Immigrants in the Military during WWI

Ellis Island Part of Statue of Liberty National Monument

A crowd of men in suits and military uniforms, surrounded by an audience of women and children
Italian-American Michael Valente (right foreground) receiving the Medal of Honor in 1929 from President Herbert Hoover, in recognition of Valente’s heroism during World War I.

Library of Congress

Many of the immigrants who entered the United States in the Ellis Island era found themselves serving in the military during the First World War.

Some of these US residents had to choose between conflicting loyalties to the land of their birth and to their new country. Some had immigrated in part to escape the long military service required by many European nations, but other immigrants were eager to enlist in America’s armed forces to serve their new country.

If a male immigrant had not yet become an American citizen — a process that normally takes at least five years — he could be drafted into the armed forces of his homeland. Some immigrants even volunteered to serve in their native country’s military when war broke out. More than 500,000 German Americans and some 90,000 Italian Americans left the United States to enlist in the armies of their respective homelands.

Once America entered the war in 1917, the question of immigrants’ divided loyalties became critical. Would they be willing to fight for the United States, or would they prioritize the interests of their homeland, even to the point of espionage or sabotage? Practically, would immigrants understand orders in English and be able to conform to the standards of the US military?

Some immigrants were already career soldiers when America declared war, and these individuals often became leaders to the masses of immigrants who were drafted into the military. American men between the ages of 18 and 45 were required to register for the draft — not only US citizens, but also resident aliens who had filed a declaration of intent to become a citizen. Although immigrants who had not yet filed such a declaration were exempt from the draft, many of them nonetheless volunteered to serve.

In total, about 500,000 immigrants from 46 nations served in America’s armed forces during World War I, making up 18% of the troops. One reason for this is that military service has offered a “fast track” to citizenship since the time of the Civil War. In 1918–19, the United States waived for servicemen the normal five-year US residency requirement, eliminated the need to file an advance declaration of intent, waived the application fee, and streamlined procedures so that soldiers and sailors could complete the naturalization process quickly in the field. More than 192,000 World War I servicemen became citizens under these provisions.

In the armed forces, immigrants learned how to be American and native-born Americans learned to get along with immigrants. Tennessee-born Sergeant Alvin York, one of the most decorated Americans of World War I, described in his memoirs how horrified he was initially at being “throwed” in with a bunch of “foreigners” — but he dedicated those memoirs to “the Greeks, Irish, Poles, Jews, and Italians who were in my platoon … They were my buddies. I jes learned to love them.”

In some units, three-quarters of the recruits entered military service not speaking English. The Army learned to place draftees of the same ethnic group together for basic training, to help them learn English and “Americanize” before going on to multi-ethnic units. Provisions were also made to accommodate religious diversity, with the recruitment of Catholic and Jewish chaplains.

Thirteen immigrants born in twelve different countries earned the Medal of Honor for their heroic actions during World War I. They charged enemy guns, rescued comrades, took command when others fell, and in one case died in the attempt. Medal of Honor recipient Michael Valente noted the importance of this recognition when he said, “I did not forget, while the President was conferring the award, that he had decorated an American of Italian origin — and that through him honor can come to all Italians who emigrated here.”