In looking at the Navy Presidential Unit Citation, there is no particular surprise regarding the date—February 6, 1942, two months after Pearl Harbor—that President Franklin Roosevelt established its creation. Read the text of the Executive Order, though, and you find that this highly prestigious decoration is to be awarded to Navy and Marine Corps units for outstanding performance in action on or after October 16, 1941.
Wait….October 16, 1941? Wasn’t that almost two months before the Pearl Harbor attack and the subsequent U.S. entry into the war? Indeed it was. But it is also the date the USS Kearny, a destroyer docked at Reykjavik, was summoned to assist a British convoy undergoing an attack by German U-boats. Although the U.S. was supposedly neutral at this point in the war, the Kearny proceeded to drop depth charges on the U-boats, which eventually led to the German subs firing a torpedo at the U.S. ship, damaging it enough to cause it to withdraw and claiming eleven Sailors' lives in the process.
With his Executive Order, Roosevelt not only created a way to recognize the “gallantry, determination, and esprit de corps” that many U.S. Navy vessels and units would display from 1942 onward, but also evidenced an admirable sense of realpolitik in recognizing that, for all intents and purposes, the U.S. and Germany were at war long before Adolph Hitler rashly made that state of affairs official on December 11, 1941.
As the title suggests, the Presidential Unit Citation is awarded in the name of our country’s Commander-in-Chief to unit of both the U.S. Armed Forces and of friendly foreign nations in recognition of extraordinary heroism displayed while engaging an armed enemy. The Navy version of the Presidential Unit Citation, as originally described in Roosevelt’s Executive Order, was to be “public evidence of deserved honor and distinction,” and that any Navy or Marine Corps unit receiving the citation on two or more separate occasions shall be allowed to make the ribbon a permanent part of that unit’s uniform.
Current regulations regarding the award make it clear that in addition to displaying the behavior described above, the actions must also have been performed under “extremely difficult and hazardous conditions, to have set it apart from and above other units participating in the same campaign," making it the unit equivalent of the Navy Cross individual award.