Women's Memorial Purple Heart Project

From the blood-spattered halls of Pearl Harbor’s military hospitals to the war-torn streets of Afghanistan and Iraq, for some 60 years military women have been among the multitudes of American service members to receive the Purple Heart. Though women have been direct recipients of this distinguished award beginning with World War II—first for those demonstrating exceptional heroism or bravery and now for those killed or wounded in combat—compiling a comprehensive list of women recipients had not been attempted until recently. Through a generous grant from the Military Order of the Purple Heart Foundation in 2000, the Foundation began the long and painstaking task of researching and identifying women veterans and servicewomen who have been awarded the Purple Heart. But there is still much work to be done we need your help.

Locating women Purple Heart recipients is an ongoing project for Dr. Judith Bellafaire, Chief Historian at the Women’s Memorial Foundation. “There is no centralized listing of women recipients,” she says. “We have identified 287 women to date, but we believe many more exist.” Using a combination of personal contacts and research in books, periodicals, the Internet and public records, Dr. Bellafaire has been adding to her list as recipient’s names come to light. She said she also relies heavily on referrals. “We need help from the community,” she says. “Any woman who has received a Purple Heart, or any one who knows of a woman recipient, living or deceased, should contact us so we may add names to our roster.”

200 Years of History
To help identify women Purple Heart recipients, Dr. Bellafaire became well versed in the history of the Purple Heart, a history as long and distinguished as the award itself. Established during the American Revolution, President George Washington bestowed the Purple Heart on three non-commissioned officers for “singularly meritorious action,” but it quickly fell into disuse. The medal remained unauthorized until 1932, when on the 200th Anniversary of George Washington’s birthday the Army War Department reinstituted the award as a commendation for bravery under fire. The 1932 action included a special clause allowing World War I veterans, including some nurses, to exchange previously received citations for bravery for the Purple Heart medal.

AnnieFox
Army nurse Annie Fox
Women's Memorial Register

By the early 1940s, America faced a war on two fronts and her daughters were among those serving and—for the first time—among those being directly cited for bravery under fire. Dr. Bellafaire says that the Women’s Memorial is still looking for World War II women recipients. Of particular interest are women who served at the Bataan Peninsula, North Africa, Anzio, the Battle of the Bulge and Pearl Harbor. For Army 1LT Annie Gayton Fox, Dec. 7 was not only a “day that will live in infamy,” but also a day that she herself made history: She was the first US service woman to be directly awarded the Purple Heart. While Japanese dive-bombers and Zero fighters screamed overhead at Pearl Harbor, Army hospitals on the island were overwhelmed with burn victims. Amid the noise and confusion, and dealing with shortages of supplies and even beds, Hickam Air Field Station Hospital chief nurse 1LT Fox worked ceaselessly and calmly despite the enormous loss of life around her.

The Purple Heart Today
Two years after 1LT Fox was cited for heroic service, America was still at war and the Armed Forces changed the criteria for receipt of the Purple Heart to those killed or wounded as a direct result of enemy action. Though the award remained virtually unchanged for 50 years, in 1996 the criteria were expanded to include military or civilian personnel killed or wounded by enemy action, terrorist activity or as a result of being held as a prisoner of war.

Women have been directly awarded the Purple Heart for their service in WWII, Korea, Vietnam and Operation Desert Storm, as well as the attacks on the Khobar Towers, the USS Cole and the Pentagon. Though Dr. Bellafaire has done extensive research on previous eras, conflicts and incidents involving military women, her current research includes the servicewomen serving in Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom. “Military women are serving in large numbers in these current operations; therefore, they are likely among the wounded,” Dr. Bellafaire says.

ErinLiberty
  US Marine Corps LCpl. Erin Liberty, an ammunition technician with Ammunition Company, 2nd Supply Battalion, 2nd Force Service Support Group, sustained several injuries when an improvised explosive device blew up near her convoy near Camp Fallujah, Iraq, June 23. The native of Niceville, FL, received a Purple Heart.
USMC photo by LCpl. Matthew K. Hacker
 

Among the 103 servicewomen from the current war already identified by Dr. Bellafaire is Marine LCpl Erin Liberty who received the Purple Heart after being wounded in Iraq in June 2005. One of 20 Marines and sailors riding in a convoy near Camp Fallujah, Iraq, she was injured when an improvised explosive device detonated near their seven-ton truck. In a Department of Defense news release, LCpl Liberty said the device was made up of five 155-millimeter incendiary rounds and a few propane tanks, which detonated about six feet from the truck. An ammunition technician with Ammunition Company, 2nd Supply Battalion, 2nd Force Service Support Group, from Camp Lejeune, NC, LCpl Liberty sustained second- and third-degree burns to her hands and broke a cervical vertebrae in her neck.

How You Can Help
Though the project has been underway for more than five years, Bellafaire and her colleagues at the Women’s Memorial will continue searching until their roster is complete and up to date, but community assistance remains key to project completion. If you are a service woman or veteran and have received a Purple Heart, or if you know a woman who has, from any era and any service, please contact Dr. Bellafaire via e-mail at history@womensmemorial.org or by calling 703-533-1155 or 800-222-2294.


The Military Order of the Purple Heart, organized in 1932, is a non-profit foundation dedicated to assisting America’s veterans wounded in combat. The foundation’s mission is to foster an environment of goodwill and camaraderie among combat-wounded veterans, promote patriotism, support necessary legislative initiatives and provide service to all veterans and their families.

February 2006

View the Feature Story Archive