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Finding Records From the War to End All Wars: Thinking “Outside-The-Box”

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Written by Sharon Hall

There certainly are obvious ways for genealogists to obtain World War I records, and you’ll find those at sites like Ancestry.com, Fold3 and more (see Part I).  For instance, you may begin by typing “World War I” in the keyword field (with quotes) in Ancestry’s Card Catalog and you’ll see a long list of databases related to World War I (including foreign service records). This article highlights some “thinking-outside-the-box” records (a vital component of successful genealogical research!) at these sites.

Gold Star Records

Some state records related to World War I are available at Fold3, i.e., National Guard service, while other states have their own records available, such as Indiana’s Gold Star Honor Roll (also available at Ancestry.com).

The American Gold Star Mothers organization was founded in 1928 for mothers who had lost children during World War I.  President Wilson approved a suggestion that mothers of fallen soldiers wear a black band with a gold star as a means to honor service during World War I.  It was also common for a gold star to be hung in the window of the family’s home.  

Grace Darling Siebold, credited with founding the organization, realized the self-destructive nature of overwhelming grief following her own son’s death (his body never found).  She decided to organize a group of mothers who like her had lost children.  These women not only comforted one another, but provided care and comfort for hospitalized veterans.

In March of 1929 Congress passed a law which authorized use of federal funds to pay for mothers and widows of the World War I fallen to travel to Europe to visit their graves.  This extension of Gold Star Mothers would be administered by the Quartermaster Corps.

The idea wasn’t new since Gold Star Mothers had begun visiting European cemeteries not long after the war’s end at their own expense.  After a Pennsylvania American Legion member lobbied Congress in 1928, over five million dollars was appropriated on February 5, 1930 (without dissension) to fund pilgrimages to European burial sites.

The first invitations were extended to Nebraska Gold Star Mothers after Mrs. Herbert Hoover drew the state’s name from a silver bowl containing all forty-eight states and six overseas territories. Pilgrimages were to begin in May of 1930 and continue through October 31, 1933.

On May 7 the first group of 231 women began their journey on the S.S. America.  Before the program officially ended in August 1933 almost sixty-seven hundred mothers would make the government-funded pilgrimage.  Some had never traveled outside the United States so passport applications were filed (another possible source of genealogically-significant data).

You will find a database of records relating to the Mothers Pilgrimages at Ancestry.com (search for “pilgrimage” in the card catalog).  These records include such information as medical attention received at New York hotels while awaiting departure, on board ship and abroad (some fell ill or injured themselves while in France) — ailments from acute indigestion to senility.

Subversive Activity

An intriguing sub-category of World War I records at Fold3 is the “FBI Case Files” which includes files chronicling investigations of “real and perceived threats” to the United States between 1908 and 1922.   Some were merely draft dodgers, but some were members of organizations like IWW (The Industrial Workers of the World), linked to socialists and anarchists.  This database could prove eye-opening if one of your ancestors was under investigation.

Not Everyone Died in Battle

World War I casualties were intertwined with the world-wide Flu Pandemic of 1918, also called “Spanish Flu”.   Incredibly, more people died world-wide in one year than died in the four years spanning World War I.  Of those American soldiers who died in Europe approximately one half were felled by influenza, not at all dissimilar to Civil War casualties related to disease.

Some were stricken while serving at stateside military camps.  Over one-sixth of United States naval forces were admitted to hospitals and over five thousand sailors died from the flu.  Trench warfare in France is thought to have been largely responsible for rapid spread of the deadly virus throughout the European theater.

Burial and Casualty Records

Many American soldiers were buried in Europe.  The American Battlefield Monuments Commission maintains several searchable databases:

www.abmc.gov/database-search

For those soldiers whose bodies were returned home or those who survived the war, the Veterans Department has a searchable database for veterans of all wars buried stateside:

gravelocator.cem.va.gov

You may also be able to locate a photograph of a fallen ancestor in a book entitled “Soldiers of the Great War”.  A searchable database is available at Ancestry:  

http://search.ancestry.com/search/db.aspx?dbid=7399

These are but a few records which might lead to discovering more about your World War I ancestors.  Some of these sources, such as the FBI Case Files may seem a little “out there”.  However, as with all genealogical research it’s important not to confine yourself to the most common sites and databases, but instead cast a wider net and think “outside-the-box”.


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