Soldiers have been decorated by their grateful leaders throughout history, though not always through the awarding of medals. Decorations for heroism or distinguished services appeared in armies of the ancients, including among the Greeks and Romans. Roman commanders wore laurels signifying victory over their enemies, while rank and file soldiers could receive a stiffened neck ring known as a torc. Vikings wore a similar device, as did Celts who performed heroically in battle. By the medieval period, decorations for military exploits included knighthoods, or inclusion in military orders, and in some cases, sinecures which provided financial rewards for life.
Medals worn on dress uniforms emerged in the late 18th century in both European armies and in the Continental Army of the United States. George Washington established the Badge of Military Merit for the latter in 1782. Designated specifically for non-commissioned officers and enlisted men – the first such award in military history – the badge was in the shape of a heart, made of purple cloth with the word “merit” embroidered within. Washington’s papers include three instances in which he personally awarded the badge to soldiers of the Continental Army. The badge was the forerunner of today’s Purple Heart, awarded to all who suffer injuries in combat conditions. Over time, numerous other military decorations were adopted by all nations, awarded to soldiers for valor. Here are 10 of the most decorated soldiers in history.
10. Audie Murphy
Audie Murphy had careers as an actor, songwriter, and rancher following his service in the United States Army during World War II. He enjoyed considerable financial success, though he eventually lapsed into addiction to barbiturates while suffering from a series of monetary setbacks. Underage for military service when the United States entered World War II, he falsified his date of birth by one year and served in the Italian Campaign and the invasion of southern France. During his service in Europe he was awarded every military decoration for valor available to the United States Army, including the Medal of Honor. Some awards he achieved more than once, among them the Purple Heart, the Silver Star, and the Legion of Merit. He also achieved a battlefield commission as a lieutenant for his actions in combat.
Murphy was highly decorated by allies as well. From the French he received the Croix de Guerre, and the Grade of Chevalier in the Legion of Honor. Belgium also awarded Murphy with their Croix de Guerre. But the soldier paid a heavy price for his valor. For the rest of his life Murphy suffered from insomnia, likely a symptom of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Then known as “battle fatigue,” Murphy spoke openly about the many issues he suffered, including the dissolution of his marriage due to his mood swings and violent tendencies. He lost considerable sums of money earned from his acting and writing careers through gambling on horses and poor investments. He died in a plane crash in 1971 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. The book To Hell and Back, which he wrote, and the film of the same name in which he portrayed himself, give accounts of his military career.
9. William Coltman
William Coltman, known as Bill to his friends, worked as a gardener and Sunday school teacher in Staffordshire before volunteering for military service in 1915. He was 23 when he entered the British Army. Three years later, as a Lance Corporal, Coltman served at the front as a stretcher bearer. In October 1918, British troops withdrew under fire from a high point known as Mannequin Hill, near the commune of Sequehart in northeastern France. Coltman learned that the withdrawal had left wounded men on the field, some still under fire from the Germans. Disregarding the orders of his superiors to withdraw with the troops, Coltman instead ran to treat the wounded in the field and evacuate them to safety.
Three times Coltman carried wounded comrades on his back to the security of the British lines, under fire as he advanced, treated them, and then conveyed them to safety. He continued to treat wounded men for 48 hours without rest, saving the lives of dozens of men. He was awarded the Victoria Cross, invested by King George V at Buckingham Palace following the war. Coltman also received the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) twice, for actions which took place on separate occasions earlier in the war. The citation for the first DCM reads, in part, “His absolute indifference to danger had a most inspiring effect upon the rest of his men.” Coltman was the most decorated Allied enlisted soldier of the First World War — awards achieved through his actions saving the lives of wounded men, rather than inflicting casualties on the enemy.
8. Rene Fonck
Rene Fonck was a French fighter pilot during the First World War, credited with shooting down 75 enemy aircraft. He was the leading Allied ace of the war, based on the number of aerial victories. He claimed a much higher total, 142, and in all likelihood his actual number of victories exceeded 100. Only Manfred von Richthofen, Germany’s fabled Red Baron, scored more victories in aerial combat over the course of the war. Fonck received numerous awards for his service, including the Legion of Honor (as a Grand Officer, the second-highest of the five distinctions within the Legion), the Croix de Guerre, and the Medaille Militaire from France. Allied services also honored him with awards and decorations.
