Medal of Honor: World War II Recipients

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Medal of Honor is the highest military award in the United States, but it means something slightly different in every war. In this lesson we'll look at the award during World War II and see what this tells us about American history.

The Medal of Honor

You can learn a lot about a country by the sort of awards it gives out. The United States does not knight people, like England does. Why? Because knighthood was traditionally reserved for those of privileged social class, and that social class never formally existed in America. So, how does America recognize its heroes? In military service, the highest-ranking award is the Medal of Honor, presented on behalf of Congress to persons whose actions are deemed to be above and beyond the call of duty. The Medal of Honor has been presented in every American conflict since the Civil War, when it was created, and in each war this award ends up meaning something slightly different. So, to understand the history of American wars, you can observe the histories of Medal of Honor recipients.

The Medal of Honor
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World War II

Let's look at the Medal of Honor during World War II. This global conflict started with the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. The United States was pulled into the war following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. For the next four years, American troops fought across the globe, engaged in both the European and Pacific theaters of the war. World War II was framed in terms of a solid and accepted moral ideology (more so than perhaps any other war in history, except the American Revolution). The Nazis were considered 'evil', democracy and freedom were 'good', and America was simply fighting to protect the liberties of oppressed people. This mindset justified American entry into the war, and the American people were strongly devoted to that ideology.

So, the Medal of Honor took on special significance. It was elevated from being a commendation for service to America to include recognition of service in protecting the freedoms and liberties of the world against absolute evil. Recipients of the Medal of Honor were celebrity heroes back home, and many were taken off the front lines to tour the nation, generally as spokesmen encouraging people to buy war bonds. In an era where there was no greater value than service to your country, the Medal of Honor recipients were practically gods.

WWII War Bonds poster showing a child with the Medal of Honor of an assumed deceased father
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Medal of Honor Statistics

Let's look at how this award was distributed throughout World War II. Of all the men and women who served in the American military (roughly 12 million by 1945), only 473 men were awarded the Medal of Honor. There were no female recipients. In fact, to this day there has only been a single female Medal of Honor winner, a nurse during the Civil War.

Did women play an active role in WWII? They certainly did. In fact, roughly 400,000 women served as nurses, secretaries, telephone operators, and even scientists, researchers, and low-level commanders. However, due largely to a lack of combat experience, none were nominated for the Medal of Honor. The Medal of Honor is given for extreme courage and selfless valor in war, so it is often awarded posthumously, or after the death of the recipient. In fact, roughly half of the WWII recipients who earned the medal were killed in action.

President Truman with a group of men receiving the Medal of Honor in 1945
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The first military action that earned someone the Medal of Honor was the attack on Pearl Harbor. Seventeen servicemen were awarded the medal for their actions during the attack. The first serviceman to receive the award was Sgt. John Basilone, a gunnery sergeant in Guadalcanal, a naval base in the Pacific where American forces first seriously engaged the Japanese. The youngest soldier to receive the award was Jack Lucas, who was only 14 years old when he lied his way into service. Lucas served in the battle of Iwo Jima and was only 17, technically too young to even fight. He received the Medal of Honor in 1945.

As far as various military divisions go, the U.S. Army received the most Medals of Honor, with 294 recipients. The Army Air Corps (the predecessor to the Air Force) had 38 recipients. In the other major grouping of service divisions, the Navy generated 57 recipients, while the Marines (who fought some of the fiercest battles of the war) had 83 recipients. Douglas Albert Munro was the only member of the Coast Guard to be awarded the Medal of Honor, which he received for leading a rescue mission that saved a battalion of Marines in the Pacific. Munro was killed in the effort, and remains the only member of the Coast Guard to have been decorated with the Medal of Honor to this day.

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