See dozens of vintage US Army & Navy shoulder insignia, plus WWII military medals & ribbons

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WWII military medals: These are the badges of courage (1943)

Our soldiers and sailors now may win seventeen new decorations and service medals — all adopted since the war emergency [WWII]. Popular Science Monthly presents these new honors, and the principal older ones.

By Bernard Wolf / Photography by Robert F Smith – Popular Science (1943)

In the eventful months since Sept. 8, 1939, when President Roosevelt declared a state of national emergency to exist, no less than 17 new medals and ribbons have been authorized for an award by the President or high officials of the armed forces.

Today, servicemen, many of them back from combat duty in foreign theaters of war, are beginning to appear on the streets of our towns and cities with bright new ribbons displayed on their chests, each one of them telling a story about its wearer, if you can interpret its meaning.

Two of the new decorations — the Legion of Merit and the Air Medal — were created for the personnel of both armed services. The Legion of Merit will also be given to the military personnel of friendly foreign nations.

A series of service medals, including the American Defense Service Medal, the Army of Occupation of Germany (1918-1923) Medal, and the campaign medals for the three theaters of the global war — American European-African-Middle Eastern, and Asiatic-Pacific — was also designed for both the Army and the Navy.

WWII War medals

Further, the Navy adopted for its own use two established Army decorations, the Silver Star and the Purple Heart, and authorized one new medal, the Navy and Marine Corps Medal (design not yet approved) for its own a branches. The Army — established a Good Conduct Medal to round out its list of awards for its own personnel.

Finally, Congress authorized a Medal for Merit (design not yet approved) as the civilian counterpart of the Legion of Merit and, for the first time in history, two more awards intended specifically for merchant seamen, the Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal and the Torpedoed Seaman Bar.

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‘Two other unique awards have also been set up recently: the Army’s Organization Blue Unit Citation and the Navy’s Presidential Unit Citation, each a ribbon which denotes that the wearer belongs to some unit of the armed forces which has been twice cited by the President.

These devices approximate in function the Fourragére, the famous braided shoulder cord awarded by the French to members of all U.S. Army organizations cited in World War I.

WWII military medals & decorations – Honors

Popular Science Jul 1943 War medals 3

The marks of honor worn by members of our armed forces fall into two chief categories. Decorations, properly speaking, are awards for outstanding heroism or valor, both combat and noncombat, or for extremely valuable and meritorious service.

Service medals, on the other hand, are intended to show that the recipients have participated in particular campaigns, whatever their roles may have been. In order to conserve critical metals, several of the new medals will not be issued for the duration, only the appropriate ribbons being given.

Some of the new decorations and service medals represent radical departures from tradition. The Legion of Merit, for example, is the first medal issued in different rankings. It has been designed in four degrees — those of Chief Commander, Commander, Officer, and Legionnaire.

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WWII military medals: Decorations of the Navy

Popular Science Jul 1943 War medals 4

WWII military medals: US Army


Ribbons worn in lieu of medals are arranged on the wearer’s left breast, beginning at the right, in the order of precedence of the decorations. When more than one line is worn, the lines overlap. Service medals follow decorations in the order of the date of service, with the Good Conduct Medal worn on the left of all service medals.

Oak Leaf Clusters, representing additional citations, are worn on the ribbons of the appropriate decorations; battle stars are affixed to service ribbons for the campaigns to which they pertain. While the rank of all decorations has not been finally determined, the following is accurate at present:

  • Medal of Honor.
  • Distinguished Service Cross.
  • Distinguished Service Medal.
  • Silver Star.
  • Purple Heart.
  • Soldier’s Medal.
  • Distinguished Flying Cross.
  • Legion of Merit.
  • Medal for Merit.
  • Air Medal.
  • Organization Blue Unit Citation.
  • Army of Occupation of Germany (service medal).
  • American Defense Service Medal.
  • Theater Campaign Medals.
  • Good Conduct Medal.

Popular Science Jul 1943 War medals 5

WW2 military shoulder insignia: US Army units are marked by colorful patches (1945)

LIFE magazine – August 6, 1945

Modern armies are built on each soldier’s pride in his own unit. A soldier with lukewarm feelings toward his country’s armed forces has fierce pride in the outfit to which he himself is attached.

In 1918, men of the 81st Division asked permission to wear the figure of a wildcat on their shoulder sleeves to identify their division. The insignia did so much for morale that the Army soon made shoulder insignia mandatory.

