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World War II: Military Uniforms and Medals

Do you have an old military uniform at home, or have you wondered about the meanings behind those colorful little ribbons adorning the uniforms in museums and movies? Even without a name or service record, military uniforms and service ribbons can tell a viewer something about the wearer’s military service, regardless of the conflict in which the wearer participated.

During World War II, ribbons and medals were awarded based on service in each theater of the war, as well as for actions, sacrifices, and achievements. Stars, knots, oak leaf clusters, or clasps might also be added to ribbons or medals to signify additional recognition. Campaign medals, such as the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, and the American Campaign Medal were awarded to recognize service in different theaters of World War II. Bronze, silver, or gold stars represent service in one or more qualifying battles or campaigns. The Good Conduct Medal was awarded to recognize exemplary conduct. Bronze, silver, or gold knots were added to represent additional awards of this medal.

Three medals side by side pinned to pocket of military uniform. Left to right: Bronze Star Medal with "V" device, Purple Heart, Good Conduct Medal.
These medals were awarded to Private First Class Francis DeCapot, who served in the Army as a member of the Allied occupying forces following World War II and in the Korean War. Left to Right: Bronze Star Medal with "V" device, Purple Heart, Good Conduct Medal.

Medals awarded for actions or sacrifice are higher in the order of precedence, and are therefore positioned at the top of a group of ribbons on a uniform. The Bronze Star is one of these. The Bronze Star Medal is awarded for heroic or meritorious service or achievement in combat. Devices might be added to signify why the medal was awarded, such as the “V” device for valor. The Purple Heart, the oldest military award in the United States, recognizes servicemembers who were wounded or killed in action. Subsequent awards of the Purple Heart are represented by oak leaf clusters.

Not all medals and ribbons awarded during World War II came from the United States government. The Philippine Liberation Ribbon, for instance, was awarded by the government of the Philippines for service during the liberation of the Philippines from Japanese control.

White patch on sleeve of Navy whites uniform. Patch features a navy blue eagle over the letter "Q" in a diamond and two navy blue chevrons. This patch identified the wearer as a Specialist Q Second Class.
Patch on the sleeve of a Navy uniform denoting rank. This WAVES uniform was worn by Specialist Q Second Class Christinella Vacca Hanley, a communications specialist who worked at the Naval Communications Annex in Washington, D.C.

Patches on a uniform can speak to a servicemember’s military service, as well. Patches signifying rank can often be found on the sleeves. These can also signify a specific type of service or specialty. Gold embroidered Overseas Service Bars at the cuffs represent the length of time a servicemember served overseas. Other patches on the sleeves indicate the group an individual served with. A golden eagle in a wreath, the Honorable Discharge Insignia, represents an honorable discharge. Due to the appearance of the eagle and the way certain servicemembers thought it looked, this patch became known as the “Ruptured Duck.”

Other decorations represent the role or accomplishments of a servicemember. One of these was the Combat Infantryman Badge, which was awarded by the Army to certain infantrymen who participated in active ground combat. A Submarine Combat Patrol Insignia was awarded by the Navy for combat patrols completed while serving aboard a submarine during wartime. The Naval Aviator Badge represented that a pilot had completed advanced flight training and served in the Navy.

United States World War II Army uniform with service ribbons and honorable discharge insignia.
Uniform of an unknown soldier who served in the Army during World War II. Ribbons Left to Right, Top to Bottom: Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Good Conduct Ribbon, American Campaign Ribbon, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Ribbon, World War II Victory Ribbon, Army of Occupation Ribbon, Overseas Service Ribbon.

The above photograph depicts the uniform of an unknown soldier who served in World War II. Based on the uniform, this man served in the Army as an infantryman and held the rank of staff sergeant. He received the Good Conduct Medal at least once, and may have received it multiple times, since damage sustained to the ribbon indicates that knots may have been attached to it at one time. He served in the United States and in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, or a combination of these. While serving abroad, he participated in two qualifying campaigns. He served through the end of the war, as evidenced by the presence of the World War II Victory Ribbon, and served overseas for approximately a year during the war. He was awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart, but was not killed in action. He was on occupation duty, and received an honorable discharge. He also received the Overseas Service Ribbon.

Although not definitive in terms of identifying an individual, uniforms, medals, and ribbons can tell viewers general details about the wearer’s military service. When combined with additional research, these can be invaluable in reconstructing the stories of the people who wore them.

Interested in learning more about military uniforms, medals, and the people who wore them?

World War II in Nashua: The Home Front and Beyond

Exhibit opening June 14, 2024, 5:30 pm

Florence H. Speare Memorial Museum, 5 Abbott Street, Nashua, NH

Please see the Events Page for more information.

Want to learn more about the military service of a close family member or ancestor, or request your own service record?

Military service records can be requested through the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) at:

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