Great Britain awarded Fonck with its Military Medal, Military Cross, and Distinguished Conduct Medal. Belgium decorated Fonck with its Croix de Guerre. During the war Fonck rose in rank from private to Colonel, achieving fame throughout France. Following the war he entered politics, being elected to the French Parliament. He represented Vosges in that body from 1919 to 1924. Later he gained notoriety for his relationship with Herman Goering in the late 1930s. During World War II the Vichy government of France suspected Fonck of double-dealing, and following the German takeover of all of France Fonck was imprisoned by the Gestapo in a concentration camp at Drancy. He survived the war, dying in Paris in 1953.
7. Paddy Mayne
Robert Blair Mayne grew up in County Down, Ireland, where he excelled at rugby, marksmanship with a rifle, and his studies. He entered military service in the spring of 1939, and served with several units, among them the Number 11 Commando, formed after the debacle in northern France in 1940. Mayne became a founding member of the British Special Air Service (SAS) under debated circumstances (some say he was under arrest and discharged from Number 11 Commando for assaulting a fellow officer; others dispute the assertion) in 1941. Mayne served with SAS in the North African desert, conducting operations and raids behind German and Italian lines. He was a pioneer in the use of jeeps to raid enemy airfields, destroying aircraft on the ground.
Mayne personally destroyed over 100 German aircraft, 47 on a single raid. Among the many awards with which he was decorated are the Distinguished Service Order (with three bars, each signifying an additional award), as well as the French Legion of Honor and Croix de Guerre. Controversially, he never received the Victoria Cross, though officers including Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery believed he deserved it. In 2006, the House of Commons debated awarding Mayne the Victoria Cross, in the end declining to issue the medal. Mayne died in a car accident in Ireland in 1955. Of the over 4,800 recipients of the DSO during World War II, only eight received three bars to the award. None have ever received four.
6. Thomas Custer
Thomas Custer is less widely known than his flamboyant and controversial older brother, George Armstrong Custer. Thomas joined the Union Army in 1861 at the age of 16, entering the ranks as a private of volunteers. By the end of the war less than four years later, Thomas held the rank of brevet (temporary) Lieutenant Colonel of the 6th Michigan Cavalry. He was also the first man in American history to receive the Medal of Honor twice. The first award came after Thomas personally captured the regimental standard of the Second North Carolina Cavalry, as well as three officers and 11 enlisted men. He captured the confederates single-handedly.
The second Medal of Honor came after Thomas captured another regimental standard after being shot in the jaw, covering him in blood. When he returned with the standard to his own lines his brother George, whom he served as an aide, ordered him to report to the surgeon. Thomas refused and George had his brother placed under arrest and escorted to the rear. Following the Civil War, Thomas continued to serve with his brother on the plains, and died with him at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in June 1876. Another brother, Boston Custer, died in the same fight, as did several other relatives of the Custer family. George Armstrong Custer gained lasting fame, though his younger brother distinguished himself throughout his largely forgotten career.
5. Lewis “Chesty” Puller
The Navy Cross is awarded to members of the United States Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard for extraordinary heroism. During a 37-year career in the Marines Corps, Lewis “Chesty” Puller received the Navy Cross five times. He also was awarded the US Army’s equivalent Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit (twice), the Bronze Star, the Air Medal (three times) and the Purple Heart. Puller is credited as being the most decorated US Marine in the history of the Corps. He rose in the ranks from private to retire as a Lieutenant General.
Puller fought guerrillas in Haiti and Nicaragua during the 1920s, after receiving a commission following Officer Candidate School. During the interwar years he served in and later commanded Marine detachments on warships, served in China, and rose in rank to command a battalion on the eve of World War II. He received his first Navy Cross for actions in Nicaragua in the 1930, his third during the fighting on Guadalcanal (where he was wounded), and his fifth while commanding the First Marine Division in Korea in December 1950. His Silver Star was awarded for his actions in the invasion at Inchon during the Korean War. Puller remains a legend in the US Marine Corps, and is further honored with ships, buildings, and highways bearing his name. He died in Virginia in 1971.
4. Daniel J. Daly
It was the exploits of the US Marines in battle in France during World War I which inspired Chesty Puller to enlist in the Corps. Among the exploits were those of Daniel Joseph Daly, one of only 19 men to be awarded the Medal of Honor twice. Daly served in China during the Boxer Rebellion, where he held a position single-handedly, inflicting more than 200 casualties on the Boxers, who attacked him repeatedly. Daly held the position until reinforcements arrived, a feat for which he was awarded his first Medal of Honor. The second came 15 years later, after actions against the Haitian bandits. Daly was part of a small party of Marines ambushed by a party of 400 or more of the enemy. He was cited for “exceptional gallantry against heavy odds throughout this action.”
