by Spencer Howard
On May 20, 1932, the fifth anniversary of Charles Lindbergh’s record-setting non-stop solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean, Amelia Earhart took off from Newfoundland on her own non-stop solo flight. Fifteen hours later she landed in Ireland, becoming just the second person and the first woman to achieve the feat. She was subsequently awarded medals and other honors by various governments and numerous private organizations. One such medal was awarded by the National Geographic Society, whose president, Dr. Gilbert Grosvenor, asked President Herbert Hoover to present the medal to Earhart. The event was arranged at the White House on June 21, and was extensively covered by the press.
In the meantime, Congress took six weeks to debate an appropriate award as well. The Senate voted to honor Earhart with the Distinguished Flying Cross, a medal usually awarded to U.S. military pilots “for heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight.” By regulation the DFC was not to be conferred on civilians, but Congress had previously voted to award the DFC to other pioneering aviators, including foreign flyers such as Francesco de Pinedo, Hermann Köhl and James Fitzmaurice. Charles Lindbergh was awarded the DFC for his transatlantic flight in 1927, but because he was an officer in the Army Reserve, the military question was not raised. The Senate voted to confer the same honor on Earhart.
Based on the assumption that the DFC was to be reserved for military pilots, the House of Representatives instead chose the less prestigious Distinguished Service Medal, which could be awarded to civilians for “exceptionally meritorious service to the Government in a duty of great responsibility.” Senator David Reed (R-PA) pointed out that awarding Earhart the Distinguished Service Medal instead of the Distinguished Flying Cross “did a very great disservice to a very gallant lady,” and “she clearly is entitled by her gallantry to the same treatment that was accorded the others.” The House reconsidered and on July 1, 1932, Congress approved a joint resolution to award Earhart the Distinguished Flying Cross.
President Hoover’s military aide, Lt. Col. Campbell Hodges, wrote to Earhart, “the President would be glad to conform to your wishes should you care to come to Washington in order that he may personally present the Cross.” Earhart, however, was in Los Angeles preparing for a transcontinental flight from California to New Jersey, so her husband, George Putnam, requested that the medal be presented to her on the West Coast. Gen. Malin Craig, the highest ranking officer in San Francisco, was first assigned the task, but then President Hoover asked Vice President Charles Curtis to go to California for the opening of the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, and since he was going to be in the area, arrangements were made for a brief ceremony on July 29 at which the Vice President presented the medal.
In response to the outpouring of adulation for her record-setting flight, Earhart declared that she felt she had not deserved so much acclaim. “I hope,” she said, “that my personal gesture has been of some benefit in getting women interested in flying.”