The Medal of Honor is the United States of America’s highest military honor, awarded for personal acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty. The medal is awarded by the President of the United States in the name of the U.S. Congress to U.S. military personnel only. There are three versions of the medal, one for the Army, one for the Navy, and one for the Air Force. Personnel of the Marine Corps and Coast Guard receive the Navy version.
The Medal of Honor was created as a Navy version in 1861 named the “Medal of Valor”, and an Army version of the medal named the “Medal of Honor” was established in 1862 to give recognition to men who distinguished themselves “conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity” in combat with an enemy of the United States. Because the medal is presented “in the name of Congress,” it is often referred to as the “Congressional Medal of Honor”. However, the official name is the “Medal of Honor,” which began with the U.S. Army’s version. Within United States Code the medal is referred to as the “Medal of Honor”, and less frequently as “Congressional Medal of Honor”.
In 1990, Congress designated March 25 annually as “National Medal of Honor Day”. Due to its prestige and status, the Medal of Honor is afforded special protection under U.S. law against any unauthorized adornment, sale, or manufacture, which includes any associated ribbon or badge.
With the 19 double awards the Congressional Medal of Honor Society (CMOHS) total number of awards is 3514. A total of 19 men have been awarded the Medal of Honor twice. Fourteen of these received two separate medals for two separate actions, while five received both the Navy and Army Medals of Honor for the same action. One has been awarded to a woman: Mary Edwards Walker.
Nineteen men have been awarded the Medal of Honor twice. The first two-time Medal of Honor recipient was Thomas Custer (brother of George Armstrong Custer) for two separate actions that took place several days apart during the American Civil War.
Five “double recipients” were awarded both the Army and Navy Medal of Honor for the same action; all five of these occurrences took place during World War I. Since February 1919, no single individual can be awarded more than one Medal of Honor for the same action, although a member of one branch of the armed forces can receive the Medal of Honor from another branch if the actions for which it was awarded occurred under the authority of the second branch.
Arthur MacArthur, Jr. and Douglas MacArthur are the first father and son to be awarded the Medal of Honor. The only other such pairing is Theodore Roosevelt (awarded in 2001) and Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.
Five pairs of brothers have received the Medal of Honor:
- John and William Black, in the American Civil War. The Blacks are the first brothers to be so honored.
- Charles and Henry Capehart, in the American Civil War, the latter for saving a drowning man while under fire.
- Antoine and Julien Gaujot. The Gaujots also have the unique distinction of receiving their medals for actions in separate conflicts, Antoine in the Philippine–American War and Julien when he crossed the border to rescue Mexicans and Americans in a Mexican Revolution skirmish.
- Harry and Willard Miller, during the same naval action in the Spanish–American War.
- Allen and James Thompson, in the same American Civil War action.
Another notable pair of related recipients are Admiral Frank Friday Fletcher (rear admiral at the time of award) and his nephew, Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher (lieutenant at the time of award), both awarded for actions during the United States occupation of Veracruz.
Since 1979, 85 belated Medal of Honor decorations were presented to recognize actions from the Civil War to the Vietnam War. In addition, five recipients who names were not included on the Army Medal of Honor Roll in 1917 had their awards restored.
A 1993 study commissioned by the U.S. Army investigated “racial disparity” in the awarding of medals. At the time, no Medals of Honor had been awarded to American soldiers of African descent who served in World War II. After an exhaustive review, the study recommended that ten Distinguished Service Cross recipients be awarded the Medal of Honor. On January 13, 1997, President Bill Clinton presented the Medal of Honor to seven of these World War II veterans, six of them posthumously and one to former Second Lieutenant Vernon Baker.
In 1998, a similar study of Asian Americans resulted in President Bill Clinton presenting 22 Medals of Honor in 2000. Twenty of these medals went to American soldiers of Japanese descent of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (442nd RCT) that served in the European Theater of Operations during World War II. One of these Medal of Honor recipients was Senator Daniel Inouye, a former U.S. Army officer in the 442nd RCT.
In 2005, President George W. Bush presented the Medal of Honor to Tibor Rubin, a Hungarian-born American Jew who was a Holocaust survivor of World War II and enlisted U.S. infantryman and prisoner of war in the Korean War, whom many believed to have been overlooked because of his religion.
On April 11, 2013, President Obama presented the Medal of Honor posthumously to Army chaplain Captain Emil Kapaun for his actions as a prisoner of war during the Korean War. This followed other awards to Army Sergeant Leslie H. Sabo, Jr. for conspicuous gallantry in action on May 10, 1970, near Se San, Cambodia, during the Vietnam War and to Army Private First Class Henry Svehla and Army Private First Class Anthony T. Kahoohanohano for their heroic actions during the Korean War.
As a result of a Congressionally mandated review to ensure brave acts were not overlooked due to prejudice or discrimination, on March 18, 2014 President Obama upgraded Distinguished Service Crosses to Medals of Honor for 24 Hispanic, Jewish, and African American individuals—the “Valor 24″—for their actions in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Three were still living at the time of the ceremony.
On November 6, 2014, President Obama presented the Medal of Honor posthumously to First Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing for actions on July 3, 1863, during the Battle of Gettysburg. Lieutenant Cushing’s award is the last Medal of Honor to be presented to a soldier in the American Civil War, 151 years since the date of the action.
As of 29th April 2023, there have been 3536 Medal of Honor’s awarded to 3517 recipients (19 double awards) and following the death of Robert Simanek on 1st August 2022, there are now 65 living recipients of the Medal of Honor.