sexta-feira, 30 de outubro de 2015

Creating the Medal of Honor

IN MANY WAYS, it resembles an old fashioned cookie-cutting operation — but the most prestigious of the "cookies" stamped out at a Manhattan metalworking plant are surely a batch apart.

They are Medals of Honor — the nation's highest award for valor — destined one day to be hung about the necks of American military heroes from the various services, presented with a presidential handshake in the name of the Congress of the United States.

Some, sadly, will be conferred posthumously. All, to be sure, will be cherished by recipients and survivors as the ultimate symbol of national gratitude.

Fittingly, these medals, being stamped out almost cookie-like from sheets of base metal, will have little intrinsic value when their manufacture is complete. Such an honor, signifying gallantry beyond the call of duty and at the risk of life itself, could scarcely begin to carry a sufficient price tag. So the true worth of the Medal of Honor stems largely from the exceptional heroism of the relative few who are privileged to wear it.

"The Navy and' Marine Corps medal isn't even gold plated," said William McAllister, vice-president of His Lordship Products, Inc., a Seventh Avenue firm which has been making the star-shaped pendants since 1963. As lie spoke, a jeweler sat at a workbench polishing up stampings of the Army's medal. "It's just red brass," said McAllister.

The medals, which by now had a high luster, would soon be gold plated and given a final satin finish.

Then each would be attached to the familiar pale blue neck ribbon by means of a small, eagle-shaped suspense bar, and placed in an attractive dark green box along with a rosette and service ribbon for ultimate presentation by the president.

In mid-manufacture, though, this batch of 90 Army medals being produced under a special government contract, looked like a big tray of star-shaped cookies popped from the oven a moment before they would begin to rise. The jeweler was polishing the edges on a spinning wire brush.

"THE ARMY and Air Force medals get a final gold plating, but even then the metal value is still probably only around a dollar or so," McAllister remarked as he led a visitor through one of the firm's three floors of workrooms.

"So far, we have produced about 350 Medals of Honor for the Army, 150 for the Air Force and 100 for the Navy and Marine Corps," said McAllister, who believes his firm is the only company currently producing them.

"We happen to have the right tools and we bid on every lot the government wants made," added the youthful-appearing veteran who spent four years in the Navy during the Korean Conflict.

"I'll tell you one thing, though. We make certain we never make a penny on them. The cost is figured as finely as we can get it, and that is the full amount of our bid.

"You just couldn't possibly want to make money on something like the Medal of Honor, and I'm sure that's the way most people would feel about it. We have had contracts for all kinds of military decorations and have produced medals for the services numbering into the millions.

"We made the original Republic of Vietnam Service Medal; we made the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force Commendation Medals; the Legion of Merit; the Distinguished Service Medal for each service; the Air Force Cross; the Purple Heart, and I could go on and on."

Every contract, he said, was handled on a fair-profit level; but when it comes to the Medal of Honor, the emphasis is on making as perfect a product as possible, never money.

The company produces the Medal of Honor; under a "100 per cent inspection, no defects" contract so that company inspectors sometimes reject as much as 25 per cent of every lot to assure that the finished product is totally free of flaws. By the time a shipment is ready to be turned over to the government, it has many times been examined with the kind of care usually associated with fine jewelry.

For the manufacturing process, the government furnishes a contract winner with heavy cylindrical pieces of metal called "hubs," each with one of the various Medal of Honor designs embossed on its face. The Army and Air Force have their own designs, with the latter being the newest and the largest. The Navy and Marine Corps versions are identical.

The contractor begins by sinking the hubs into steel blocks to extract his own working dies.

BRASS SHAPES in the approximate form of the medal are then "blanked out" of metal strips the way a housewife would use her cookie cutter on a batch of dough.

The star-shaped blanks are then placed individually into a drop hammer holding the working die, and a series of blows, struck at tremendous pressure, bring up the design as the brass is forced against the die.

Then the stampings, now having both the shape and the embossed design of the finished medals, go into a trimming operation where the "flash" — or excess metal which has been squeezed out by the force of the drop hammer — is cut away prior to polishing.

The Navy and Marine Corps medals are then given their oxidized, satin finish. The Army and Air Force versions take longer to produce because they go through a final gold lamination process and a hard-fired green enamel coat is applied to the laurel wreath around the medal and to the leaf at each point through a final gold lamination process of the star.

Aside from a few embellishments, of course, it is basically the same metal working process from which hundreds of quite pedestrian, everyday items are mass-produced. The difference — and it is certainly vast — is largely in the mind of the onlooker.

It takes a little getting used to, therefore, to watch a drop hammer operator stamping out the Medal of Honor — working shoulder to shoulder with one banging out little sailboats for key chains.

Yet, of course, this is the way such work is done, especially considering that most firms working on military decorations also produce civilian goods.

In McAllister's case, the sailboats, and hundreds of other items of nautical jewelry, came first. His Lordship Products was founded in 1948, and specialized in making gold and sterling charms, common to the yachting set.

The firm later branched into the ad specialty business, producing metal replicas of the corporate symbols of hundreds of major business firms and fastening them to tie clasps, cufflinks, money clips, charms and similar items.

McAllister's first military contract came in 1959 when the company manufactured an anchor superimposed on a three-bladed propeller for the caps of enlisted Waves.

SINCE THEN the company has expanded, its 85 employees having handled as many as 10,000 different military and civilian contracts ranging from such diverse, objects as the famous PT109 tie clasps handed out as White House souvenirs by the late President John F. Kennedy to millions of "tiger in your tank" key chains for a major oil company promotion.

"We even make the keys for the City of New York," said McAllister, recalling a rush contract of several years ago when City Hall officialdom was shaken to discover that the honorary "keys to the city" all had the previous mayor's name stamped on them.

The company also handles a large volume of military officer hardware such as gold and silver bars, oak leaves and stars worn by generals.

McAllister and his colleagues, in fact, are still puzzling over a government order they filled in 1963 for 360 pairs of stars for five-star generals. "I suppose they just wanted to be ready in case," McAllister conjectured.

And, of course, there have been the increasing contracts for the Medal of Honor, with increasing numbers of the decoration going to heroes of the fighting in Vietnam.

Occasionally, McAllister will get letters from people claiming to be servicemen or former servicemen who have either lost or misplaced a Medal of Honor and wanting to know if they can buy a replacement.

He writes back, telling them that they had best contact government authorities about it. The brass medal, worth only a few cents, isn't for sale at any price.

By Walter Hennessey
Stars and Stripes
Published: January 19, 1969


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