Prior to the the American Revolution, European armies honored only high-ranking officers who had achieved victory in battle. There was no such honor for the common soldier.
To George Washington, the “road to glory in a patriot army and a free country is…open to all”. General Washington’s general orders of August 7, 1782, began: “The General ever desirous to cherish virtuous ambition in his soldiers, as well as to foster and encourage every species of Military merit, directs that whenever any singularly meritorious action is performed, the author of it shall be permitted to wear on his facings over the left breast, the figure of a heart in purple cloth…”
For the first time in history, recognition for meritorious service in time of war, was available to the common soldier. George Washington personally bestowed the Badge of Merit on only three non-commissioned officers, though evidence suggests that other such awards were bestowed by subordinate officers.
The Badge of Merit fell into disuse after the Revolution, though the award was never formally abolished.
In 1927, Army Chief of Staff General Charles Summerall directed that a bill be drafted and submitted to Congress, “To revive the Badge of Military Merit”. This badge of merit came to be known as the Purple Heart. General Douglas MacArthur, Summerall’s successor, began work on a new design for the medal in 1931. Elizabeth Will, heraldic specialist with the Quartermaster General’s office, created the design we see today.
A War Department circular dated February 22, 1932 authorized the award to soldiers who had been awarded the Meritorious Service Citation Certificate, Army Wound Ribbon, or were authorized to wear Wound Chevrons on or later than April 6, 1917, the day the United States entered WWI.
At that time, the Purple Heart was awarded not only for wounds received in action against enemy forces, but also for “meritorious performance of duty”.
The first Purple Heart was awarded to Douglas MacArthur himself.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9277 of December 3, 1942, discontinued the award for meritorious service, and broadened service-related injury eligibility requirements to include all armed services personnel.
Following the defeat of Nazi Germany in WWII, Military planners put their minds to the invasion of Imperial Japan. Knowing nothing of the atomic bombs which would put a quick end to the war that August, authorities ordered 500,000 purple hearts. To this day, American military forces have yet to use them all up. As of 2003, 120,000 of these Purple Heart medals, remained in inventory.
On November 22, 1944, Time Magazine reported the first Purple Heart awarded to an animal. “Chips“, a German Shepherd/Collie/Husky mix, also received the Distinguished Service Cross and Silver Star, for single “handedly” wiping out an Italian machine-gun nest, during the Allied invasion of Sicily.
William Thomas, Commander of the Order of the Purple Heart at that time, complained that giving such medals to a dog “insulted” the men who received them.
History is silent on the matter of precisely which purple recipient was thus insulted.
Accounts differ as to whether Chips was actually stripped of his medals. Apparently, Army Adjutant General James Ulio ruled that Chips could keep them, but no more such awards would be given to dogs. To this day, Chips remains the only “official” canine recipient of a Purple Heart.
Lucca, a German Shepherd–Belgian Malinois mix who lost a leg to an IED in Afghanistan, received an “honorary” Purple Heart, donated by a guy who already had two. German Shepherd “Lex” was injured in Iraq, in an incident which killed his handler, Marine Corporal Dustin J. Lee. He too was given a medal donated by a Purple Heart recipient. Somehow, neither of those guys appear to have been insulted by the award.