JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — On Aug. 7, 1782, Gen. George Washington authorized the first American badges for military merit because, in his words, “The road to glory in a patriot army and a free country is thus open to all.”
The badges, in that uniquely American quality, were not awarded on the basis of birth or family nobility, but on the basis of one’s actions on the battlefield.
In contrast to European armies of the day, one did not have to be born into nobility to move up the ranks in the Continental Army.
The Badge of Military Merit, authorized by Washington that day, was a piece of purple cloth to signify royalty in the shape of heart.
Though the award was allowed to lapse just a few years later by Congress, today’s Purple Heart, given to U.S. servicemembers wounded and killed in combat, now bears that purple heart along with Washington’s profile and family crest.
Nearly 200 years later, a poor sawmill worker’s son from Adamsville, Ala.,would earn three of them, helping to fulfill Washington’s promise of awards based on merit and not on one’s class in society.
The city of Jacksonville, along with the Military Order of the Purple Heart, will hold its own Purple Heart day observance Thursday at the Veterans Memorial Wall downtown to honor men like Marion Bankhead.
Bankhead migrated from rural Alabama to New York, looking for a better life.
“I had two sisters that had left Alabama and went to New York, so I left Alabama and went up there,” Bankhead said. “I just couldn’t pick cotton. Basically, that’s what it was.”
Bankhead took a job in the Bronx as a stock clerk and cashier to put himself through high school while living with his sisters.
Then, he saw the uniform.
“A Marine recruiter came to the school and I took one look at that uniform and fell in love,” he said.
He left for Paris Island before his class of 1965 graduated, so a younger brother had to fill in and walk across the stage for him to pick up his diploma.
Boot camp at Paris Island was sobering. “I wrote my mother a letter and said please get me out of here,” he said. “She said no, you volunteered.”
After serving a tour at Jacksonville Naval Air Station, where he met a girl, the young Marine was sent to Vietnam in 1967.
He was assigned to a combat unit made up of men he’d never met.
“All the Marine units were on the DMZ and they sent me to 2nd Battalion 4th Marines,” Bankhead said. “These guys were really gung ho. They wanted action. They loved action.
“I was kind of afraid.
“You see, coming from the states and stepping into a war, it’s different,” he said. “You were used to marching guys back and forth to the chowhall and now you’re in charge.”
The ‘Magnificent *****s,’ as the unit is affectionately known, had just been hit when Bankhead arrived.
There were no officers. The only non-commissioned officer, a staff sergeant, was acting as platoon leader. That made Bankhead, a corporal, the platoon sergeant.
“I was kind of afraid of that, but I said hey, I’ve been trained for this and I’ve got to do it,” he said.
The Tet Offensive, a massive invasion of South Vietnam by North Vietnamese Army regulars in early 1968, quickly followed his arrival. Though the offensive was a tactical failure, resulting in the decimation of the NVA as a fighting force, it enflamed anti-war sentiment at home when American casualty numbers began to climb.
“The first time I was wounded was April 30, 1968,” Bankhead said. “We were hit by 10,000 North Vietnamese regulars.”
The NVA were attempting to take a U.S. ammunition depot at Dong Ha.
“They kept trying to hit it with artillery and they couldn’t, so they tried a major ground assault — and we were out there,” he said.
One night during the battle, Bankhead and his fellow Marines were acting as a blocking force. The NVA hurled rockets, artillery and mortars into their positions.
One round erupted near Bankhead sending shards of metal into his skull.
“A corpsman told me that he couldn’t do anything for me and that I was going to die, because it hit me right here (he pointed to the side of his head) and it cut that artery going to my brain and blood was gushing out,” he said.
Because the firefight was so intense and in such thick jungle, Bankhead and others had to make for a safer landing zone.
Finally, the men reached a point where they could set up a perimeter for a helicopter to land.
“I carried a small Bible in my helmet all the time and that night I just prayed and my prayers were answered,” he said. “Some pilots volunteered to come get us out because we were taking such heavy casualties.
“When I was getting off the helicopter, I had lost so much blood that I passed out.”
The battle, near a little village called Dai Do, is recorded in Marine Corps history.
The wound would’ve probably been enough to send Bankhead back home for good. But he had his own reasons for staying that no one else knew.
“The only reason I stayed there was because I had a baby brother in the Air Force and they wouldn’t send him to Vietnam while I was there,” he said. “That’s the reason why I really wanted to stay in Vietnam because I really wanted to keep him out.”
Bankhead would be wounded on two more occasions in 1968 before he was able to say goodbye to Vietnam.
“After that third Purple Heart, he [his brother] was about ready to rotate home from Taiwan so I came on home,” he said. “I was able to keep him out of it.”
However, for those who survive earning the Purple Heart, the physical toll is only part of the cost.
“When I first came back, I had post-traumatic stress and still do,” he said. “I was a wreck, basically.
“People didn’t feel like we were worthy of a parade — and that hurt for a long time.”
Bankhead believes his wife — the girl he met at Jacksonville Naval Air Station — his family and his church are the only reasons he made it through those difficult years.
Though the effects have abated, they haven’t completely left.
One incident still haunts him.
“We were on patrol and got ambushed. My point man, his name was Riggoni, they set off a claymore and it blew and hit him all in here,” Bankhead said as he brushed his stomach and chest with his hands. “I had to go out and get him and bring him back.
“And that has haunted me all my life.”
Washington spoke of a “road to glory” in the United States military.
For Bankhead, his service was more about what he was able to give rather than what he received.
“The Purple Heart means that I was able to contribute something to America,” he said. “I was able to give something by my service to America.
“I was part of something that stood for good.”