© Sandy Williams Driver
Three years after my daddy died, he was issued one of the most prestigious honors a soldier can receive, the Purple Heart. During World War II, my father, Dalton F. Williams, began his military enlistment in a Cavalry unit, but was transferred to the 475th Infantry when the need arose. In the fall of 1944, he was shipped to the Asiatic-Pacific where his company joined forces in Burma with a group of men known as Merrill's Marauders. The new brigade-sized unit was renamed the Mars Task Force.
Dad only fought in those steamy jungles in that exotic land for about three months before he was shot in the left hand by a .25 caliber Japanese bullet. It traumatically amputated his first finger on that hand and then traversed through the middle two fingers before exiting through the pinkie, taking the tip off. He stayed in hospitals over in India until March 1945, and was then transferred back to the United States, where he stayed in a rehabilitation unit for seven months. He was issued an Honorable Discharge in October 1945.
I have no firsthand knowledge of the horrors my father witnessed on that foreign soil because he never spoke of his experiences to anyone, ever. I often asked what had mangled his hand, but a blank stare was always my answer. Those horrific images were locked away in his soul and like thousands of other young soldiers of a gruesome war, he never wanted to unlock that box and allow those nightmares to see the light of day. His memories were a heavy load he carried on his strong shoulders all the way to the grave. Not once during his lifetime did he ever ask for glory or medals to honor his service to his country.
Shortly after his death from cancer on May 28, 1999, I began a quest to solve the mystery of Dad's injury. Two years later, I had most of the answers about his military career. The Veteran's Administration provided me with the copies of his medical file, which clearly states that the young private had received his wounds "in enemy action." I immediately petitioned the Army for the medals my father had earned but never received. In the fall of 2002, my mother and I were presented with those nine medals.
Over these last few months, I have taken the awards out of the military issue blue boxes and studied them several times. While all the medals are precious to me, the Purple Heart is the one I pause and reflect the longest over.
The deep purple ribbon with white borders is stately and noble. The enameled heart hanging below it is heavy and bears the likeness of George Washington in Continental uniform on the front. His bronzed profile depicted against a deep purple background reminds me that he is the father of this great country of ours. The back of the bronzed edged heart bears the inscription, "For Military Merit Dalton F. Williams."
The other eight medals presented posthumously to my father represent something he gave to his country, something he did, like good conduct and an expert rifleman's badge. The Purple Heart stands for something he lost … his physical sacrifice for the United States. The story behind that medal shaped my father into the man I knew and loved.
The first U.S. military decoration, the Purple Heart, was devised by George Washington on August 7, 1782, at his Newburgh, New York headquarters. He named it the Badge of Military Merit and it was for "any singularly meritorious action." The honoree's name and regiment were also inscribed in a Book of Merit. That first badge was the "figure of a heart in purple cloth or silk edged with narrow lace or binding."
Three heroes from the Revolutionary War were awarded the prestigious honor. On May 3, 1783, Sergeants Elijah Churchill and William Brown received the Badge of Military Merit from George Washington. On June 10, 1783, Sergeant Daniel Bissell, Jr. received one, also. Those are the only three known recipients of the award during the Revolutionary War.
For more than 150 years, no more American soldiers received the Badge of Military Merit. It was simply forgotten. On October 10, 1927, Army Chief of Staff, General Charles P. Summerall directed a draft bill to be sent to Congress to "revive the Badge of Military Merit." The Army withdrew the bill on January 3, 1928, but the office of the Adjutant General filed all correspondences for possible future use.
Numerous private efforts were made to have the medal reinstated, but it wasn't until January 7, 1931, that Summerall's successor, General Douglas MacArthur, confidentially reopened the case and began work on a new design. Miss Elizabeth Will, an Army heraldic specialist in the Office of the Quartermaster General, was named to redesign the newly revived medal, which became known as the Purple Heart.
The War Department announced the new award on February 22, 1932. After the award was reinstated, recipients of a Meritorious Service Citation Certificate during World War I, along with other eligible soldiers, could exchange their award for the Purple Heart.
At the same time the award was given new life, the Army revised regulations to define the conditions of the award: "A wound which necessitates treatment by a medical officer and which is received in action with an enemy, may in the judgment of the commander authorized to make the award be construed as resulting from a singularly meritorious act of essential service."
The Navy Department did not authorize the issue of the Purple Heart, but Franklin D. Roosevelt amended that. By Executive Order on December 3, 1942, the award was extended to the Navy, Marine Corps, and the Coast Guard beginning December 6, 1941. President Harry S. Truman retroactively extended eligibility to the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard to April 5, 1917, to cover World War I.
President John F. Kennedy extended eligibility on April 25, 1962, to "any civilian national of the United States who, while serving under competent authority in any capacity with an armed force..., has been, or may hereafter be, wounded." President Ronald Regan, on February 23, 1984, amended President Kennedy's order, to include those wounded or killed as a result of "an international terrorist attack." Purple Heart Medals were awarded to military members or next of kin who were wounded or killed in the terrorist acts of September 11, 2001.
The Purple Heart is ranked immediately behind the Bronze Star in order of precedence among the personal awards; however, it is the world's costliest military decoration. Nineteen separate operations are required to make it from the rough heart stamped from bronze to the finished medal. It is plated with gold and enameled in various colors and suspended from a purple and white ribbon. The finished product is one of the most beautifully designed of all U.S. decorations.
My daddy's Purple Heart is one of my most treasured possessions. He never received the chance to see the prestigious award and view his name inscribed on the back, but he lived it. And that's all he ever asked for.
Sandy Williams Driver is a freelance writer from Albertville, Alabama.
© Sandy Williams Driver
Published by U.S. Legacies: August 2004