3 Stories of Bravery that Help Show What a Purple Heart Means

By Danielle DeSimone

What qualifies for a Purple Heart? The Purple Heart Medal is well-known for being presented to service members who have been wounded or killed as a result of enemy action while serving in the U.S. military. However, the medal also has a history and unofficial tradition of being presented to those who have shown exceptional courage in battle, as well as fidelity to their fellow service members.

This legacy of bravery and selflessness is apparent in the stories of all those who have received the Purple Heart medal, and it is why on Purple Heart Day on August 7, we take a moment to acknowledge three stories of bravery that show just what receiving a Purple Heart means.

John F. Kennedy

Photo credit Naval History and Heritage Command

Lt. John F. Kennedy (pictured far right) with the crew of the USS PT-109, the patrol torpedo boat he commanded, in 1943.

Before he was a member of Congress or president of the United States, John F. Kennedy was a Naval reservist - and a Purple Heart recipient. As World War II broke out, a young Kennedy was inspired to fight for his country and enlisted in the Navy Reserves. He was soon deployed to the Pacific theatre, where he commanded a patrol torpedo boat.

Before he was president of the United States, John F. Kennedy served in the Navy in World War II, where his brave actions led to injury and he was awarded the Purple Heart. | Photo credit John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum Photograph by Frank Turgeon Jr.

In August 1943, Lt. Kennedy and his crew were ordered into combat near the Solomon Islands and, one night, their boat was rammed by a Japanese destroyer and cut in half. As the pieces of the boat began to sink, several men were killed, and others were flung overboard into a sea of burning oil. Kennedy dove in after them, rescuing three men. For 12 hours, Kennedy and the remaining surviving crew members clung to the ruined hull of their boat in the water, hoping to be rescued. During these perilous hours, Kennedy famously asked his men to vote on what they would rather do – fight on or surrender to the Japanese.

“There’s nothing in the book about a situation like this,” Kennedy reportedly said. “A lot of you men have families and some of you have children. What do you want to do? I have nothing to lose.”

The crew voted to press on and started to swim to shore. Kennedy refused to let his back injury from the collision stop him from towing a badly burned crew member to safety. He placed the man in a life jacket and then swam with the life jacket strap clenched between his teeth, dragging his crew member behind him for three miles. They eventually reached a nearby island, bringing the man – and leading the rest of his crew – safely to shore, where they were later rescued.

Kennedy was awarded the Purple Heart, as well as the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, for his incredibly brave actions, with no thought to his personal safety.

Duane E. Dewey

Cpl. Duane E. Dewey threw himself on a grenade to protect his squad members while serving in the Korean War, sustaining multiple shrapnel wounds. | Photo credit Marine Corps University

The U.S. Marine Corps’ core values are legendary. They have instilled a sense of honor, courage and commitment in every Marine that has passed through the Corps’ ranks – including Marine Cpl. Duane E. Dewey. Dewey was deployed to Panmunjom, Korea, during the Korean War and was serving as the leader of a machine gun squad when his position was attacked. They were surrounded and outnumbered, and it was the middle of the night.

Dewey, who had been wounded earlier in the attack by a grenade, was being treated by a Navy medical corpsman when a second grenade landed at his feet. Without thinking, and although already in incredible pain, Dewey yanked the corpsman to the ground, yelled a warning to the rest of the squad, and flung himself on the grenade, shouting, “Doc, I got it in my hip pocket!”

The grenade lifted Dewey up off the ground. He sustained multiple shrapnel wounds throughout the lower part of his body and was later found to have also been shot in the stomach. But, miraculously, he survived – and so did all of his fellow squad members, whose lives he had saved.

“You must have a body of steel,” President Dwight D. Eisenhower commented while presenting Cpl. Duane E. Dewey with the Medal of Honor. Dewey also received the Purple Heart Medal for his injuries. | Photo credit Courtesy Photo via Michigan Live

Dewey was presented with the Purple Heart Medal while he recovered in Hawaii. He also received the Korean Service Medal with two battle stars and the United Nations Service Medal. Just a few months later, he was presented with the Medal of Honor by President Dwight D. Eisenhower – the first Medal of Honor the president had ever presented – and upon reading his citation, the president commented, “You must have a body of steel.”

More impressive than Dewey’s survival of the grenade was his commitment to the values of the Marine Corps and to his fellow Marines, even in the most dire of circumstances.

John A. Chapman

Photo credit U.S. Air Force

Sgt. John A. Chapman’s brave actions during a rescue mission in Afghanistan in 2002 led to his injury and then death while fighting al-Qaida and Taliban forces. The rescue team leader explicitly credited Chapman with having saved the lives of the entire rescue team.

In the mountains of Afghanistan in 2002, Sgt. John A. Chapman boldly put his life on the line and sacrificed himself to save his teammates, becoming a Purple Heart recipient, Medal of Honor recipient and Air Force hero.

While on a reconnaissance mission, the airman’s Chinook helicopter was struck by rocket-propelled grenade and enemy fire, knocking a Navy SEAL onboard out of the helicopter and into enemy territory. The damaged aircraft quickly performed a controlled crash landing a few miles away from the fallen SEAL. As the helicopter they had been operating was damaged and unable to transport the crew or rescue the SEAL member, Chapman called another helicopter to their location.

Once they had made it to the second helicopter, Chapman and his teammates immediately launched a rescue mission for the fallen SEAL and returned to his last-known position. Upon exiting this second helicopter, the team came under enemy fire, and they headed toward higher ground. Unfortunately, the enemy attack increased, and the team came under additional heavy machine gun fire, now from only a few yards away.

Air Force Combat Controller John A. Chapman. | Photo credit U.S. Air Force

Chapman ran ahead of his teammates, pushed through five feet of snow – exposing himself with minimal coverage or protection – and charged directly at the al-Qaida and Taliban forces. He was shot multiple times, but still he pressed on, engaging the enemy despite his fatal injuries for more than an hour.

Because of his brave and selfless actions, Chapman is credited with saving the lives of his teammates, who were able to secure the mountaintop and survive.

Chapman was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart Medal and the Medal of Honor – making him the first airman to receive the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War. His legacy of courage lives on in the Department of Defense (DoD)’s Hall of Heroes in the Pentagon, which Chapman was posthumously inducted into in 2018.

On this Purple Heart Day, we take a moment to acknowledge the sacrifices of all Purple Heart recipients who were willing to put their lives on the line for this nation and all Americans.

This story originally appeared on USO.org in 2020. It has been updated for 2021.

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