No higher honor can be given to a Sailor or Marine for non-combat heroism than the Navy and Marine Corps Medal. Established by an Act of Congress on 7 August 1942, the instructions for its issuance (found in Title 10 of the United States Code) allow it to be rewarded retroactively by anyone whom the Secretary of the Navy awarded a letter of commendation before that date.
To be eligible for this highly estimable honor, an individual must have performed a distinguishing act of heroism not involving actual conflict with the enemy while serving in any capacity in either the Navy or Marine Corps. If the act was one of lifesaving or attempted lifesaving, the candidate’s actions must have been performed at the risk of their own life. Personnel in the Navy Reserve or the Marine Corps who take part in lifesaving (or attempted lifesaving) incidents are considered eligible for the award even if they were not in a duty status as the time.
The nature of serving in the Navy or Marine Corps means that, quite frequently, acts of heroism are often involved with type of lifesaving effort. But regulations are quite specific that the most important determining aspect when deciding to award the medal is not so much on the actual lifesaving itself as it on the amount of life-threatening risk that the candidate faced in carrying out the act. When the actions of those being considered for the Navy or Marine Corps Medals do involve a lifesaving incident, regulations state that eyewitness statements should include an opinion from the witness(es) as to whether the potential awardee imperiled his or her life.
Other types of information that the Navy looks to include for use in making final award determinations are precise locations of rescues (or attempted to rescues); weather conditions including wind force and temperatures; date and time; names of all parties rendering assistance and a description of the assistance they provided; diagrams of rescue scenes with geospatial information on the start point of all rescue efforts; swimming qualifications of rescuers; and highly detailed information on any injuries resulting from burning. Further information on Eyewitness Statements in relation to lifesaving incidents is found in Article 213 of the Navy and Marine Corps Awards Manual.
Arguably the most famous recipient of the Navy and Marine Corps Medal is John F. Kennedy, who was serving as a Lieutenant aboard the Motor Torpedo Boat PT-109 when it was cut in half by a Japanese destroyer. Kennedy helped rescue Machinist's Mate First Class Patrick McMahon by towing him (via a life-jacket strap clenched in his teeth) more than three-and-a-half miles from the sinking PT-109 to a tiny desert island, then helped ensure the survival of the rest of the crew by locating another island with drinkable water and a food source.