ST. ALBANS, Vt. – A group that seeks to reunite lost Purple Hearts with service members or their descendants is embarking on an ambitious project: to return 100 such medals or certificates earned in World War I before the 100th anniversary next April of the United States' entry into the conflict.
Zachariah Fike, of the Vermont-based Purple Hearts Reunited, began the project after noticing he had in his collection of memorabilia a total of exactly 100 Purple Hearts or equivalent lithographs awarded for injuries or deaths from the Great War.
"You're honoring fallen heroes," said Fike, a Vermont National Guard captain wounded in Afghanistan in 2010. "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."
The lithographs, known as a Lady Columbia Wound Certificate and showing a toga-wearing woman knighting an infantry soldier on bended knee, were what World War I military members wounded or killed while serving were awarded before the Purple Heart came into being in 1932. World War I service members who already had a lithograph became eligible for a Purple Heart at that time.
The Purple Hearts and the certificates include the name of the service member to whom they were awarded. Fike is working with researchers to try to find the descendants of the service members.
So far, he has found about two dozen, including a handful of children, most now in their 90s, so they can be presented with commemorations that somehow were lost.
The first return that's part of the World War I project was over Memorial Day weekend, on Saturday in Hanover, Pennsylvania, where the medal awarded to Cpl. William Frederick Zartman, who was severely wounded while fighting in France on July 22, 1918, was returned to his grandnephew. After the war, Zartman became a barber in York County, Pennsylvania. He died in 1948.
Zartman's descendant Wayne Bowers, 64, of Thomasville, Pennsylvania, said before the ceremony that he was unaware of the details of his uncle's World War I service until he heard from Fike's organization at the beginning of May.
"He died before I was born, and I never knew anything more about it," Bowers said. "My whole family is in shock, really. ... It's a fantastic thing to find out."
Fike's efforts began in 2009, after his mother gave him a Purple Heart and dog tags she had bought in an antique shop. He realized he should return the medal to its owner, Pvt. Corrado A.G. Piccoli, an Italian immigrant from the Watertown, New York, area who Fike had learned was killed in France in 1944.
Fike later returned the medal to Piccoli's sister.
Since Fike started Purple Hearts Reunited in 2012, the organization has presented hundreds of medals and lesser memorabilia received by his organization, including dog tags, won in conflicts ranging from World War I to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
So far, the most articles Fike's organization has returned in one year is 60. It plans to return the World War I medals by early April 6, 2017. And it will continue to return medals won in other conflicts.
Fike is working with the Village Frame Shoppe and Gallery in St. Albans to mount the certificates and the medals in frames that include biographies of the men who won them and, in some cases, photographs.
He is also raising money to help pay the $1,500 cost of each presentation, which includes buying the certificates and the medals, frequently online; framing them; and the presentations themselves, usually done with military honors in the hometown of the descendants.
When he can't find a descendant, the commemoratives are donated to museums or historical societies near the service members' hometowns — what Fike calls "homes of honor."