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Half A Million Purple Hearts
Why a 200-year-old decoration offers evidence in the controversy surrounding the Hiroshima bombing.
December 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 8
THE BEST WORLD WAR II SURPLUS: 495,000 MEDALS. IN 1999 THE MILITARY ORDERED THE FIRST MAJOR PRODUCTION SINCE THEN.
In all, some 1,506,000 Purple Hearts were made for the war effort with production reaching its peak as America geared up for the invasion of Japan. The unexpected ferocity of the Pacific fighting led to last-minute scrambling by the Navy to have awards ready for the invasion of the home islands. The Navy had believed that its initial 1942 order for 135,000 Purple Hearts would be sufficient for all wartime needs but found that it had to order 25,000 more in October 1944—and, alas, 50,000 more in the spring of 1945. These orders could not be fulfilled until as late as the next year—months after soldiers and Marines were expected to fight their way ashore while sailors battled fresh waves of Kamikazes. The director of the mint reprimanded her Philadelphia facility, which was responsible for producing the medal’s central components: “Think of the 20,000 heroes at Iwo Jima, due to receive the Purple Hearts which we are unable to supply!” The Navy brass swallowed hard and made arrangements with the Army to “borrow” 60,000 decorations.
And then the war ended. The most wonderful of all its surplus: 495,000 unused Purple Hearts.
By 1976 roughly 370,000 of these had been earned by servicemen and women who fought in America’s Asian wars as well as in trouble spots in the Middle East and Europe. This total included a significant number issued to World War II and even World War I veterans whose paperwork had finally caught up with them. That year also saw a small production run of additional Purple Hearts before a warehouse-load—125,000 decorations —of decades-old inventory was rediscovered after falling off the books.
Increasing terrorist activity in the late 1970s and 1980s resulted in mounting casualties among service personnel, and a decision was made to inspect the remaining stock. Thousands were labeled “unsalvageable,” but thousands more were re-furbished and repackaged between 1985 and 1991. By the end of 1999, most of the refurbished medals had been shipped to other government customers, and the Defense Supply Center Philadelphia entered into contracts with Graco Industries of Tomball, Texas, for the first large-scale production of Purple Hearts since World War II.
NATO had begun its bombing campaign in Kosovo less than two months earlier, and in the volatile political climate of the day, it was unlikely the order would escape notice in the press. It didn’t. Nor was it missed by certain World War II veterans who five years earlier had worked with the Smithsonian Institution on the fiftieth anniversary display of the Enola Gay , the B-29 that dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima. Controversy had erupted over the presentation at the National Air and Space Museum when the veterans protested that the exhibit portrayed the Japanese as victims of a needless slaughter.
The veterans came under heavy criticism for insisting that the bomb had ended the war quickly and ultimately saved countless thousands of American—and Japanese—lives. Their opponents maintained that military men had later invented projected casualty numbers in order to justify the use of the weapon on a wholly beaten nation.
Bill Rooney, a former intelligence officer with the B-29s, said that if the information about Purple Heart production had been more widely known during the controversy, “the notion that Truman simply made up huge casualty estimates after the fact to justify dropping the bombs would have been more effectively countered.” James Pattillo, then president of the 20th Air Force Association, stated that “detailed information on the kind of casualties expected would have been a big help in demonstrating to modern Americans that those were very different times.” Medical and training information in “arcanely-worded military documents can be confusing,” said Pattillo, “but everyone understands a half-million Purple Hearts.”