Established with the passage of the Air Corps Act by Congress on July 2, 1926, the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) was originally intended to be awarded to any person who distinguishes (or who had distinguished) themselves through heroism or extraordinary achievements while serving with the Air Corps of the Army (including National Guard and Reserves after April 6, 1917. It is the oldest military award associated with aviation.

The first recipients of the DFC were the ten Army aviators who took part in the U.S Army Pan American Flight, which covered more than 22,000 miles over 59 days of flying, with stops at 72 cities along the way. On May 2, 1927, President Calvin Coolidge presented eight of the aviators with certificates for the DFC (two had died in an accident several months earlier) in lieu of the medal, which had yet to be struck. The honor of receiving the first actual physical medal went to Charles Lindbergh—and it turns out that the desire that Lindbergh receive an actual medal rather than a mere certificate was a major factor in the selection of the design, a four-bladed propeller superimposed on a bronze cross pattée.

According to the 2013 book Medals for Soldiers and Airmen: Awards and Decorations of the United States Army and Air Force by Fred L. Borch III, Regimental Historian and Archivist for the Army Judge Advocate General's Corps, the commission appointed to approve the design considered it “commonplace and insignificant,” but were urged to select it because of “an immediate necessity for approval of a design in order to present a cross to Colonel Lindbergh.”

Another controversy involving the DFC was caused when Congress began passing special acts that made exceptions to the statutory language in order to bestow the honor on civilians such as the Wright Brothers, Amelia Earhart, and Wiley Post, among others. (This practice was ended by an Executive Order.) And the U.S. Army Air Force’s decision to give the honor based on various formulas for active-duty flight time, even if those being awarded the medal had never encountered enemy, led to some resentment from aviators in the Navy. In the five-and-a-half years following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the USAAF awarded nearly six times as many DFCs as the U.S. Navy.

Today, the DFC cannot be awarded for cumulative service, no matter how exemplary, but instead is earned by a single act of exceptional achievement or heroism. Additionally, such an act must be made as a voluntary action that is above and beyond the call of duty—an act that is so extraordinary that it “clearly [sets] the individual apart from comrades or from other persons in similar circumstances.”

Since 1974, the Navy and Marine Corps have authorized the wear of the “V” device on DFCs to indicate that the award had been earned through an act (or acts) of heroism above what is usually expected of those engaged in direct combat with an enemy or an opposing foreign armed force. In 2004, the Air Force announced it was authorizing the “V” device for DFCs it awarded, and set a retroactive award date of 18 September 1947.

In 2017, the Pentagon announced the establishment of a “C” device for wear on ten medals, including the Distinguished Flying Cross, to denote that the award had been earned in a combat situation in which the recipient had either been under hostile action or was exposed to the threat of hostile action. At the same time, the Department of Defense authorized the “V” device to be issued by every branch for wear with the DFC, effectively bringing the Army in line with the other branches which were already awarding the device to deserving DFC recipients.

Subsequent awards of the Distinguished Flying Cross are indicated by oak leaf clusters (Army and Air Force) or service stars (Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard). Multiple awards of either the “V” or “C” device to personnel in the Air Force are indicated with different colors of the devices (silver “V” for two awards of the device, gold “V” for the third award of the device, and so forth).

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