The History of the Bronze Star Begins With a Colonel's Son
By Michael H. O'Shea
To tell the story of the Bronze Star Medal (BSM), one has to start with Colonel Russell Potter Reeder, born March 4, 1902, at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. A red-headed Army brat who moved around from base to base, Reeder’s father was an Army colonel who served in the Spanish-American War. When Reeder was 11, he saved a sergeant’s six-year-old son from drowning in Casco Bay near Fort McKinley, Maine, on August 5, 1913, and was awarded the Silver Life Saving Medal bestowed by the Treasury Department.
Reeder graduated from West Point in 1926 (majoring in football and baseball, in his words). When World War II began, he was serving in Washington with the General Staff. Army Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall sent Reeder to the Pacific to record the lessons learned from the fighting on Guadalcanal. Marshall distributed 1 million copies of Reeder’s advice.
In 1944, Colonel Reeder was in command of the 12th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division. The 3,000-man regiment landed on Utah Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944. They were dropped off two miles south of their landing area. At D-Day observances in Normandy in 1994, President Clinton quoted Colonel Reeder saying, when he realized he and his 3,000 men were miles from their objective, ‘‘It doesn’t matter. We know where to go.’’
Colonel Reeder led his regiment off the beach and fought inland. On June 11, he was hit by enemy artillery, a wound that would cause his left leg to be amputated. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, and Purple Heart. After the war, he medically retired and went on to spend 20 years at West Point working with the athletic programs and writing. Colonel Reeder and his sister Nardi Reeder Campion wrote Bringing Up the Brass, the biography of Sergeant Marty Maher, the athletic trainer at West Point for more than 50 years. The book was made into the 1955 movie The Long Gray Line, starring Tyrone Power as Maher.
While he was stationed in Washington during the war, Colonel Reeder developed the idea for a new award that small unit ground commanders could award quickly in the field to reward combat soldiers that were in the line for long periods, doing their job in a dedicated, meritorious manner or for acts of heroism. In his book, “Born at Reveille,” Reeder said his idea was to recognize the ground soldiers like the air crews had been with the newly created Air Medal, which was more easily earned than the Distinguished Flying Cross award. “At General Marshall’s headquarters we had one day off every 13 days, so I typed up the idea for a Ground Medal [his original name] and hand-carried it [to avoid it getting harpooned as it worked its way through normal channels] to General Leslie McNair, Commander of Ground Forces.”
On October 4, 1943, the Adjutant General, General Ulio wrote to General McNair, formally rejecting Reeder’s proposal for a Ground Medal. McNair, however, was not willing to allow it to drop, and showed the idea to General Marshall, who went to the president for approval. With a name change from Ground Medal to the Bronze Star Medal, the new award was established by Executive Order 9419 and signed by president Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 4, 1944, retroactive to December 7, 1941.
Dr. Charles P. McDowell who has written extensively about the BSM, found a letter General Marshall wrote in 1944. Marshall was so impressed with the effect on morale of air crews with the new Air Medal that he personally asked for and secured the president’s approval for a corresponding decoration for the infantryman, to be known as the Bronze Star. “I want to obtain the same effect with the BSM among the ground troops, particularly the infantry who suffer such a high percentage of our casualties, and I intend that it shall be awarded with the same freedom as the Air Medal to sustain morale and fighting spirit in the face of continuous operations and severe losses.”
From McDowell’s research:
The Bronze Star Medal may be awarded to individuals who, while serving in any capacity with the Armed Forces of the United States in a combat theater, distinguish themselves by heroism (on a level less than to be awarded the Silver Star) or by meritorious service (less than to be awarded the Legion of Merit medal) not involving aerial flight. The BSM has been awarded to civilians and Allied military personnel. The Bronze Star Medal ranks below the Soldier’s Medal (or comparable decoration from the other services—Navy and Marine Corps Medal, Airman’s Medal or Coast Guard Medal), but above the Purple Heart. Additional Army and Air Force awards are denoted by oak leaf clusters. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard BSM additional awards are denoted by gold stars on the ribbon. The Combat Distinguishing “V” Device is worn on the ribbon or ribbon bar when the Bronze Star Medal is awarded for heroism. The Bronze Star and Silver Star medals were designed by Rudolf Freund of Bailey, Banks and Biddle—a Philadelphia jewelry firm.
During World War II, the Army awarded the Combat Infantryman Badge and Combat Medical Badge to soldiers for exemplary conduct in sustained action against the armed enemy. In 1947, the Army took the position that this also met the criteria for those soldiers and any soldier mentioned in orders after December 6, 1941, or who had received a certificate for exceptional service in ground combat, to be awarded a Bronze Star. Defenders of the Philippines who served between December 7, 1941, to May 10, 1942, and had been awarded the Philippine Presidential Unit Citation, were finally recognized in 1983 for their sacrifice and gallant service and were also authorized the Bronze Star Medal.
A few of the famous recipients of the Bronze Star Medal include: Audie L. Murphy (two, World War II), Senator Daniel Inouye (World War II), Andy Rooney (World War II), Senator James Webb (two, Vietnam), Senator John McCain (three, Vietnam), and author James Brady (Korea). One of the first women to receive the Bronze Star was First Lieutenant Cordelia E. Cook, Army Nurse Corps, during World War II while serving in Italy. The first woman to receive the Purple Heart as a result of combat was First Lieutenant Annie G. Fox, while serving at Hickam Air Field during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. Lieutenant Fox was later awarded the Bronze Star in June 1947. At the U.S. embassy in Cuba, Ernest Hemingway was awarded a Bronze Star for his service as a civilian war correspondent in Europe.
And yes, Colonel Russell Potter Reeder did receive the Bronze Star Medal in 1945 while recuperating from his wounds.
“I want to obtain the same effect with the BSM among the ground troops, particularly the infantry who suffer such a high percentage of our casualties, and I intend that it shall be awarded with the same freedom as the Air Medal to sustain morale and fighting spirit in the face of continuous operations and severe losses.” — General George C. Marshall
–Michael H. O'Shea is a writer and a member of the USO Board of Governors.
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