Minnesota Gold Star Mothers upon sailing to France, July 1930. Public Law 70-952 in 1929 authored the War Department to arrange for trips, designated as pilgrimages, by mothers and widows to the overseas graves of soldiers, sailors, and Marines who died between April 5, 1917 and July 21, 1921. Congress later expanded the eligibility to include the mothers and widows of men who were buried at sea or whose place of burial was unknown. Photo courtesy New Brighton Area Historical Society.
Gold Star Pilgrimage Passports and Travel Documents for Alien Gold Star Pilgrims
By Constance Potter
"Surely no one would want to deprive these mothers, who have buried their hearts with their darlings, of that little consolation to see that grave. To many, it might be her last wish before she joins her boy. ... The government can never repay us for our loss.”
-- Mathilda Burling, Richmond Hill, NY to General John J Pershing (November 1928)
After World War I, more than 30,000 American dead from that conflict remained buried overseas in U.S. cemeteries. The families of the dead found visiting the grave sites difficult; international travel was not as common as it is now and was often beyond the means of many people.
On March 2, 1929, President Calvin Coolidge signed Public Law 70-952 authorizing the War Department to arrange for trips, designated as pilgrimages, by mothers and widows to the overseas graves of soldiers, sailors, and Marines who died between April 5, 1917 and July 21, 1921. Congress later expanded the eligibility to include the mothers and widows of men who were buried at sea or whose place of burial was unknown.
These pilgrimages, which took place between 1930 and 1933, required a passport. The Department of State established the “Special Pilgrimage Passport” at no charge to the traveler. These documents were valid only during the trip in which the mother or widow participated.
The State Department sent the pilgrimage passports and travel documents to the War Department, which delivered them to the travelers. At the end of the trip, the War Department collected the documents for return to the Department of State for cancellation. The State Department also coordinated with the countries to be visited on the issuance of visas and planning formal ceremonies.
Read more: Gold Star Pilgrimage Passports and Travel Documents for Alien Gold Star Pilgrims
Questionnaires of American Indians Overseas in the AEF
By Constance Potter
"I feel it an honor to the red man that he takes part in this great event, because it shows that the thousands of Indians who fought in the great war are appreciated by the white man.”
-- Chief Plenty Coups of the Crows, spoken while placing his war bonnet and coup stick atop the coffin of the Unknown Soldier, 1921
“Corporal George Miner, Company D, 128th Infantry, a full blooded Indian, on duty at Niederahren, Germany.” George Miner, a Winnebago, from Tomah, Wisconsin, served in the 128th Infantry with his two brothers, William and John.* (111-SC-50772)During World War I, approximately 12,000 Native Americans served in the U.S. military, including both enlisted men and draftees. About two-thirds served in the infantry. Most of these men were not United States citizens. (On November 6, 1919, Congress granted Indian veterans the right to petition for citizenship.)
In February 1919, Brigadier General Oliver L. Spaulding, Jr., chief of the Historical Section of the General Staff of the Army, sent a questionnaire to the Chiefs of Staff of the AEF Divisions relating to “activities of American Indians who served overseas in the AEF.”
The records are arranged by division and then by company. Within the company, the questionnaires are in random order, not in alphabetical order by the soldier’s last name. Not all of the forms are filled out completely, nor are there questionnaires for all the divisions. There are files for the following AEF divisions: 2nd through 7th, 26th, 28th, 30th, 32nd, 35th and 36th, 41st and 42nd, 77th through 79th, 82nd, 85th through 91st.,
The forms describe the service of 1,204 men. The men answered such questions as their home town, education, tribal affiliation, and war experience. Their officers, however, completed the longer remarks sections.
In some divisions, there is a list at the front of the file that lists the rank, last name, service number, first name, and company and infantry of the soldier (e.g., Private Henry (76617) Philip, Co. F, 102d Infantry).
The questionnaires asked:
- Name (surname first)
- Address (home). This generally includes just the name of the town or city and the state or the reservation.
- Place & Date of Birth. Sometimes the form lists only the year of birth.
- Tribe or Nationality of the father and the mother.
- Education (schools and colleges, and years attended). Many men has little formal education and many went to Indian schools. Josiah A. Powless, however, was a physician in the Medical Corps (see below).
- Athletics (in order of preference). The most favorite athletics were football, baseball, and basketball. Three men played on the 36th Division football team, “which won the football championship of the Army.”
- Enlistment (place and date).
- Ranks (give dates of appointment or commission).
- Date of arrival in France.
