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To Thomas E. Martin
April 10, 1944 [Washington, D.C.]
Dear Mr. Martin:
My attention has been called to a statement in the press indicating your concern over the number of Army decorations that have been awarded in this war.1 I am frankly disturbed about the apparent general lack of understanding of combat decorations and their value in sustaining the morale of the men who are doing the actual fighting. Napoleon is alleged to have said “Give me enough ribbon to place on the tunics of my soldiers and I can conquer the world.” I cannot vouch for the accuracy of that quotation but I certainly share the view which such a statement indicates.
We have awarded, since the outbreak of the war, probably 12,000 combat decorations other than the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal, about 3,000 decorations for distinguished or exceptionally meritorious service, and about 135,000 air decorations (Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal). When the size of our Army, and the extensiveness and nature of its operations are considered, the number of awards in the first two categories is surprisingly low.
The air decorations should be measured against the remarkable achievements of the Air Forces and the special nature of continuing air combat. For example, at the end of 1943 the Army Air Forces had flown 392,000 combat sorties, exposing 1,375,000 individuals to the danger of enemy fire. They have lost their hands and their feet in flying and fighting at temperatures far below zero. They suffered heavy loss of pilots or crew members, and almost as many sorties have been flown in the past three months as in all of 1943.
These are the men who pioneered the daylight bombing over Europe when the usual pessimistic predictions were that such tactics would be suicidal. They are the men who fought the Japanese air force against tremendous odds until they ultimately gained air superiority. They continued to fly missions when their chance of safe return was apparently less than one in five. They still take heavy casualties day after day, week after week. Yet their morale has continued high and their achievements have soared, and one of the reasons is that they have positive evidence that their work has been given immediate recognition.
No one who considers all of these things, and who understands the morale effect of the prompt bestowal of a bit of ribbon and bronze, would ever feel that our awards of combat and air decorations have been excessive. In fact, I wonder if we have given the men sufficient recognition. It is a tragic fact that the men who have received the most decorations are usually lost to us by their own continued daring and leadership.
It has been my opinion that one of the grave errors of the previous war was our ineffective policy in the award of decorations and our dilatory policy regarding campaign ribbons. We seemed to begrudge prompt recognition of the men who did the fighting, suffered the hardships, and took the losses. After the war the attempt was made to correct this, but as might have been expected, more of the importunate than the modest and deserving received these belated awards, and heavy political pressures were usually involved.
From the beginning of this war I determined that we would not repeat what clearly appeared to me were serious mistakes in the past. I have impressed upon our commanders in the field not only the value of decorations and their proper use, but of the necessity for their prompt bestowal. And, incidentally, there is small chance of the wrong or undeserving man getting the decorations if it is given in the field. From personal observation of the results, I am convinced that my view is the correct one.
I was so impressed with the effect of the Air Medal and the adverse effect of the lack of a suitable award of the same level for the long-suffering infantrymen that I personally asked for and secured the President’s approval to a corresponding decoration for the ground forces, to be known as the Bronze Star.2 I want to obtain the same effect with this 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.
In short, it is my sincere belief that we cannot do too much in the way of prompt and appropriate recognition of the men who carry the fight and live under the conditions that exist at the fighting front.
I intend to see that these young soldiers enjoy this small fruit of their military effort while they are amongst their war comrades and confronted with the ordeal of further fighting.
The immediate award of the campaign or theater ribbon had a somewhat different purpose. One of our most serious morale problems related to the men serving in isolated distant posts, often under extremes of temperature and usually in discomfort. They did not have the stimulation or excitement of contact with the enemy to fix their interest or satisfy their normal desire for active service, and they suffered increasingly from loneliness, from the fact that they could do little to merit public recognition. Therefore the theater ribbon. The fact that some officer in Washington may wear one or two is not a proper argument against the present policy. Furthermore, in considering matters of this kind there is little similarity today with our deployment and the short duration of the war in 1917-18.
I am writing to you personally and at considerable length because of the importance that I attach to this subject. I think it essential that our friends in the Military Affairs Committee understand the problem, and have a complete appreciation of how we are using our decorations, and why we are proceeding along this line.3
Document Copy Text Source: George C. Marshall Papers, Pentagon Office Collection, General Materials, George C. Marshall Research Library, Lexington, Virginia.
Document Format: Typed letter.
1. For Congressman Martin’s statement, see note 1, Marshall Memorandum for General White, G-1, April 5, 1944, Papers of George Catlett Marshall, #4-334 [4: 388-89].
2. For Marshall’s views regarding the Bronze Star Medal, see Marshall Memorandum for the President, February 3, 1944, Papers of George Catlett Marshall, #4-225 [4: 261-63].
3. Martin made General Marshall’s letter public on June 15. (New York Times, June 16, 1944, p. 10.) For related information, see the previous document (Papers of George Catlett Marshall, #4-339 [4: 394-96].
Recommended Citation: ThePapers of George Catlett Marshall, ed.Larry I. Bland and Sharon Ritenour Stevens(Lexington, Va.: The George C. Marshall Foundation, 1981- ). Electronic version based on The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, vol. 4, “Aggressive and Determined Leadership,” June 1, 1943-December 31, 1944 (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), pp. 396-399.