Efforts underway to digitize VNG’s WWI personnel records

Virginia National Guard Soldiers assigned to the 117th Military Police Company, 42nd Infantry Division are photographed in France in 1918, at the height of World War I. Efforts are now underway to digitize their service records, which have survived the last 100 years. (Contributed photo)

RICHMOND, Va. — The Virginia National Guard has a wealth of historic personnel records of Virginians who were among the first troops called to serve in World War I, and efforts are currently underway to digitize those records for online access.

With the emergence of ancestry websites making it easier to research family histories, the importance of bringing invaluable century-old military records into the age of the internet isn’t lost on VNG command historian, retired chief warrant officer Al Barnes.

“Everywhere I go, the first thing people ask is how can I find grandpa’s records?” Said Barnes.

At the center of his efforts are the records for more than 150 Virginia Soldiers who were part of the 42nd Infantry Division, better known as the Rainbow Division. It was the first World War I-era division comprised of Guard units from several different states. Barnes said as units were being stood up in 1917 to fight in Europe, the question became: which state’s guard would go first?

The answer came from then-lieutenant colonel Douglas MacArthur, who at the time was serving at the National Guard Bureau.

“They took the most ready guys from 26 different states and made the Rainbow Division,” said Barnes.

Virginia’s contribution was 117th Military Police Company, made up of four officers and nearly 150 Soldiers, most of them from the Roanoke area. The majority of them had been serving with coast artillery companies. They deployed to France with thousands of other troops making up the division, fighting in multiple campaigns and eventually helping with the occupation of defeated Germany.

“They actually did a roster of the entire 28,000 guys in the division, and put it in a book,” said Barnes. “Here’s 28,000 names with a home address and where they’re from, broken down by unit.

“These guys were the very first Virginians to go to France. I thought that was really kind of neat, so I started digging into our files at Fort Pickett,” said Barnes.

What he found were 100-year-old enlistment records from those artillery companies who provided Soldiers for the 117th MPs. From there, Barnes was able to match up the names in those documents to the names in the Rainbow Divisions’s roster book.

“Then I found out that the state repository had their service records,” said Barnes.

Those service records, then called Form 724, were the equivalent to the modern Department of Defense form 214, filed at the end of Soldier’s service.

“They’re all on microfilm, so I’m able to make images of them, one at a time,” said Barnes, who had already started digitally scanning the same Soldiers’ enlistment records.

Then, as an extra bonus, Barnes found that the Library of Virginia maintains end-of-service surveys, sent to World War I veterans around 1920, asking about their service and war experience.

“Most folks gaffed it off, but about 40 percent responded,” explained Barnes. “Those that did, they’ve got those digitized. So, if your great-grandpa filled his out, you’ve now got his enlistment record, his service record, and this survey that tells you what he thought about his service.

“It’s pretty cool. I think we’re probably the only state that could give you all three of those things, which is really kind of neat.”

As Barnes continues to get records scanned and digitized, the next step will be finding an online home for the files.

“We don’t have a place for this to live yet,” said Barnes. “But, once we do, all you’ll have to do is know the name, and bam, you’ll get it all in one shot.”

It has taken Barnes a year to get the 117th’s records into a digital format, but he says he isn’t done.

“This was the easy one. The problem then becomes who’s next. How do I go get the 111th, the 116th?” Asked Barnes, referring to some of VNG’s World War II-era units.

Barnes said the ultimate goal is to learn as much as possible about the Guard’s Soldiers who fought in wars past.

“As I’ve gone around the state talking to folks, relatives of these guys have contacted me, and they’ve been giving me stuff, because they have more pieces of the puzzle,” Barnes said. “We’re starting to get to the point where we’ve got a pretty clear picture of these guys, from cradle to grave.”

Anyone with Virginia National Guard-related historic records or artifacts can contact Barnes at Alexander.F.Barnes.NFG@mail.mil.