By Joshua L. Wick, Naval History and Heritage Command Communication and Outreach Division
Like a ship’s crest, the symbolism behind a physical medal associated with an award in America’s Navy isn’t represented by a single element, but is instead the combination of many extraordinary components.
Together with the multiple actions that combine to make the recipient worthy of recognition, the symbolism of the physical award becomes an integral part the compelling story every medal awarded by the Navy.
The unique historical evolution and design of our nation’s highest award, the Medal of Honor, is one of the many things that make it special to ALL service men and women, and perhaps especially so for those who have earned it.
For the more than 15 year-long conflict in the Middle East, that list has included the names of just two U.S. Navy Sailors both Special Warfare Operators (SEALs): Lt. Michael Patrick Murphy and Petty Officer Second Class Michael Anthony Monsoor. Both were presented the medal posthumously.
Most of us know of the medal, but we often don’t know the unique historical aspects that make up its symbolism and history. I surely didn’t.
I didn’t know that at one time the MOH was awarded for both combat and non-combat heroism.
I also didn’t know that it wasn’t until 1915 when legislation allowed naval officers to be eligible for the award.
The Navy and Marine Corps’ version of the Medal of Honor, originally known as the Navy ‘Medal of Valor,’ is the oldest continuously awarded decoration, even though its appearance and award criteria has changed since it was created specifically for enlisted men by then-Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles on December 16, 1861 with help by the Philadelphia Mint.
The simplicity of the material, fabric, and design of the 5-pointed star each have a specific meaning and have evolved as the medal itself has.
In the center of the original and current MOH stands two figures, Minerva, the Goddess of civic strength and wisdom, warding off Discord who is “the foul spirit of secession and rebellion” represented in a crouching stance, holding serpents in his hands which are striking at Minerva with forked tongues. In her right hand she holds a shield taken from the Great Seal of our Union, and in her left she holds fasces, which represents the lawful authority of the state. Upon her head an owl is perched symbolizing wisdom.
This scene is encircled by 34 stars representing the states of the Union at the time of the outbreak of the Civil War (when the award was established). Each of the five points of the inverted star includes a mixed cluster of oak and laurel leaves that represent strength (oak) and victory (laurel).
Instead of the inverted star, in 1919, the Navy adopted a new design known as the ‘Tiffany Cross,’ created by Tiffany & Company. The cross was supposed to be awarded for combat heroism while the old design was maintained and awarded for heroism in the line of one’s profession. Tiffany’s Maltese cross medallion represented the four cardinal directions and the sun, with eight points to symbolize the eight virtues of a knight. In 1942, the medal was discontinued due its unpopularity.
In 1913, the Navy adopted the blue silk ribbon which was the only major change to the 1861 design. In 1942, the Navy reverted to the original Medal of Honor design and included the light blue ribbon.
The ribbon was originally set vertically with a blue bar and 13 red and white stripes which represented the original 13 colonies. White symbolized purity and innocence; red symbolized hardiness, valor and blood; blue signified vigilance, perseverance and justice. The red, white and blue ribbon was replaced with the current light blue silk ribbon and the 13 white stars, to acknowledge the original colonies, and the birth of our nation.
The Navy’s Medal of Honor since 1942 has remained a five-pointed bronze star suspended from the flukes of an anchor which is connected by two rings that pass through the upper arms of the medal. It is also the only United States military award authorized to be worn around the neck rather than pinned to the uniform.
Today, the medal is an uncommon presentation which signifies the importance and the selfless actions performed by the individual receiving this award.
In February 2016, for the first time since Vietnam, a living U.S. Navy Sailor, Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator (SEAL) Edward C. Byers Jr., will once again stand alongside Sailors in history as he receives our Nation’s highest honor and carries on the history and heritage of this award starting with a simple yet powerful phrase: FOR CONSPICUOUS GALLANTRY AND INTREPIDITY AT THE RISK OF HIS LIFE ABOVE AND BEYOND THE CALL OF DUTY…
Learn more about the history and heritage of the Medal of Honor by clicking here.