The Silver Star

Silver Star
Silver Star

The Silver Star Medal is the United States’ third highest award exclusively for combat valor, and ranks fifth in the precedence of military awards behind the Medal of Honor, the Crosses (DSC/NC/AFC), the Defense Distinguished Service Medal (awarded by DOD), and the Distinguished Service Medals of the various branches of service. It is the highest award for combat valor that is not unique to any specific branch; it has been bestowed by the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, Coast Guard, and Merchant Marines. It may be given by any one of the individual services to not only their own members, but to members of other branches of service, foreign allies, and even to civilians for “gallantry in action” in support of combat missions of the United States military.

Because the Silver Star is only awarded for combat valor, the only devices worn on it are:

  • Bronze Oak Leaf Clusters in lieu of additional Army/AF awards
  • Silver Oak Leaf Clusters in lieu of a sixth Army/AF award
  • Gold Star in lieu of additional Navy/USMC awards
  • Silver Star in lieu of a sixth Navy/USMC award.

(Seven Awards of the Silver Star then, would be displayed on the ribbon as a Silver OLC and 1 Bronze OLC for Army or Air Force. For Navy/Marine Corps Awards it would be a Silver Star plus 1 Gold Star.)

Established by President Woodrow Wilson as “Citation Star” for the Army

The Silver Star was established by President Woodrow Wilson as a “Citation Star” during World War I, and was solely a U.S. Army award, though it was presented by the War Department (U.S. Army) to members of the Navy and to U.S. Marines. (More on that can be found in the introductory pages to WWI awards.) Originally it provided for a 3/16″ silver star to be worn on on the ribbon of the service medal for the campaign for service in which the citations were given. Based loosely upon the earlier Certificate of Merit, the Citation Star was available retroactively to those who distinguished themselves by gallantry as far back as the Spanish-American War. (Subsequently it has been awarded for gallantry to Civil War heroes who were similarly cited for gallantry in action.) Prior to 1932 the General Orders announcing awards of the “Citation Star” typically began:

“By direction of the President, under the provisions of the act of Congress approved July 19, 1918 (Bul. No. 43, W.D., 1918), the following-named officers and enlisted men are cited for gallantry in action and a silver star may be placed upon the ribbon of the Victory Medals awarded to such officers and enlisted men.” (A narrative of the act or acts followed for each man thus cited.)

On February 22, 1932, the date that would have been George Washington’s 200th birth day, Army Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur revived General Washington’s “Badge for Military Merit (1782)” as the Purple Heart. That same year he also successfully advocated for conversion of the “Citation Star”. When his recommendation was approved by the Secretary of War, the 3/16′ silver star was converted from a ribbon device” to a full-fledged medal.

Certificate of Merit Medal_Silver Star predecessor
Certificate of Merit Medal_Silver Star Predecessor

The Silver Star Medal was designed by Rudolf Freund of Bailey, Banks and Biddle, and consisted of a gilt-bronze five-pointed (point-up in contrast to the point-down design of the Medal of Honor) star bearing a laurel wreath at its center. The ribbon design incorporated the colors of the flag, and closely resembled the medal’s earliest predecessor, the Certificate of Merit Medal. The reverse of the medal is blank, save for the raised text “For Gallantry in Action”, beneath which is usually engraved the name of the recipient.

Is it Silver?

The gold hue of the gilt-bronze star seems at odds with the award’s name, Silver Star. That title derives from the medal’s World War I lineage and the 3/6″ silver star, once displayed on a victory ribbon, and now prominently displayed in the center of the medal.

The Silver Star Medal remained exclusively an Army decoration until August 7, 1942, nearly a year after World War II began. On that date the Silver Star Medal was expanded by Act of Congress for award by the Navy Department for actions on or after December 7, 1941, (Public Law 702, 77th Congress).

We estimate that the number of Silver Stars awarded World War I to present is somewhere between 100,000 and 150,000. While that number seems quite large, when compared to the more than 30 million American men and women who have served in uniform during that time period, it is obvious that the Silver Star is a rare award, bestowed on fewer than 1 in every 250 veterans of military service.