WWI Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. James I. Mestrovitch
The Medal of Honor is the highest honor that a service member in the United States Military can receive.
The award is so prestigious that the accuracy of every recipient is scrutinized under a process that can take more than 18 months, according to the United States Army Medal of Honor recommendation process.
Since the Medal of Honor was established during the Civil War, it has been awarded more than 3,500 times. Service members from Pennsylvania account for 382 of these, the second highest number of Medal of Honor recipients from any state (New York has the most). Philadelphia has the most recipients for Pennsylvania, with 121.
Two Pennsylvania National Guard members received the Medal of Honor for actions during World War I: Sgt. James I. Mestrovitch and Maj. Joseph H. Thompson.
For Mestrovitch, his journey to his heroic actions did not begin in Pennsylvania, nor did it begin the United States.
Mestrovitch was born May 22, 1894, in CRNA Cora, Yugoslvia. Also known as “Jack,” he immigrated to the United States in 1911.
In 1914 the Balkans were facing a pandemic, and doctors and nurses from the United States assembled through the Red Cross to provide medical personnel to Serbia; Mestrovitch volunteered to join the delegation as an interpreter.
“Before I went back home with American Doctors and saw the loyalty with which they served humanity did I (sic) understand the meaning of Americanism,” he told a reporter when he returned to the United States.
It was this patriotism that encouraged him to visit a recruiter for the Pennsylvania National Guard, where he joined Company C, 18th Pennsylvania Infantry. In 1917, the U.S Army realigned itself as it swelled in preparations with new Soldiers and new units. The 28th Infantry Division was born from this realignment, and the 18th Pennsylvania Infantry would join other units in the Western part of the state to become the 111th Infantry Regiment.
“After the Americans did this for my people, maybe you can understand why I am in the National Guard,” he said. “I left a good job as a bookkeeper at a hotel in Pittsburgh to serve my country’s savior. I am ready for any service the United States has for me.”
Mestrovitch served along the U.S.-Mexico border, and then through the fields and trenches of World War I. It was during the battle for Fismette, France, on Aug. 10, 1918, that he risked his life for his company commander.
Mestrovitch’s Medal of Honor citation reads: “Seeing his company commander lying wounded 30 yards in front of the line after his company had withdrawn to a sheltered position behind a stone wall, Sgt. Mestrovitch voluntarily left cover and crawled through heavy machine-gun and shell fire to where the officer lay. He took the officer upon his back and crawled to a place of safety, where he administered first-aid treatment, his exceptional heroism saving the officer's life.”
Mestrovitch was hit by machine gun fire while saving his wounded comrade, and he was initially reported as killed in action, but those reports of his death were erroneous. While recovering in the hospital, he wrote to his uncle about what occurred.
“They operated twice on me, and in another month I think I will be just as good as I was and ready for the front again,” he wrote.
He would return to his unit, and it was during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in November 1918 that Mestrovitch would make the ultimate sacrifice.
After a burial in a temporary cemetery in France, Mestrovitch’s body was returned home to his mother in the town of Boka, Yugoslavia, in 1925. Later that year, during a U.S. mission to Split, Mestrovitch's mother was presented with his Medal of Honor in the presence of a full honor guard.
On Medal of Honor day, the nation continues to recognize Sgt. James I. Mestrovitch: an immigrant, a Pennsylvanian, a National Guard Soldier, and a recipient of the Medal of Honor.