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Belated Medals

May 2024
2min read

Our “Postscripts” item on the origin of the Purple Heart medal (April/ May 1981) brought a singular response from H. B. Hersey of Placentia, California: “One of my grandfather’s fellow homesteaders and neighbors in northeast South Dakota was a Civil War veteran named Joseph W. Cotes. As a child, I would see him whenever I visited my grandfather’s homestead. I hadn’t seen him in some years when, in 1938, I was in the area, went to his farm, and was delighted to find him hale and hearty, though in his nineties. At that time he showed me what he told me was a Purple Heart medal.

“He said that it originally had been established by George Washington for valor, that its use had been discontinued, and that it had been re-established as an award for wounds. When the Army and Navy departments went through their records to determine which of their veterans to give the medal to, they found that the oldest living wounded Civil War veteran was none other than he, J. W. Cotes. ‘Were you wounded?’ I asked. ‘Oh, yes/ he said. ‘I was shot through the lung at the Battle of Shiloh. At the GAR encampment at Gettysburg battlefield President Hoover pinned the Purple Heart medal on my breast.’

“In the last paragraph of your ‘Postscript’ you state that the medal was renewed on February 22, 1933. That date was only ten days before Hoover left office. My memory after all these years tells me that Mr. Cotes said the GAR encampment at Gettysburg was in 1932. I’m not positive of that; I am positive that he said President Hoover. Did he make a slip of the tongue and mean to say President Roosevelt?

“I don’t think the last sentence of your article is quite right. In 1933 Douglas MacArthur wasn’t a promising young brigadier general. He was a four-star general, was chief of staff of the Army, and was no longer young. As chief of staff, he may have received the medal for wounds suffered during World War II but I wonder if Mr. Cotes was not the first to receive it.”

Probably not, as it turns out. We checked with the historian’s office of Gettysburg Historical Monument, which informed us that there had been no GAR encampment at Gettysburg in 1932—but there was one in 1938, when veterans of both North and South gathered at the battlefield to mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of the great conflict that took place there in 1863. Mr. Cotes, who died later in 1938 at the age of ninety-four, probably received the medal then, and it must have been conferred upon him by FDR, who gave the anniversary’s dedication. Reader Hersey is dead right about MacArthur, of course; in 1932 he was a good deal more than “promising” and was fifty-three.

On the subject of medals awarded after the fact, we should also mention that in October of last year the Army finally got around to the members of the Intelligence and Reconnaissance Platoon of the 394th Infantry Regiment, 99th Infantry Division. These eighteen men—four of whom have since died—were outnumbered by fifteen to one in a skirmish during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944 but managed to hold out long enough to block a German assault that could have resulted in an early collapse of the American position near Lanzerath, Belgium. After military regulations setting a time limit on the awarding of medals had been superseded by a special act of Congress, the Army passed out three Distinguished Service Crosses, six Silver Stars, and nine Bronze Stars—making the platoon the most highly decorated of the war.

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