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Understanding the Great War

Issue 19: Medal of Honor Recipients and Genealogy

The Medal of Honor is the United States’ most prestigious military award, given to those who have demonstrated extraordinary bravery in the line of service. According to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, 127 recipients received the Medal of Honor for their actions in World War I, with 33 awarded posthumously. However, a number of WWI soldiers were overlooked for the award because of their race. After almost a century, these heroes are finally receiving the recognition they deserve. 

In this issue, we learn about the history of the Medal of Honor and what it means today. We also look at resources available for genealogy research, allowing students to find their own family connections to WWI.

Meet America’s Bravest Heroes—World War I

Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation

The Medal of Honor is the highest U.S. military honor one can receive. The Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation provides details of service, rank, division and citations for WWI Medal of Honor recipients.

Recommended Grade Levels:Middle School, High School, College, Adult Learners
Format: Online Database

WWI Hero Henry Johnson Finally Receives Medal of Honor

Article by Sarah Pruitt

Though Henry Johnson was hailed as one of the bravest Americans to fight in WWI, due to lasting racism in the U.S. it wasn’t until 2004 that he was granted the Medal of Honor. This article from HISTORY® tells his story from soldier to posthumous Medal of Honor recipient.

Recommended Grade Levels: Middle School, High School
Format: Online Article

Racism Kept Some WWI Troops from Receiving Medal of Honor, Lawmakers Say

Article by Richard Sisk

A bipartisan effort is calling for a review of African American troops in WWI to determine if they should be awarded the Medal of Honor. This 2019 article from describes efforts to address a century’s worth of racism.

Recommended Grade Levels: Middle School, High School, College, Adult Learners
Format: Online Article,

Two WWI Soldiers Receive Medal of Honor Posthumously

A century after their service, two soldiers, one African American and the other Jewish, receive posthumous Medals of Honor. This segment from a 2015 episode of PBS NewsHour explores their awards.

Recommended Grade Levels: All Levels
Format: YouTube Video (5 Minutes)

“After his platoon had suffered heavy casualties and three other noncommissioned officers had become casualties, Cpl. York assumed command. Fearlessly leading seven men, he charged with great daring a machine-gun nest which was pouring deadly and incessant fire upon his platoon. In his heroic feat the machine-gun nest was taken, together with four officers and 128 men and several guns.”

 — Citation for Medal of Honor recipient Sergeant Alvin York.
Learn more about Sergeant York's life.

John Lewis Barkley, Medal of Honor Recipient

John Lewis Barkley was a U.S. Army Medal of Honor recipient in World War I. He went to France in 1918 and participated in the Meuse-Argonne offensive, the largest American offensive in U.S. military history. 

On Oct. 7, Barkley mounted a captured German machine gun to a tank and manned it through German artillery barrages, allowing his regiment to maintain its mission. He was later awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery and ingenuity. Today, the National WWI Museum and Memorial displays Barkley’s Medal of Honor and portrait on exhibition.

View letters, photographs and more primary source documents from his personal collection.

WWI Genealogical Research Resources

The United States World War One Centennial Commission maintains this list of Genealogical Resources, which provide users with tools to search their own World War I-era family history. 

Recommended Grade Levels: High School, College, Adult Learners  
Format: Database

Learn more with the WWI Genealogy Research Guide, currently available to download for free.

Researching Individuals in WWI Records

Start your WWI genealogy research with the National Archive’s comprehensive guide to military records, including draft cards, service records and information on deaths of service members during WWI.

Recommended Grade Levels: High School, College, Adult Learners  
Format: Online Article

Lest the Ages Forget

Uncovering Stories of Those Who Served in the Great War

In this lesson plan adaptable for many grade levels, students will research their family history, collect oral narratives and create a family tree. Once they have traced their history, they will write a letter to an ancestor who lived during WWI.

Recommended Grade Levels: Grade School, Middle School, High School
Format: Lesson Plan (PDF)

Military Records

Online WWI Service Databases by State

The National WWI Museum and Memorial maintains a list genealogical resources and databases. Explore this list, which includes general resources, state-level and international military records.

Recommended Grade Levels: High School, College, Adult Learners  
Format: Database

The United States World War One Centennial Commission and the National WWI Museum and Memorial are dedicated to educating the public about the causes, events, and consequences of the conflict and we encourage the use of these resources to better understand the Great War and its enduring impact on the global community.

Partners on this project include:

 Pritzker Military Museum and Library    National Archives    The Great War YouTube Channel    MacArthur Memorial    National History Day    American Battle Monuments Commission    Stanford History Education Group    Center for Middle Eastern Studies, University of Arizona    HISTORY®    AFS Intercultural Programs    Library of Congress    New York State Archives Partnership Trust / New York State Archives    Aberdeen Proving Ground    The Map as History    International Baccalaureate    College Board    Villanova University    Facing History and Ourselves    Mission du centenaire de la Première Guerre mondiale    Virginia Cooperative Extension 4-H   Google Arts & Culture    Scholastic  

The Pritzker Military Museum and Library is a founding sponsor of the United States World War One Centennial Commission.