Sixth Marine Division
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Sixth Marine Division Awards

    Prior to the formation of the Sixth Marine Division, the 22nd Marine Regiment and the First Provisional Marine Brigade were awarded the Navy Unit Commendation for actions on Eniwetok and Guam, respectively. This award is conferred on any ship, aircraft, detachment, or other unit of the U.S. Navy or Marine Corps that, subsequent to December 6, 1941, distinguished itself by outstanding heroism in action against the enemy, though not sufficient to warrant award of the Presidential Unit Citation.

More Awards Earned -- or Not Earned -- by the Sixth Marine Division
A military decoration is not something hung on a Christmas tree or placed on a birthday cake. It is an acknowledgement of a heroic act in a dangerous situation. It might have been Napoleon who said that men will risk their lives for a scrap of colored cloth. Whoever said that was wrong. Men don't fight with the expectation of receiving a medal. A man will perform in dangerous situations out of a sense of duty or because he cares what his comrades might think of him if he acts otherwise, the result of being in a military unit with high esprit de corps. He might also fight for self preservation.

There is no bravery unless fear is present. Bravery is not fearlessness. Bravery is overcoming fear while attempting to do what is necessary or expected. Decorations are awarded to those men who perform at a level above and beyond that which is expected.

A decoration is usually in the form of a medal, but can also be a ribbon bar or a badge. A medal is a medallion suspended by a ribbon that has a distinctive pattern of colors, usually vertical stripes. A ribbon bar can be used to represent a medal, but can also be a stand alone award. Badges are medallions without cloth. They can be fastened directly to the uniform or they can hang from a metal suspension bar fastened to the uniform.

Every medal is not a decoration. For example, men who served with the Sixth Marine Division are entitled to the Asiatic Pacific Campaign medal and the World War II Victory medal. These are service awards, not decorations. The decorations for valor that a Sixth Division Marine or Corpsman could have been awarded ranged from the Medal of Honor down to the Navy Letter of Commendation. The lowest decoration in 1945 was the Purple Heart medal, which was usually (but not always} awarded to men who were wounded in action.

All medals have ribbon bars that can be worn in lieu of the medals. An example of a ribbon bar that stands alone as an award is the Presidential Unit Citation. That ribbon can be worn by every man who served in the Sixth Marine Division on Okinawa.

Examples of badges are the marksmanship awards that every Marine recruit has had the opportunity to qualify for. The service rifles have changed over the years, but the highest award of an Expert Rifleman badge is usually earned by about 15 percent of recruits.

One of the officers in the Sixth Marine Division, Lt. Col. Larson, was entitled to wear both the Distinguished Marksman badge and the Distinguished Pistol Shot badge. These are gold badges, awarded for exceptional skill with the service rifle or the service pistol in special shooting competitions. Since 1900, Distinguished Rifle and Distinguished Pistol badges have each been earned by several thousand Marines. A smaller number of Marines, like Col. Larson, have been awarded both badges.

Since World War II, the U. S. Army has awarded two different kinds of badges for combat service. These are the Combat Infantryman's Badge and the Combat Medic's Badge, awarded to soldiers who have served in combat in front line infantry companies. A badge recently adopted by the Army is awarded to soldiers who are not assigned to front line units, but whose duties have put them in harm's way.

In the 1960s, the Navy created an award similar to the Combat Infantryman's Badge, in the form of a ribbon bar only award, called the Combat Action Ribbon. Marines and sailors who served in front line units in combat were eligible for this award, which was made retroactive to the year 1961. In the 1990s, it was decided that since sailors and Marines had served in combat prior to 1961, the Award of the Combat Action Ribbon would be retroactive to the year 1941. Many Marines and Corpsmen who served in the Sixth Marine Division on Okinawa are eligible for this award.

The book The History of the Sixth Marine Division that was published in 1948 lists about 700 awards for valor, from the Medal of Honor on down, awarded to men of the Sixth Marine Division for the battle of Okinawa. Additional awards were made after the information was gathered for the book, but fewer than 800 decorations for bravery were awarded. That comparatively low number was for an entire Marine division in a battle where the fighting was as fierce as any in World War II.

Sixth Marine Division men received more than their share of one decoration and that was the Purple Heart medal. Almost 7,000 Marines and Corpsmen received that medal. In the Sixth Marine Division, the Purple Heart medal was awarded only for wounds received in action from enemy fire. A high school and college classmate of mine, a member of a rifle company in the Army's 96th Infantry Division and a stalwart warrior, received his second Purple Heart medal for a sprained ankle, incurred while successfully eluding bullets fired from a Japanese Nambu machine gun.

Not all wounds merited the Purple Heart. To be awarded a Purple Heart medal, a wounded Marine had to spend at least one night in either an aid station or a hospital and be treated by a medical officer. Men whose wounds were treated by a Corpsman, but not by a medical officer, did not qualify for the medal.

One man in G Company of the 29th Marines was wounded six times, but was awarded only two Purple Heart medals. Five Marines in G Company, who returned from the hospital after being wounded, were later killed in action. Eight men were wounded severely enough to merit a Purple Heart, spent time in the Sixth Medical Battalion Hospital on Okinawa, returned to duty, and were wounded again. Another man returned from the hospital twice after being wounded, but was evacuated after being wounded for a third time. G Company had 63 Marines killed in action and 224 who received Purple Heart medals for being wounded in action. Every rifle company in the Sixth Marine Division had similar numbers.

One reason so few decorations for valor were awarded was due to the strict requirements of the Marine Corps for awarding them. A Marine's actions had to stand out above those of his comrades, difficult to do in outstanding units.

Another reason was the result of the high number of casualties. Acts of valor needed to have witnesses who could recommend decorations -- men still with their units after the battle was over who had survived without being killed or evacuated from the island after being wounded. An example of this is what happened to Corporal James Day.

In May 1945, Day occupied a shell hole located close to a hill that was later known as Sugar Loaf. The men with Day, with one exception, were all wounded or killed. During his time in the shell hole, Day was mainly alone. A man who was with him part of the time laid in the bottom of the hole, violently ill with dengue fever, and was later killed in the battle. The location of the hole was such that it could not be fired on directly from Sugar Loaf. The Japanese had to make frontal assaults on the hole. Even after being wounded, Corporal Day fought off attacks for several days and nights. When he was finally relieved, the bodies of 70 dead Japanese were counted in the proximity of the hole.

Day's battalion commander was killed. His company commander was wounded and evacuated from the island. No action was taken to decorate Corporal Day for his heroic actions during those days and nights in the shell hole.

After the death of Day's former company commander on Okinawa, the son of the company commander found some documents among his father's effects that described Day's heroism. Upon learning that Day had never been decorated for those actions, the son began a campaign to get Day a medal. Ten men who had observed various parts of Day's heroism had made statements, copies of which were found with their service records. Finally, in January 1998, almost 53 years later, Day (by then a retired Marine major general) received our nation's highest award for valor, the Medal of Honor, from the president of the United States. General Day died later that year.

The battle for the Island of Okinawa was a long one, lasting 82 days. Acts of heroism usually were not recorded immediately after they occurred, and many of those acts were forgotten. There was no system in place to seek out individuals who had observed acts of heroism.

A man leaving a relatively safe location to advance toward a place where a determined enemy might be waiting to kill him was being brave in the extreme. But medals were not awarded for that kind of bravery.

And so it was that in a battle with such hard fighting, so few decorations for valor were awarded to members of the Sixth Marine Division.

~ James S. White (29th Mar-3-G)

☆ Presidential Unit Citation
☆ Medal of Honor Recipients
☆ Awards the Sixth Was Eligible to Receive