But it was during World War I, at the Battle of Belleau Wood, where Daly achieved his greatest fame in the Marine Corps. Under heavy artillery and machine gun fire, Daly called out to his fellow Marines, “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?” as he led a counterattack. It was successful. Along with his two Medals of Honor, Daly also received the Navy Cross, the Army’s Distinguished Service Cross, and the French Medaille Militaire, Croix de Guerre, and the Fourragere. Daly was close to becoming the only person to be awarded the Medal of Honor three times. After being recommended for the award by his commanders, bureaucrats in Washington decided three awards to one man was too much. He received the Navy Cross and DSC for his actions at Belleau Wood instead.
3. Jean Thurel
Jean Thurel, born in 1698 (or 1699, sources vary), had the distinction of living in three centuries when he died in 1807 at the age of 108. Seventy-five years of his long life were spent in the Touraine Regiment of the French Army, though some sources claim 90 years and others 92. He served under King Louis XV and Louis XVI, from 1716 to 1792. He was present at several of the notable European battles of the 18th century, including Minden, Fontenoy, and the siege of Kehl. In 1787, the 88-year old Thurel marched with his regiment from Tours to Brest, a distance of over 300 miles. Throughout his military career he remained a soldier in the ranks, disdaining promotion and continuing to serve as a fusilier, though his weapons and equipment changed. His extraordinary length of service made him the only man to receive the French award the Medal of the Two Swords – given for completing 24 years of service – an almost unbelievable three times.
Louis XVI pinned the third award on the octogenarian soldier in 1787. His brother, the Comte d’Artois, granted Thurel a sword. Louis also granted the obviously loyal soldier a pension as reward for his services. In 1792 Thurel at last retired from military service, but continued to live a vibrant life in Tours. In 1802, First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte created the Legion of Honor, and in 1804 awarded it to Thurel. Napoleon also granted the old soldier, who did not simply fade away, a pension and the title of “oldest soldier of Europe.” Jean Thurel died in Tours in 1807, at a time when the French Empire under Napoleon reached its greatest height. He then faded into obscurity.
2. Joe Ronnie Hooper
Joe Ronnie Hooper first served his country in the United States Navy, enlisting in that service in 1956. After an honorable discharge in 1959 he entered the Army the following year. Through numerous posts he developed the reputation of being a troublemaker, and went through several non-judicial punishments. In 1967 he deployed as a sergeant with the 101st Airborne Division to Vietnam. During his tour in Vietnam he served with distinction, earning a recommendation for the Medal of Honor for his actions near Hue in 1968. Later that year he returned to the United States and accepted a discharge from the Army. In 1969 he enlisted yet again, serving first in Panama and then returning for another tour in Vietnam.
In December 1970 he was promoted to second lieutenant by direct commissioning. For his actions during his Vietnam tours of duty he was awarded the Medal of Honor, the Silver Star (twice), the Bronze Star (six times), the Air Medal (five times), and the Purple Heart (eight times). Hooper was one of three American soldiers wounded eight times during the war, and one of the most decorated soldiers of the Vietnam War. Following his discharge from the Army in 1974, Hooper remained in the reserves, though he attended events sporadically. In 1979, after a lengthy battle with alcoholism and PTSD, Hooper died of a cerebral hemorrhage while in Louisville, Kentucky. He was 40-years-old. Hooper was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
1. James Elliott Williams
James Williams was an enlisted man in the United States Navy over a period of 20 years. He entered the Navy in 1947 and remained on active duty until his retirement in 1967, serving in both the Korean War and Vietnam. In Korea he led raiding parties of sailors and Marines along the coast, deployed in small boats. Williams first went to Vietnam in 1966, as part of the creation of the “brown navy” to interdict North Vietnamese and Viet Cong traffic along the waterways and inlets. A first-class petty officer and boatswain’s mate, Williams commanded Patrol River Boat (PBR) 105 during a search for Viet Cong fighters in the Mekong Delta. The search led to a three hour battle with North Vietnamese sampans and ground units, with Williams’ boat supported by another PBR and attack helicopters.
For his actions leading the American units that day, in which more than 50 enemy boats were destroyed, Williams was awarded the Medal of Honor. The North Vietnamese sampans were coordinating with junks bearing supplies, all of which were destroyed, and the Americans claimed over 1,000 Viet Cong killed in the battle. Williams’ Medal of Honor was the highest of the numerous awards he received during his career, which included the Navy Cross, two Silver Stars, the Legion of Merit, two Navy and Marine Corps Medals, three Bronze stars — all for valor — as well as three Purple Hearts. He is regarded as most decorated enlisted man in the history of the United States Navy. Williams died in Florence, South Carolina in 1999, after a second career in law enforcement.