Soldiers attached to a division wear divisional insignia. Men working at headquarters of a corps (composed of two or more divisions) wear corps patches. The same system is followed up through headquarters of armies (two or more corps) and army groups (two or more armies).

WW2 military shoulder insignia patches

Army Air Forces have a patch for each air force. Army Service Forces have insignia for each service command, in addition to patches designating specialized functions. Personnel of defense and base commands, departments, theaters of operations and other smaller units have their own patches.

Insignia change as units are activated or inactivated and even as the course of the war itself changes. Their design is based sometimes on fact, sometimes on whimsy.

The “A” in the First Army’s insignia, for example, stands for “First Army,” since it is also the first letter in the alphabet. But the constellation of Orion in the 27th Division’s patch is a pun on name of that outfit’s World War I commander, Major General J. F. O’Ryan.

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Army Ground Forces, Army Service Forces, Departments, Special Insignia

Army Ground Forces, Army Service Forces, Departments, Special Insignia

Corps, Defense and Base Commands, Theaters

WW2 military shoulder insignia patches Corps, Defense and Base Commands, Theaters

Vietnam War map: Corps to corps (1968)

Army, Air Forces, Armored Divisions

Army, Air Forces, Armored Divisions - WW2 military shoulder insignia patches

Infantry, airborne & cavalry divisions

Infantry, airborne and cavalry divisions - WW2 military shoulder insignia patches

WW2 military shoulder insignia patches - Infantry, airborne and cavalry divisions

WWII newspaper headlines from the D-Day invasion of France (1944)

Decorations and service ribbons of US Armed Forces (1943)

LIFE Oct 4, 1943 WWII Military Decorations 1

LIFE Oct 4, 1943 WWII Military Decorations 2

The Purple Heart

Army and Navy now award this oldest decoration more than any other. It goes to all men wounded in action.

LIFE Oct 4, 1943 Military Purple Heart

A top military patch collector (1940s)

Top US patch collector is Richard Marco, 17, of New York City, who has more than 1000 emblems and insignia, including some from allied armies.

A top military patch collector (1940s)

Camel tells you what those WWII military ribbons mean (1945)

Camel tells you what those WWII military ribbons mean (1945)

Audie Murphy, WWII’s most decorated soldier

LIFE Nov 17, 1947 Audie Murphy WWII

The Congressional Medal of Honor

In April 1862, four Union sergeants and two privates captured a Confederate railroad train at Big Shanty, Ga. To them, President Lincoln presented the first medals authorized by Congress to be given to enlisted men ineligible for other decorations for gallantry in action.

They were the first recipients of what is today the highest military honor given to American soldiers or sailors — the Congressional Medal of Honor awarded for a heroic deed “above and beyond the call of duty.”

Later in the Civil War, the medal was used as bait to prevent desertion. In 1863, when the 27th Regiment of Maine Volunteers defending Washington was faced with mass desertion, every loyal soldier who staved on the Job was promised a Medal of Honor. Of the 864 men in the regiment, only 309 volunteered to stay, but eventually, all 864 were given the medal anyway.

In 1917, when the Medal of Honor had assumed its present importance, these awards were withdrawn as illegal. Also ruled illegal were awards to “Buffalo Bill” Cody and Dr. Mary Walker, a woman surgeon with the Union Army who got Congress to pass a law allowing her to wear pants in Washington.

For the first World War, 121 Congressional Medals of Honor were awarded. Up until last week, 55 had been awarded for heroism in World War II. Of these 25 were awarded posthumously, their winners having been killed in the execution of the deed that brought them glory.

LIFE Oct 25, 1943 WWII Congressional Medal of Honor

The Army and Navy medals are shown above. The Army’s is a bronze star surrounded by a green laurel wreath, suspended from a bronze bar inscribed “Valor,” surmounted by an eagle. The Navy’s is a star on which Minerva, representing the U.S., stands with her left hand resting on fasces and with her right holding a shield emblazoned with U. S. arms. She is repulsing Discord.

The requirements for the medal are roughly the same for both Army and Navy, except that the Army’s medal is given only under combat conditions; the Navy’s either in actual combat with the enemy or “in line of his profession”‘ (noncombat work).

In both cases, however, the soldier’s or sailor’s field commander makes a recommendation to the respective Army or Navy Board of Decorations sitting in Washington, which passes on the merits of the case.

The President makes the award, personally if possible, in the name of Congress. Actually, Congress has nothing to do with the award except that it may initiate legislation for a Medal of Honor, as it did with Lindbergh in 1927.

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