Purple Heart Day

BY RAN VAN COR
The Greenville Standard

The Purple Heart was first created on August 7, 1782, in Newburgh, N.Y., General George Washington, the commander in chief of the Continental Army, created the “Badge for Military Merit,” a decoration consisting of a purple, heart-shaped piece of silk, edged with a narrow binding of silver, with
the word Merit stitched across the face in silver. The badge was to be presented to soldiers for “any singularly meritorious action” and permitted its wearer to pass guards and sentinels without challenge. The honoree’s name and regiment were also to be inscribed in a “Book of Merit.” Washington’s “Purple Heart” was awarded to only three known soldiers during the Revolutionary War: Elijah Churchill, William Brown and Daniel Bissell, Jr. The “Book of Merit” was lost, and the decoration was largely forgotten until 1927. After the end of the American War of Independence, no medals were awarded until 1932 when General Charles P. Summerall, the U.S. Army chief of staff, sent an unsuccessful draft bill to Congress to “revive the Badge of Military Merit.” In 1931, Summerall’s successor, General Douglas MacArthur, took up the cause, hoping to reinstate the medal in time for the bicentennial of George Washington’s birth. On February 22, 1932, Washington’s 200th birthday, the U.S. War Department announced the creation of the “Order of the Purple Heart.” According to a circular dated February 22, 1932, Purple Heart Medals were to be awarded to those wounded or killed while serving in the United States Armed Forces as a result of enemy action on or after April 5, 1917. The United States officially joined the First World War I on April 6, 1917. The holiday was first observed in 2014, it is considered an unofficial observance meaning that businesses, government offices do not close on this day. At current estimates about, 1.8 million Purple Hearts have been awarded to date and Greenville’s own native son Retired U. S. Army Major Gerald W. Johnson is among them. The truth is most men don’t discuss such things, and some absolutely refuse to mention it at all, but Johnson was very gracious to have granted me the interview. Our conversation started with him talking about how he joined the National Guard when he was seventeen (17) and he made light of the reason he joined. He said, “They played ball around Greenville and the National Guard fielded a team that year in uniform and nobody else had one. I meant I was going to be in a uniform next season. The soft spoken gentleman that sat before me shared stories of how he became an Officer, a teacher in Phenix City, regular Army and of course his time in Special Forces . His assignments in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam were remarkable and captured my undivided attention. I found myself leaning forward to hear, and hinged on every word the Major spoke. I listened intently for over two hours before the Major finally explained the action in which he received his Purple Heart. The Major said, “We
were in the Mekong Delta in a fire fight with the Viet Cong and something struck my head, of course with a head wound there’s lots of blood, he said. They were throwing a lot of hand grenades and I got a chunk of shrapnel stuck in my forehead. My team cleaned me up and we continued our mission.” The Major nonchalantly describes the action then moved on to the rest of the story. Mesmerizing, stately and amazing are the words I would use to describe the 77 year-old stately Iconic figure of a gentleman. Every teenage boy in Butler County, no in Alabama, should have the honor of sitting and listening to the Major speak. I mentioned that he should write a book and the Major said, “I’m working on one.” I promise I will be the first to stand in line to get one, once it’s written. Thank you Sir, words can’t fully express the gratitude we as a nation owe you, God Bless.

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