Serving in the military takes a certain type of person. Someone who can handle pressure and make difficult decisions that could mean the difference between life and death. A person who works in unison with others and acts on instinct when there’s no time for thought. These soldiers, trained men and women who put themselves on the front lines, often act in a way that can only be described as “heroic,” and to honor heroism, the American military branches devised a series of highly regarded medals as a show of praise and gratitude.
As you dive deeper into the history of Pearl Harbor and the Japanese surprise attack, you’ll hear mention of the different medals that were given to America’s finest. To help in understanding what each serviceman received, we’ve broken down the most prestigious medals below.
The Purple Heart
Likely the most well-known of the United States military medals, the Purple Heart is typically awarded to soldiers who are wounded during battle. Any individual who served in the United States military on or after April 5th, 1917—the day before the United States joined the Allied forces in World War I—and sustained an injury by an instrument of war would be eligible to receive this honor. Additionally, families of soldiers killed in action have also been awarded Purple Heart medals for their loved one’s service.
Medal of Honor
Known for being the highest military honor one can receive, the Medal of Honor is awarded to soldiers who risk their own lives and go above and beyond the call of duty while engaged with an enemy of the United States. The medal is presented by the President of the United States and was first introduced on December 21st, 1861 as an award for United States Navy servicemen. On July 12th of the following year, the US Army introduced the medal to its soldiers while the Air Force adopted it in April of 1965.
Over 3,500 Medal of Honor citations have been handed out across all military branches to around 3,490 distinct recipients.
Distinguished Service Cross
For soldiers in the United States Army, the Distinguished Service Cross is awarded for extreme acts of heroism. To earn the Distinguished Service Cross, soldiers needed to be engaged in action against an enemy of the US or serving with allied foreign forces engaged in conflict with a force that threatens the United States.
The DSC was introduced on January 2nd, 1918 as an additional form of recognition before the Medal of Honor.
The Navy Cross is the honor most likely to have been awarded to the servicemen present during the Pearl Harbor attack. The Naval Cross is identical to the Distinguished Service Cross and carries the same eligibility criteria, being awarded to soldiers who act valiantly but don’t quite earn a Medal of Honor. The Navy Cross was created on February 4th, 1918 by an Act of Congress.
Air Force Cross
Like the Navy Cross, this adaptation of the Distinguished Service Cross has the same requirements for a member of the United States Air Force to receive it. The Air Force Cross was established on July 6th, 1960 and has been awarded to over 190 different recipients.
The third-highest honor awarded to military personnel, the Silver Star is presented to any member of the United States military who exhibits a level of bravery not meeting the criteria for a Medal of Honor or Service Cross. The Silver Star was introduced in 1932 and replaced the Citation Star, which was created by an Act of Congress in July of 1918 during World War I.
To learn about the heroes of the United States Navy, including many who earned the Medal of Honor, Purple Heart, or Navy Cross, visit the many exhibits at the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument in Oahu’s Pearl Harbor.