While the Navy Distinguished Service Medal was not formally established until February, 1919, its creation had been the subject of discussion since 1913, when it was proposed as an award akin to the Certificate of Merit. Although the Certificate of Merit traced its roots to the Mexican-American War in the mid-1840s, it wasn’t until 1905 that a medal with that name was established; it immediately followed the Medal of Honor in order of precedence.
That Certificate of Merit Medal was made obsolete with the Act of Congress that created both the Navy Distinguished Service Medal (DSM) and the Navy Cross. The wording for the eligibility of the Navy DSM remains almost unchanged to this day: it was awarded to individuals who, regardless of the capacity in which they are serving with the Navy or Marine Corps, distinguish themselves by “exceptionally meritorious service to the United States.” But it is the words immediately following this phrase—“in a duty of great responsibility”—that have led to the Navy DSM being very often awarded to high-ranking officers.
Of course, simply reaching the rank of flag officer is no guarantee of earning the Navy DSM; indeed, the regulations go on to specify that “exceptional performance of duty…which has contributed materially to the success of a major command or project, is required.” But those same regs also say that, in general, the Navy DSM will be awarded only to those officers in principal commands, be they at sea or in the field.
This does not eliminate any member of the Navy or someone working with the Navy from receiving this tremendous honor, but it does make it quite a challenging feat. And the alteration of regulations during World War II that elevated the Navy Cross to second in precedence behind the Medal of Honor made it possible for the heroic efforts and contributions of enlisted Sailors to receive the recognition they deserved.
The first recipient of the Navy DSM was actually a Marine, Brigadier General Charles A. Doyen, who not only had the distinction of being the first Marine officer to command an Army division, but also provided the leadership that helped turned the tide in favor of the U.S. and the Allied Forces during the bitter fighting at the Battle of Belleau Wood. Doyen died a little over a month before the Armistice was signed in November 11, 1918, the victim of a destroyer that took more lives than all the guns, artillery, and gas deployed by the Allied and Central Powers combined: the Spanish Influenza.