pour le Mérite (Prussia)
  • Vietnam Military Merit Medal (South Vietnam)
  • Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross (Nazi Germany)
  • Hero of the Soviet Union (Soviet Union)
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