- Service at Front (give dates, places, and units). Many of the men fought under fire at the Oise-Aisne, St. Mihiel-Toul, and the Meuse Argonne offensives.
- Duty Preferred (infantry, artillery, scouting, etc.).
- Personal Remarks. In both this section and the Remarks of Company Commander section the amount of information varies, but as shown below the comments can provide a moving account of the soldier’s service.
- Remarks of Company Commander and others.
According to Susan Applegate Krause in North American Indians in the Great War, “The U.S. Army’s project to document Indian military service sought to verify the belief that Indians were especially suited to scouting.” The Historical Section asked for “points of inquiry concerning the American Indian as a soldier and more specifically as a scout,” however, this section was not always completed. The form asked some general questions first.
Read more: Questionnaires of American Indians Overseas in the AEF
Using the language of Native Americans for military purposes did not just happen during the Second World War; World War One had its share of code talkers who paved the way for other Native American code talkers during the second worldwide conflict. These WWI Code Talkers were men from the Choctaw tribe.
Choctaw Code Talkers in WWI
By Constance Potter
"Captain Horner detailed eight educated Choctaws for the work. They served efficiently in the experiment and it was a success. The use of Indian tongues certainly provides nearly absolute safe code for important intelligence transmission.”
-- Capt. E.W. Horner, Co. E., 142d Infantry
Although most people associate Indian code breakers with the Navajo of World War II, military intelligence used Native American languages for the first time during World War I. The Choctaw are considered the first code talkers, however Cherokee, Cheyenne, Comanche, Mohawk, Pawnee, Ponca, Sac and Fox (Meskwaki), and Sioux (Lakota and Dakota dialect) also served as code talkers. [nmai.si.edu/static/patriot-nations/world-wars.htm#ww1]
Although the National Archives does not have a file specifically listing the names of code talkers, it holds administrative files that explain the background. (Record Group 120, Records of the American Expeditionary Forces (World War I), 1917-1923, Entry 441, Correspondence, reports, and other records relating to American Indians serving with the AEF, 1917-1925.)
January 23, 1919, Bloor to Spence
Since the first week of October 1918, Major General Smith’s 36th Division, along with French troops, had continued to skirmish with the Germans on the Champagne front. It had become evident that the Germans, expert in deciphering messages, had been listening in on the American messages. The Americans needed a way to communicated without the Germans knowing their plans.
Read more: Choctaw Code Talkers in WWI
A soldier of Co. K, 110th Regt. Infantry (formerly 3d and 10th Infantry, Pennsylvania National Guard), just wounded, receiving first-aid treatment from a comrade. Varenes-en-Argone [Varennes-en-Argonne], France, on September 26, 1918 (U.S. Army/National Archives).
Name File of Dead and of Severely Wounded Casualties of Infantry Divisions in the AEF, 1918
By Constance Potter
"Only the dead have seen the end of war.”
-- George Santayana, 1922
The “Name File of Dead and of Severely Wounded Casualties of Infantry Divisions in the AEF, 1918” is in the Records of the American Expeditionary Forces (World War I), Record Group 120, Entry 568. [In World War I, divisions were not delineated as infantry as they were in World War II.] The name file is comprised of one-sided 3 x 5 cards, some handwritten and others typed.
As seen from the examples below, the information on the cards may vary. All the cards, however, give the soldier’s name, serial number, unit, and date and type of injury. Although the title refers to “severely wounded,” those with slight wounds are included.
The cards are arranged by division, then by infantry regiment, the date of the death or wound, and then alphabetically by the soldier’s last name. At the end of the series are cards for miscellaneous signal corps units, the 65th and 66th Cavalry, anti-aircraft battalions, miscellaneous engineers, and engineer battalions.
Read more: Name File of Dead and of Severely Wounded Casualties Of Infantry Divisions in the AEF, 1918
Lists of U.S. Merchant Seamen Lost in WWI, 1914-1919
By Constance Potter
"Without the merchantmen's skill, courage and loyalty the war could not have been won."
-- Admiral William Snowden Sims, USN, Commander, U. S. Naval Forces in European Waters, WWI
The United States merchant marine is comprised of the cargo ships and other vessels carrying commercial cargo around the world under the American flag. It is not directly affiliated with the U.S. government or military, but during wartime becomes a naval auxiliary that delivers troops and war material. Merchant marine vessels traditionally are organized along military lines; licensed merchant mariners serve as officers aboard ship, while unlicensed merchant mariners are the equivalent to enlisted men.
