The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps’ Medal of Honor is our country’s oldest continuously awarded decoration, originally created for enlisted men by Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles on Dec. 16, 1861. Although originally awarded for both combat and non-combat heroism, the Medal of Honor today is presented for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life, above and beyond the call of duty.”
The medal is a five-pointed star tipped with trefoils (point down). In the center of each arm is a crown of oak and laurel, representing strength and achievement. A circle of 34 stars surrounds the center of the star (and forms the base to each arm). The stars represent the number of States in the Union at the outbreak of the Civil War.
In the center of the medal is the standing figure of Minerva, the Goddess of civic strength and wisdom, warding off Discord (“the foul spirit of secession and rebellion”) who is represented in a crouching attitude, holding serpents in his hands which with are striking at Minerva with forked tongues. In her right hand she holds a shield taken from the Great Seal of the United States, and in her left she holds a fasces, which represents the lawful authority of the state.
The medal is suspended from the ribbon by an anchor which is connected by two rings that pass through the upper arms of the medal. The reverse of the Navy Medal of Honor is plain for engraving the recipient’s name.
Here are just a few of the recipients:
Benjamin Swearer was born in Baltimore in 1825 and served in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War. While serving in the crew of the steam sloop of war Pawnee, on August 29, 1861, he took part in the capture of Fort Clark, at Hatteras Inlet, North Carolina. Swearer rendered service throughout the action and had the honor of being the first man to raise the flag on the captured fort. For his “gallant service” during this action, Seaman Swearer was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Petty Officer Osmond Ingram
On October 15, 1917, USS Cassin was attacked by the German submarine U-61 while operating off the Irish coast. Petty Officer Osmond Ingram spotted an incoming torpedo and, realizing that it could hit near the depth charges at the ship’s stern, he ran aft in an attempt to release them before the torpedo arrived. However, the torpedo struck the ship before he could achieve his purpose and Ingram was killed in the ensuing explosion. For his “extraordinary heroism” on this occasion, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. Note – Petty Officer Ingram was the first U.S. Navy enlisted man killed in action during World War I.
Lt. John D. Bulkeley
On March 11, 1942, Lt. John D. Bulkeley, commanding officer of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Three, broke through Japanese lines to get Gen. Douglas MacArthur and his staff from Corregidor and Bataan, Philippine Islands, to Mindanao Island, from whence the General was flown to Australia to assume overall command of the Armed Forces in the Pacific. For his “extraordinary heroism, distinguished service and conspicuous gallantry” above and beyond the call of duty during the period December 7, 1941 to April 10, 1942, Bulkeley was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Lt. j.g. Thomas Hudner
On December 4, 1950, Ens. Jesse L. Brown of Fighter Squadron (VF) 32, embarked aboard aircraft carrier Leyte (CV 32), flew a close support run in a Vought F4U-4 Corsair over Hagaru-ri, North Korea. Antiaircraft fire struck the Corsair and Brown made an emergency landing beyond Chosin. Darkness approached and the temperature fell, and Brown’s wingman, Lt. j.g. Hudner, crash landed wheels-up and attempted to pull Brown from the wreck. The buckled fuselage trapped Brown’s legs, so Hudner packed snow around him to extinguish smoke, and returned to his aircraft to radio for a rescue Sikorsky HO3S-1, flown by 1st Lt. Charles C. Ward, USMC, of Marine Observation Squadron (VMO) 6. Brown died from his injuries, but Ward was still able to rescue Hudner, who subsequently received the Medal of Honor “For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as a pilot in Fighter Squadron 32, while attempting to rescue a squadron mate whose plane struck by antiaircraft fire and trailing smoke and forced down behind enemy lines.” Note – Ens. Jesse L. Brown was also famous for being the first African American to complete the Navy’s basic flight training program for pilot qualification and to be designated a naval aviator.
Vice Adm. James B. Stockdale
On September 9, 1965, James B. Stockdale, flying in a McDonnell Douglas A-4E Skyhawk, was shot down by North Vietnamese automatic weapons fire just south of Thanh Hoa, North Vietnam. After he was captured, the enemy imprisoned Stockdale at a former French compound on Hoa Lo Street in Hanoi that they converted into a prison, which American prisoners referred to as the ‘Hanoi Hilton.’ The North Vietnamese subsequently transferred him to a former French jail in north central Hanoi, administered by their Ministry of National Defense but which the Americans derisively dubbed ‘Alcatraz.’ The North Vietnamese repeatedly tortured Stockdale, at times restraining the pilot in heavy leg irons and detaining him in solitary confinement. Stockdale valiantly defied his captors’ attempts to compel him to sign false confessions, and disfigured himself by beating his face black and blue with a wooden stool. The naval aviator designed a prisoner communication system and a set of rules which gave his fellow prisoners strength and hope. For his “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty, “ Cmdr. Stockdale was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Senior Chief Edward C. Byers
In late 2012, Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator (SEAL/FMF/SW) Edward C. Byers, deployed with the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, got an urgent call to rescue an American doctor that had been kidnapped while working in Afghanistan. The team was dropped in by helicopter and made their way to the compound where the doctor was being held. After a brief exchange of gunfire, Byers was able to locate the hostage. Since there were still enemy targets in the building, Byers managed to get to the American and acting as a shield, jumped on his body to protect him from random gunfire. The American doctor was safe and the mission was a success. For “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as a Hostage Rescue Force Team Member in Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom,” Byers was awarded the Medal of Honor.