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The Navy Good Conduct Medal

Little attention and less research has been accorded the history of the Navy's Good Conduct Medal, yet it occupies the position as our nation's third-oldest continuously presented award and the Navy's second-oldest after, respectively, the Navy Medal of Honor and the Army Medal of Honor. It also is noteworthy that the Navy Good Conduct Medal is the earliest of any of the services' good conduct medals. The Marine Corps first issued their Good Conduct Medal in 1896, the Coast Guard in 1923 and the Army in 1941.

The Good Conduct Medal's history began well before the Civil War not as a medal or badge, but as a simple discharge form signed by a sailor's commanding officer certifying the man's service. This form had to be presented at a recruiting station as proof of seagoing experience.

The 1948 Navy Awards Manual states that award of the Navy Good Conduct Medals technically began in 1865 when all enlisted men receiving honorable discharges were authorized to wear a fouled anchor on the left sleeve to be called "the honorable discharge badge." A star was to be added for each additional honorable discharge. This is an elusive reference and no period documentation has yet surfaced for this insignia.

A post-Civil War push for re-enlistments prompted Secretary of the Navy A.E. Borie to announce on April 26, 1869, the authorization of the good conduct badge. The following January, the Navy Department called upon suppliers of the service's silverware for bids and the E.V. Haughwont Co. of New York City won the contract to produce 500 badges. These were to be provided with ribbons, engraved with the name of the recipient on the reverse, and sent to the Navy Department for 35 cents each.

The badge itself was a Maltese cross, of nickel metal approximately 31mm wide from point to point. The front, or obverse, has the words "FIDELITY - ZEAL - OBEDIENCE" in a circle, with "U.S.N." in the center of the disc. The reverse was blank except for the script-engraved name of the recipient. A one-half inch wide red, white, and blue ribbon was supplied without a suspension pin. (Fig. 1). Over the years, this particular badge has picked up the nickname "Nickel Cross" among collectors and researchers.

The first requisition was placed on April 19, 1870, for 102 badges to be issued to sailors on board the USS Iroquois returning from a European cruise. Initially, the badge was awarded to "... any man holding a Continuous Service Certificate who is distinguished for obedience, sobriety, and cleanliness, and is proficient in seamanship and gunnery..."

Sailors were issued a separate badge for each discharge with good conduct. The badge, and related discharge papers, had to be shown to the recruiting officer at the time of re-enlistment to prove the quality of previous service as well as to obtain any re-enlistment bonus and receive credit for continuous service. A sailor with 20 years of good conduct was eligible for a pension or admission to a naval home or hospital. Re-enlistment with three badges allowed rating as a petty officer, with any reduction in rank limited to the sentence of a court martial.

Approximately 3,000 to 4,500 of the small Good Conduct Badges were issued between 1870 and about 1884, all being obtained from the same manufacturer. The practicality of the badge, though, was becoming an issue, based on its small size and the absence of a consistent broach for wear. Chronically late deliveries by the silverware company also pushed for a change in the procurement system.

The Navy's Bureau of Equipment and Recruiting, under Commodore Winfield Scott Schley, had responsiblilty for the badges and called upon the U.S. Mint for production. The design is an adaptation of the seal of the Bureau of Equipment and Recruiting, a design highlighting USS Constitution -- "Old Ironsides." With very minor changes, this remains the design on today's Good Conduct Medal. The reverse had a plain center encircled by the familiar words "FIDELITY ZEAL OBEDIENCE," used on the earlier Good Conduct Badge. While the medallion, or planchet, appears the same as today, the new medal was provided with a new 35mm ribbon, the colors being those of two pieces of the old red, white, and blue ribbon joined at the red edge.

This second type of Good Conduct Medal is considered a transitional style. While its design is new, its issuance procedures largely were not. A separate medal was given for each successful enlistment and only the name of the recipient was engraved on its back.

This style medal was issued in very limited quantities between 1880 and 1884, probably to fewer than 500 sailors as the Bureau continued to issue the "Nickel Cross" during this period to deplete existing stocks.

The next major change in the evolution of the medal occurred in 1884. In November, Secretary of the Navy William E. Chandler issued General Order 327 which provided rigid guidelines for issuing a new Type III medal. The meaning of good conduct was defined for captains by requiring the grading of sailors in specific categories such as seamanship and gunnery. Points were entered on their Continuous Service Certificate (C.S.C.), with an average of 4.5 out of 5 required for award of the medal.

The actual Type II medallion remained as issued with the transitional style. However, changes occurred with its ribbon and its manner of suspension (at left in Fig. 3). An all-red ribbon replaced the former red, white, and blue style. The reverse of the medal continued to be named, but additional information such as the sailor's continuous service number, discharge date, and ship name, now was to be included.

The practice of issuing a new medal for each discharge also was discontinued under the provisions of General Order 327. Instead, a pin-on bar, engraved with the name of the sailor's last ship or duty station, was provided. The reverse of the bar was also engraved with the sailor's continuous service number and date of discharge to prevent the "borrowing" or theft of medals or bars when re-enlistment time rolled around.

The Type III design proved very successful for the Navy and except for a few minor varieties due to different manufacturers, this style remained in use until after World War II. Bureau of Personnel Circular Letter No. 97-42 of 8 July 1942 discontinued the procurement and issuance of Good Conduct medals for the duration of World War II to conserve metal and offset the increased clerical work. Notations of eligibility were made in service jackets for later issue.

The hand-engraving of the reverse of the medal that began in 1884 continued, using different styles and varying amounts of information until 1941. The cost and the time required for engraving resulted in the Navy switching to a stamping machine for the period 1945-1953. This method provided the minimum information -- name and year of discharge. This continued until approximately 1954 when the Navy Department discontinued all official naming of the Good Conduct Medal. Posthumous awards had only the name of the sailor impressed.

In the mid-1950s, a fourth type of Good Conduct Medal was created when the bottom suspension bar on the ribbon was replaced with a ring (at right in Fig. 3). This gave the medal and ribbon the familiar appearance common to most other United States awards This is the style currently being issued.

The use of award bars to recognize repeat awards continued unchanged from 1884 until the 1930s when the name of the ship or duty station was replaced with the engraved year in which the enlistment ended. The year bars stayed in use until World War II when die struck bars for "SECOND AWARD," "THIRD AWARD," etc. were authorized. The use of all bars was discontinued in approximately 1950, being replaced with the 3/16" bronze and silver stars in use today. Each bronze star represents one additional good conduct enlistment. A silver star is worn in lieu of five bronze stars.

Related resource:

Belden, Bauman L. United States War Medals. New York: The American Numismatic Society, 1916.

Cannon, Brian G., Fidelity, Zeal and Obedience: Good Conduct and The United States Navy 1776-1976, Newark, DE: B.G. Cannon, 2000, .

[Historical Note: The "Nickel Cross" Good Conduct Badge illustrated above in Fig. 1 is in the collection of the Navy Museum. It was earned by W.P. Sturtevant. The Type II medal in Fig. 2 was earned by William R. Myers, who qualified as a Seaman Gunner in 1884. The Type III medal on the left in Fig. 3 was earned by Pallas Edgar Tye in 1927. It has re-enlistment bars for 1933 and 1937.]

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09 August 2006