The Marine and Seamen’s Division of the Bureau of War Risk Insurance created lists of U.S. merchant seamen lost in WWI. Congress passed the War Risk Insurance Act in 1914 to provide insurance for shipping vessels and cargoes. In June 1917, Congress amended the act to extend life insurance coverage to include United States merchant marine sailors. These lists may not be complete.
The information includes:
- The vessel the seaman was serving on at the time of the incident.
- The owner of the vessel.
- The name of the officer or seaman. Often just the first initial rather than the full first name is listed.
- The person’s nationality. In some cases, it includes a notation indicating a person was a naturalized American citizen.
- The position the person served in on the vessel.
- The person’s home address; sometimes just the country is listed.
- The nature of the casualty.
Read more: Lists of U.S. Merchant Seamen Lost in WWI, 1914-1919
American Expeditionary Forces Casualty [Death] Lists
By Constance Potter
"From the above figures the daily average to be reported was as follows: Killed in action, 69; died of wounds, 69; died of disease, 122; severely wounded, 752."
-- The Chicago Tribune, December 17, 1918, on the accounting of U.S. casualties to the War Department by General John Pershing
The Adjutant General’s Office in the War Department created casualty lists of those who died in the American Expeditionary Forces (A.E.F.) in World War I. The lists, dated November 6, 1920, do not include the names of men who were wounded and did not die of their wounds. The lists also do not include those who served in the Navy or the Marines although men assigned to the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments in the 2nd A.E.F. Division are listed.Dead U.S. soldier in WWI barbed wire
The causes of death are:
- KIA—Killed in Action
- DOW—Died of Wounds
- D or O.C.—Disease or other causes. The list does not specify the disease or other cause, which can included suicide, accidents, drowning, and air accidents.
There are three lists: by state, by division, and by organization for those units not attached to a division (non-divisional units).
Read more: American Expeditionary Forces Casualty [Death] Lists
Graves Registration Card Registers, 1917-22
By Constance Potter
"A careful record was kept of the location of each grave."-- General John J. Pershing
Capt. Judson, Infantry, has just located [the] grave of his brother through records of G.R.S., Sergy, Aisne, France. (RG 111, SC 36174)During the Civil War, the War Department first developed procedures to identify and bury the dead, both Confederate and Union. Before that men were buried by their comrades where they died, and the War Department kept few records of the burials. In the Spanish-American War in 1898, the first foreign war following the Civil War, the War Department expanded these procedures to include the return of the bodies of the men who died overseas to be buried in either a U.S. or private cemetery.
The need to identify, and rebury, the bodies increased with U.S. entry into WWI on April 6, 1917. On August 7, War Department Order 104 authorized the organization of a Graves Registration Service (GRS). The first GRS units reached France in October.
The individual combat units, not the GRS, had the responsibility of burying the dead as soon as possible, sometimes in nearby shell holes. Most of the men killed in battle were buried within 24 hours although it sometimes could take a week or longer. Battlefield conditions made immediate and proper burial difficult after troops advanced, but the burial parties took great care to mark the graves properly.
Read more: Graves Registration Card Registers, 1917-22
Army Officer Commission Records
By Constance Potter
"Lead me, follow me, or get the hell out of my way."-- George S. Patton, Jr.
The Records of the Adjutant General, 1917 to ____ (Record Group 407) hold several series of records about individual participation in the Army during World War I. Among them are the records of Commission of Officers in the Regular Army, National Guard, and Officer Reserve Corps, 1917 to 1940 (Entry 415A). This piece focuses on Harry S. Truman, who served with a Missouri National Guard unit, and Col. Harold E. Potter, who was appointed from the Officers’ Reserve Corps.
The forms vary slightly over time, but generally include:
- The officer’s full name
- Date of rank and commission
- Home address, which may just be the town and state
- Contact person
The records also include a remarks section and discharge information that gives the officer’s rank, corps, date of discharge, and place of discharge. Because these are records of officers, there are no serial or service numbers for World War I service.
Read more: Army Officer Commission Records
World War I Army Service Numbers
By Constance Potter
"There is a price which is too great to pay for peace, and that price can be put in one word. One cannot pay the price of self-respect."-- President Woodrow Wilson, 1917
Before 1918, members of the United States Army did not have service numbers. Beginning in February 1918 enlisted men only had service numbers; officers did not. When the United States entered WWI there were only about 30,000 men in the Regular Army. Before February 1918, men were tracked by rosters and muster rolls.
Beginning with the enlistment of the National Army in 1918, the only way to track the four million service members was through a system of service numbers.
Next article: Army Officer Commission records
Constance Potter is a retired reference archivist. She worked at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, DC for more than 30 years.