“Victory” in World War I

With the absence of U.S. Army service records from the World War I-era, family history researchers are faced with scrambling for other extant records to recreate their ancestor’s military career during the First World War.

One such record that can serve as an effective substitute is the Victory Medal application. Designed as a symbol of the Allies’ unity and common cause, the medal was to be awarded to those who saw active duty in the war. In the United States, this included all officers, men, surgeons, clerks, and nurses who served in the Army, Navy, or Marines from 6 April 1917 until 11 November 1918. Here is an image of the medal’s front:

World War I Victory Medal. Courtesy of "World War I Victory Medal (United States) at Wikipedia.com.

World War I Victory Medal. Courtesy of “World War I Victory Medal (United States)” at Wikipedia.org.

Men who later served in revolutionary Russia, including the “Polar Bears,” were also eligible; battle clasps were worn to indicate participation in the major battles of the war, such as Cambrai, Meuse-Argonne, and Ypres.

According to Christina Schaefer’s outstanding book The Great War: A Guide to the Service Records of All the World’s Fighting Men and Volunteers, only a few states have available collections of these Victory Medal applications: Georgia, Maine, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Michigan.

Housed at the Archives of Michigan, the Michigan records are arranged alphabetically, part of a larger collection of material from the Adjutant General Division of the Michigan Department of Military Affairs. Here is one example:

Bowen, Fred C., Application for Victory Medal (RG 85-78, Box ??), Archives of Michigan.

Bowen, Fred C., Application for Victory Medal (RG 85-78, Series 5, Box 27), Archives of Michigan.

Of note, we can see Bowen’s unit, serial number, his signature, as well as his residence at the time of the application in 1920. More importantly, we can see what major operations he participated in (Aisne-Marne), as well as his exact time spent in the Alsace defensive sector. In short, we get a fantastic glimpse into Bowen’s military service in France, information not readily available in other sources from the era.

Michigan is rich with other World War I-era genealogical resources, including a statewide census of veterans and veterans’ bonus files. The Victory Medal application is just one important piece to the larger puzzle of recreating an ancestor’s World War I military service.

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Intersecting Ancestors

Our family narratives are full of fascinating stories of heroism, romance, joy, tragedy, and so much more. These dramatic tales become even more compelling when our ancestors’ lives overlap at unexpected moments, events, or places across generations. In my family, one such intersection occurred before and during World War I, in the deep waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

Stanislaus Piotrowski, my paternal great-grandfather, immigrated to the United States aboard the liner S.S. President Grant, arriving at Ellis Island on April 15, 1909. Originally from Kolo in Russian Poland, Piotrowski lived briefly in Chicago before getting married and starting a family in Gary, Indiana. Here is a snip from his arrival record, showing his name, age, and occupation.

Closeup of Stanislaw Pietrowski arrival record at New York, 15 April 1909.

The President Grant was constructed in 1907 in Belfast, Ireland, and served the Hamburg-America Line for several years until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Here is a picture of the ship taken in 1919, courtesy of the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command.

USS President Grant, c. 1919

The President Grant remained in New York until the United States entered the war, was then transferred to the U.S. Navy, and during the course of the war, ferried nearly 40,000 troops through the treacherous waters of the Atlantic Ocean and to the European battlefields.

William Alderson, my maternal great-grandfather, enlisted in the Pennsylvania National Guard in April 1917. Originally from Mount Lebanon, Pennsylvania (just south of Pittsburgh), Alderson served overseas during World War I, largely in Paris with the Finance Division of the Ordnance Department. The 19 February 1918 excerpt from Alderson’s diary, written aboard the USS George Washington during his Atlantic voyage en route to France, reads: “I awoke this morning at 6:45, dressed, I went to the deck to see the ocean, there was no land in sight….All I could see was water on every side and the water was rough….There is seven other ships besides our own, three of them are the, DeKalb, Pres. Grant and Pres. Lincoln, they are very good ships and carrying soldiers on board. It is estimated that 30,000 troops on board the ships and it some of the ships are carrying mules and cargoes of supplies.”

What a great story! The ship that carried one great-grandfather to the United States was in the same troop convoy that brought another great-grandfather back over to Europe to serve his country. I never anticipated that Piotrowski-Alderson would overlap as they did; indeed, nearly 50 years after the President Grant intersection, Stanislaus Piotrowski’s grandson would marry William Alderson’s granddaughter, linking the families together on the pedigree chart.

As my research continues, I look forward to discovering new connections, remote or otherwise, in my family’s journeys through the generations.