An ambitious project to return 100 medals to the families of servicemen killed or wounded in World War I by 6th April 2017, is being undertaken by a group called Purple Hearts United. These medals constitute either the Purple Heart or the Lady Columbia Wound Certificate. The certificate showing an infantryman on one knee before a toga-clad lady were issued before the Purple Heart came into being.
The project was started by Zachariah Fike who lives in Vermont. He had a large collection of military memorabilia and within the collection were exactly 100 Purple Hearts or the equivalent certificates. This planted the seed of the idea to ensure that they were all returned to the families of the servicemen to whom the medals or certificates were originally awarded. This meant 100 pieces were to be returned before the centenary celebration of World War I in April 2017.
This was a tall order as tracing the families is no simple matter. Researchers start with military records and then work their way through any other databases they have access to, to try and find the relatives. Most children of the original recipient are aged 90 or more and many are no longer alive so tracing the family takes serious detective work.
The first medal returned as part of the World War I 100, was returned to the family of Cpl. William Frederick Zartman, over the Memorial Day weekend. Cpl. Zartman was wounded whilst on active duty in France on 22nd July 1918. After the war, Zartman became a barber, living in York County, Pennsylvania until his death in 1948. The medal was returned to his nephew, Wayne Bowers who lives in Thomasville, Pennsylvania. Mr. Bowers had no knowledge of his uncle’s military service before being contacted by Purple Hearts United in May. The effect on the family has been quite profound and Mr. Bowers told an interview, “He died before I was born, and I never knew anything more about it. My whole family is in shock, really. … It’s a fantastic thing to find out.”
The project to return the 100 WWI medals is the largest individual project that Purple Hearts United has launched. The Organisation had humble beginnings when in 2009 Fike’s mother gave him a Purple Heart and dog tags that she had bought in an antique shop. Fike strongly believed that the medal should be returned to the serviceman’s family so he traced sister of the serviceman, Pvt. C A G Piccoli, who died in France in 1944, and returned the medal to her. Since this first presentation, Fike’s organisation has returned many medals earned in a number of wars from World War I to Afghanistan.
A superb touch is that Purple Hearts United does not simply return the medal. Fike works hard to raise money to ensure that each medal is neatly mounted, with its certificate, and a photograph, if possible by the Village Frame Shoppe and Gallery in St. Albans.
Each presentation costs in the region of $1500 which includes buying the original medals either on-line or through antique and second-hand shops, mounting and framing them and then arranging a suitable hand-over ceremony. In the few cases where he has been unable to locate any descendants, the medal is presented to a museum or historical society in the original recipient’s home town.
Fike, who is also the recipient of a Purple Heart, was wounded in 2010 whilst serving as a National Guard captain in Afghanistan. He feels very strongly about this project, “You’re honouring fallen heroes. These are our forefathers; these are the guys that have shed their blood or sacrificed their lives for us. Any opportunity to bring light to that is always a good thing.”