The decoration, which goes to American troops wounded in battle and the families of those killed in action, had been only one of countless thousands of supplies produced for the planned 1945 invasion of Japan, which military leaders believed would last until almost 1947.
Fortunately, the invasion never took place. All the other implements of that war -- tanks and LSTs, bullets and K-rations -- have long since been sold, scrapped or used up, but these medals, struck for their grandfathers, are still being pinned on the chests of young soldiers.
Remarkably, some 120,000 Purple Hearts are still in the hands of the Armed Services and are not only stocked at military supply depots, but also kept with major combat units and at field hospitals so they can be awarded without delay.
But although great numbers of the World War II stock are still ready for use, the recent production of 9,000 new copies was ordered for the most simple of bureaucratic reasons. So many medals had been transferred to the Armed Services that the government organization responsible for supplying them had to replenish its own inventory.
In all, approximately 1,506,000 Purple Hearts were produced for the war effort with production reaching its peak as the Armed Services geared up for the invasion of Japan. Despite wastage, pilfering and items that were simply lost, the number of decorations was approximately 495,000 after the war.
By 1976, roughly 370,000 Purple Hearts had been earned by servicemen and women who fought in America’s Asian wars, as well as 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 or who filed for replacement of missing awards.
It was at this point that the Defense Supply Center in Philadelphia (DSCP) found that its decades-old stock of Purple Hearts had dwindled to the point that it had to be replenished.
The organization ordered a small number of medals in 1976 to bolster the "shelf worn" portions of the earlier production still retained by the Armed Services at scattered locations around the globe. It wasn’t long, however, before an untouched warehouse load of the medal was rediscovered after falling off the books. The DSCP suddenly found themselves in possession of nearly 125,000 more Purple Hearts.
Increasing terrorist activity in the late 1970s and ’80s resulted in mounting casualties among service personnel and a decision was made to inspect and refurbish all of the remaining stock. Fully 4,576 of the 124,588 medals stored in the Pennsylvania warehouse were deemed to be too costly to bring up to standards and were labeled "unsalvageable." The remaining decorations were refurbished and repackaged between 1985 and 1991.
Demand for the item was high. By the end of 1999, most of the refurbished medals had been shipped to other government customers and the DSCP entered into contracts for the first large-scale production of Purple Hearts since World War II.
Veterans of World War II were keenly interested in the new development, particularly those who had worked with the Smithsonian Institution on the 50th Anniversary display of the Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber that dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima. Controversy had erupted over the Smithsonian’s presentation at the National Air and Space Museum, when veterans protested that the multimedia display and exhibit script was crafted in a way that portrayed the Japanese as victims, and not instigators, of the war.
The veterans were heavily criticized in some academic circles for their insistence that the dropping of the atom bomb had ended the war quickly and ultimately saved countless thousands of American -- and Japanese -- lives during an invasion.
When hearing of the new production, Jim 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."
Gary Hoebecke is one of the soldiers who received Purple Hearts during service in Vietnam for wounds suffered in 1965, 1968 and 1969. The retired lieutenant colonel was amazed that the decades-old medals are still being used.
"With all the waste and screw-ups," said Hoebecke, "it’s quite remarkable that they have kept track of that stock and are still using them."
When told that 125,000 had effectively been lost until after the Vietnam War, Hoebecke laughed. "Now that’s the Army I know!" he said, adding, "I’m glad we didn’t have to use them."
But perhaps the most poignant appreciation came from a fellow Vietnam vet who learned for the first time that he had received a medal minted for the grandfathers of he and his buddies. "I will never look at my Purple Heart the same way again," he said.
This article draws on material first published by the authors in a piece written for American Heritage,"Half a Million Purple Hearts."