The Air Medal was originally established by FDR to recognize a crew member for meritorious service or acts during flight, whether or not in combat. As WWII progressed, flyers became eligible as they completed certain numbers -- it varied for European, Pacific, and China-Burma-India Theater airspace -- of bombing raids, photo reconnaissance missions, air transport, and/or destruction of enemy aircraft or vessels.
The Air Medal is worn after the Bronze Star and before the Joint Service Commendation medal. For Air Force personnel, it is worn before the Aerial Achievement medal.
Walker Hancock's design was chosen from 22 contenders. It's a bronze 16-point compass rose that features an eagle swooping with two lightning bolts in its talons superimposed on the front. A fleur-de-lis at the top point holds the ribbon suspension ring. The compass rose and bald eagle symbolize the global strength of U.S. air power. The fleur-de-lis, the French symbol of nobility, represents the Air Corps's high ideals.
The medal hangs from a ribbon with a center 5/8th-inch stripe of Ultramarine flanked by an 1/4th-inch stripe of Golden Orange and an 1/8th-inch stripe of Ultramarine -- the original colors of the Army Air Corps.
In the Army, Arabic numerals denote subsequent medals. For the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, gold stars represent additional awards, with a silver star used in lieu of every five gold stars. Oak Leaf Clusters indicate subsequent medals for Air Force personnel. A bronze "V" (for "valor") indicates a recipient who demonstrated heroism involving conflict with an armed enemy.
Only personnel under flight orders are eligible to receive strike/flight awards, which are indicated by Arabic numerals and given for meritorious achievement while participating in sustained aerial fight operations. In that capacity, strikes are sorties that encounter enemy opposition while delivering ordnance against the enemy, landing, evacuating personnel in an assault, or engaging in search-and-rescue operations. Flights represent the same types of missions in hostile territory, but without facing enemy resistance. Neither the Air Force nor the Coast Guard use strike/flight numerals.
Notable recipients include: actors Clark Gable and James Stewart; astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Roger Chaffee, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, and Jim Lovell; baseball great Ted Williams; beauty contestant Patricia Northrup; director Oliver Stone; pilots Jimmy Doolittle, Nancy Harkness Love, Paul Tibbets (Enola Gay), Chuck Yeager, and the most-decorated Marine Chesty Puller; politicians George H. W. Bush, Tammy Duckworth, John McCain, George McGovern, Colin Powell, Norman Schwarzkopf, and James Stockdale; Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry; TV personalities Ed McMahon and Andy Rooney; and Michael Novosel, 64-time recipient over three wars, as well as winning the Medal of Honor.