Every breakfast, I urge the men and women to order the military decorations to which they are entitled, if they don’t have them already. I offer to help them fill out the simple paper form (SF-180) or the online form (available at archives.gov only to Army and Air Corps veterans; Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard vets have to submit the paper form). I always make a strong plea because so many of our veterans are characteristically hesitant to request these medals and ribbons. I usually remind them that the decorations aren’t really for them to enjoy but for their families–their children and grandchildren–to cherish after they are gone.
World War II veterans’ reticence about ordering their medals is commonly known and much remarked upon. It’s usually interpreted as evidence of their humility and reluctance to claim the trappings of “war hero.” There’s much truth to this. For all the stories we hear, few even approach braggadocio. Their stories are mostly reminiscences about what they saw and what happened to them–not what they did or achieved.
But I think there’s another factor at work in WWII vets’ ambivalence toward medals. During the war, medals were generally viewed by GIs with a jaundiced eye. The awarding of medals took on epidemic proportions in 1943, when long overseas deployments and military setbacks began to harm the morale of our fighting men. The Departments of War and Navy responded with an old tactic designed to boost of the spirits of those languishing in war zones far from friends and family. They began distributing shiny metal objects attached to colorful ribbons.
By the end of the war, Army and Navy brass had authorized the creation of at least a dozen new types of military decorations, including the Bronze Star, the Legion of Merit, and the Combat Infantry Badge. Few came home from the war without at least two or three leatherette award cases stowed at the bottom of a duffel bag. One soldier, Audie Murphy, collected a whopping thirty-three, including the Medal of Honor, making him the most highly decorated soldier in American history.
The practice of ramping up medal production during times of flagging morale is a venerable and almost universal one. The Soviet Union abolished all military decorations before WWII, only to reverse itself with a vengeance after Germany nearly conquered the sprawling nation. The United States’ highest award, the Medal of Honor, was born in the early months of the Civil War when things weren’t going well for the Union side. Its intent was to inspire troops to continue fighting despite the staggering losses. In 1863, all 864 members of the 27th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment were offered the medal as encouragement for them to re-enlist before the Battle of Gettysburg.
WWII soldiers’ cynicism toward military decorations found expression in everyday humor and resentments. Ground forces GIs grumbled about Air Corps flyers getting more than their fair share of medals (a well-founded complaint), while flyers cynically referred to the Distinguished Flying Cross, awarded after the completion of 25 (later 35 and then 50) missions, the “Lucky Bastard Ribbon.” GIs called campaign medals “luggage labels” because they stated a soldier’s location, Asia-Pacific Theater, Africa-Europe-Middle East, etc.
For cynical humor in WWII, there’s no better place to look than in the cartoons of Bill Mauldin. Sure enough, Mauldin took several shots at military decorations during the war, including one of my favorites, a drawing of a hunched and exhausted Willie standing before a rickety aid table. “Just gimme the aspirin,” he says, “I already got a Purple Heart.”
But the most controversial statement Mauldin made about medals came in the fall of 1943, when Army ships sailed into Naples Harbor loaded with crates of leatherette award cases to be distributed to troops bogged down in the bloody Italian campaign. Few of these decorations made it up to the frontlines in the mountains where a small number of American infantrymen held the line against German entrenchments. Mauldin’s cartoon shows three of these haggard dogfaces on a rare leave at a rest center in Naples. The men surround a natty-looking MP at the gate. They are staring in bewilderment at the colorful fruit cocktail of ribbons arrayed across the MP’s blouse. The MP catalogs them for the goggle-eyed combat men: “Th’ yellow one is fer national defense, th’ red one wid white stripes is fer very good conduct, and th’ real purty one wid all th’ colors is fer bein’ in this theater of operations . . . ”
Shortly after this cartoon appeared, the Army introduced the Combat Infantry Badge to make up for this glaring disparity in awards. Part of the reason why combat soldiers valued the CIB is because it made no claims about bravery, valor, conduct, or heroism. All is says is: “I Was There.”
I remember watching Bob Dole on C-Span several years ago talking about his wartime service. Dole, you may recall, was a second lieutenant in the 10th Mountain Division who caught machine fire in his right back and arm while serving in Italy. It’s a small miracle he didn’t die. Fellow soldiers reportedly gave him so much morphine as he awaited evacuation that they wrote a large “M” on his forehead in his own blood so that a medic didn’t overdose him later.
Dole was characteristically blunt about GI cynicism toward military honors, which he apparently shared. In an unguarded moment, he speculated that many Medal of Honor winners might well have been those soldiers who had cracked mentally and had stormed enemy lines in a desperate attempt to commit suicide. He had seen it happen.
Few soldiers criticized the awarding of medals to the undeserved. It’s almost impossible to find a WWII veteran disparaging a medal recipient. Rather, they just tended to think that everyone in the lines deserved recognition and didn’t like certain individuals being singled out for special tribute.
Today, I hope, surviving WWII veterans value the medals they once dismissed as hollow honors. These medals, like family photos and ephemera from everyday life, grow in value as they age for they remind us of who we once were and what we once experienced.