World War II medals
World War II medals

World War II medals and ribbons come in two main types: decorations and campaign medals. Decorations, such as the Medal of Honor, are given only to soldiers who performed a particularly brave act, while campaign medals are given to all service personnel who served in a particular theater of the war. As a result, decorations are much rarer than campaign medals. Both the medal and the ribbon that accompanies it can help you identify which is which.

Purple Heart medals on display at Walter Reed Hospital
Purple Heart medals on display at Walter Reed Hospital

Look at the medal's shape. Is it round, or some other shape? All U.S. campaign medals from World War II are round. If the medal is another shape, it is most likely to be for something other than participating in a particular campaign. One of the most distinctive medals is the Purple Heart, which is shaped like a heart, purple with a gold surround, and a gold profile of George Washington in the center.

Check the medal for any inscriptions. All U.S. medals for campaigns during World War II have the name of the campaign written on them. The three campaign medals are the American Campaign, the Asiatic Pacific Campaign and the European African Middle Eastern Campaign. These were given to service personnel who had been on active service in these regions.

Another inscription might indicate that the medal is a decoration, given for an act of bravery. Examples of these include the Distinguished Service Cross, inscribed “For Valor,” and the Gold Star, inscribed “For Gallantry in Action.”

World War II Veteran
World War II Veteran

Check for any extra symbols attached to the ribbon. For example, bronze stars attached to the ribbon of the European African Middle Eastern campaign medal indicate that the serviceman took part in a specific campaign, such as the Normandy landings in June and July 1944 and the fighting in the Ardennes in December 1944 and January 1945. An arrowhead worn on the same medal’s ribbon shows that the serviceman participated in a combat parachute jump, an amphibious landing or a combat glider landing during the campaign.

War veteran wearing medals on suit
War veteran wearing medals on suit

Check your medal and ribbon against the chart on the Institute of Heraldry’s website if you are still unsure. The chart shows examples of all the medals and accompanying ribbons given to World War II service personnel by the government, along with all the criteria for qualification. If your medal is not on this chart you might need additional help to identify it. A local veteran’s organization might be able to help.