The National Museum of
American Jewish Military History
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Hall of Heroes:American Jewish Recipients of The Medal of Honor
Medal of Honor overview and history
The Medal of Honor is America's highest award for military valor, presented to those who have performed an act of such conspicuous gallantry as to rise "above and beyond the call of duty." The recipients of this honor include only some 3,400 of the tens of millions who have served their country since the Civil War. The recipients' list includes soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen, officers and enlisted. As America's military heroes, the Medal of Honor recipients are the most heroic. Among these heroes are thirteen men of the Jewish faith. Their stories are among the many examples of bravery and gallantry shown by Jews in the United States armed forces. The bravest of the brave, these men stand as the finest example of the heroism and sacrifice that protect our liberty and freedom.
While fighting for freedom in the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress felt that awards for valor and bravery were a way to acknowledge brave soldiers and inspire others to similar feats. The Congress created special individual medals, normally given to generals in recognition of victories. The "Andre" medal was created in 1781 to be given to the three enlisted men who had captured John Andres, a conspirator of Benedict Arnold. But no ongoing medals for heroism were created.
George Washington created the Badge of Military Merit in August 1782 to recognize soldiers for "singularly meritous action." It was meant to be an ongoing medal, but was given to only three men in 1782. It was never officially abolished, but it was not used again until 1932 when it was revived as the Purple Heart to honor those wounded in action.
During the Mexican-American War of 1847, Congress created the Certificate of Merit for enlisted men who distinguished themselves in action. The soldier received a certificate and an extra $2.00 a month in pay. But there was no medal or other type of ornament the soldier wore to show others he had earned the award.
Prior to the Civil War, the military was hesitant to issue medals to be worn on the uniform. They felt that medals belonged to European nobility and had no place in a democracy. But some felt that allowing recognition for bravery to physically be seen would inspire other soldiers to like acts, especially as the horrors and carnage of the Civil War began to weaken the morale of the Union soldiers. On behalf of Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, Senator James W. Grimes of Iowa introduced a bill to "promote the efficiency of the Navy" that would create 200 Medals of Honor to be awarded "upon such petty officers, seamen, landsmen and marines as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action and other seamen like qualities during the present war." President Abraham Lincoln approved the bill December 2, 1861.
In collaboration with James Pollock, the director of the Philadelphia Mint, Welles designed the new medal. It was a five-pointed star with clusters of laurel and oak leaves at each point- laurel representing victory and oak representing strength. In the center was the figure of Minerva, Roman goddess of war and wisdom, holding the shield of Union against Discord, a male figure holding snakes and symbolizing the South. Thirty-four stars, representing all the states in the Union, including the 11 rebellious ones, surrounded the figures.
Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts introduced the Army Medal of Honor bill in February 1862 and President Lincoln signed it the following July. The Army decided to use the same medal design as the Navy, until the end of the century when the design in the center of the star was changed to picture only the head of Minerva.
On July 16, 1862, the Navy Medal of Honor was established as a permanent medal. A system for recommending recipients, promotion and pay bonuses was also established. A year later, new regulations allowed for officers to be eligible for the Medal.
During the Civil War, 1520 Medals of Honor were rewarded. The high number is attributable to the fact that it was the only medal available for bravery. The regimental flag was a rallying point in the battlefield and 467 medals were given to men, including Benjamin Levy and Leopold Karpeles, who risked their lives to save the flag. By comparison, 238 medals were given during the entire conflict in Vietnam.
After the Civil War, the Indian Wars and various international campaigns continued producing heroes. But abuses of the Medal were also beginning. Because the Army had failed to define the process of recommending recipients, claims began to mount from veterans who felt they had been overlooked. In the 1890s, there were 683 new Civil War Medal of Honor recipients, three more than had been awarded or recommended during the War itself. Many other veterans were claiming to be recipients in order to gain special veterans or charitable benefits. Increasing the confusion was the Certificate of Merit, which many mistook for the Medal of Honor.
To counteract these problems, recipients formed the Medal of Honor Legion in 1890 to defend the integrity of the Medal and perpetuate its ideals. The Legion was instrumental in the redesign of the Medal and the addition of blue neck ribbons, which would help maintain the Medal's distinct identity. They also campaigned for the stricter guidelines passed in 1897 to stop the retroactive Civil War claims. And in 1916, they were instrumental in the passage of Section 122 of the National Defense Act, which created a board of five retired generals who would review each Medal to ensure it was issued according to the new guidelines. Each case was given a number, so to keep the names anonymous. Known as the Purge of 1916, 910 Medals of Honor were revoked.
As America entered World War I, Congress set a clear set of guidelines for awarding the Medal of Honor. On July 9, 1918, an act was passed that stated that ".the President is authorized to present, in the name of Congress, a Medal of Honor only to each person who, while an officer or enlisted man. in action involving actual conflict with an enemy, distinguish himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at risk of his own life above and beyond the call of duty." The Distinguished Service Cross and Silver Star were established by the same act to acknowledge lesser acts of bravery, creating a "Pyramid of Honor" with the Medal of Honor solidly on the top.
Following the creation of the Air Force in 1948, flyers were given the Army Medal of Honor until 1965 when a separate Air Force Medal of Honor was designed. Twice the size of the other services' medals, the Air Force Medal of Honor keeps the star design, but features the head of the Statue of Liberty in the center.
The Medal of Honor stands for the highest degree of heroism. Its recipients have risked their lives for freedom, liberty and the lives of their fellow soldiers. The National Museum of American Jewish Military History is honored to tell the stories of the thirteen men of the Jewish faith who have received the Medal for their bravery and courage.