August 7 is National Purple Heart Day, dedicated to recognizing the service and sacrifices of members of the U.S. military. The Purple Heart is awarded on behalf of the president to those wounded or killed by hostile action. It is a unique honor because it is not awarded based on recommendation. It instead spotlights the sacrifices and hardships made by courageous individuals like “Hap” Halloran and Leo Fenster, just two recipients of this hard-earned distinction during World War II.
The Purple Heart is the oldest military award still presented to members of the armed forces. On August 7, 1782, George Washington announced the purple-heart-shaped Badge of Military Merit would be awarded to soldiers who showed gallantry and fidelity during the American Revolution. After 150 years without use, the award was revived by the War Department in 1932 as the Purple Heart. And in 1942 it was redesignated as an award exclusively given for death or wounds in combat.
Estimates suggest that over 1 million Purple Hearts were awarded during World War II, though in battlefield conditions, the awarding of the medal was often not officially recorded. This was the case for Lieutenant Leo Fenster, a bombardier-navigator of the 344th Bomb Group who received his Purple Heart in an informal ceremony in front of the base latrine!
Despite the lack of ceremony, Fenster’s Purple Heart was well deserved. He completed 65 missions over German-occupied Europe and survived five crash landings during his service. Regarding his fifth crash, Fenster recalled, “of all the missions, I never incurred the volume and the intensity of ground fire we suffered on this one. The Germans literally threw their entire arsenal of ack-ack. The barrage was so unbelievably intense that for a period of 15 minutes before the dropping of the bombs and 15 minutes after, the noise of the continuous explosions engulfing us was overwhelming. Our plane, for a period of 30 minutes, rocked from side to side and up and down, and frankly I did not believe we would survive.”
Raymond “Hap” Halloran
Lieutenant Raymond “Hap” Halloran’s Purple Heart, on display in the American Air Museum, symbolizes his extremely difficult experiences as a prisoner of war. Hap, a B-29 Superfortress navigator, was shot down by a Japanese fighter on his fourth mission to bomb the Nakajima aircraft factory. He became a prisoner of war and was subjected to beatings, torture, solitary confinement, and even public display in a cage at the Ueno Zoo in Tokyo. Hap recalled, “We had a rule. You could never cry except in private, because if a person cried, the whole group could break down just anticipating.”
For many years Hap struggled to deal with the effects of his brutal treatment. As part of his recovery, he returned to Tokyo in 1985, worked with Japanese groups on reconciliation projects, and gave talks to Japanese schoolchildren. He even became friends with one of the pilots who attacked his aircraft and a former prison guard.
For more information and additional stories of Purple Heart recipients, please visit our website.
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