By April Smith
ON FEB. 7, 1930, FIRST LADY LOU HENRY HOOVER reached into a silver bowl in the Red Room of the White House and pulled out a single unmarked envelope from an assortment of 48. Inside was the name of the U.S. state that would be the first to send a contingent of war mothers across the Atlantic to visit the graves of their sons that had died fighting in France. Nebraska won the draw. Only days earlier, Congress had earmarked $5.3 million to finance 11,000 such voyages.
Over the next four years, 6,693 of these so-called Gold Star Mothers from across the Unites States made the arduous 5,000-mile journey to European war cemeteries to bid a final farewell to their long deceased sons — and hopefully to achieve some measure of closure in the process. Many observers believed that the sheer number of grieving mothers gathered so dramatically in public would actually help foster peace.
“The world is forgetting this war and forgetting the spirit which prompted our soldiers to make the supreme sacrifice,” Harmon A. Vedder, secretary of the Gold Star Association, told Congress. “It is our objective to further the spirit . . . that will make impossible another war . . . and keep alive the memory of the boys who thought their sacrifice would free a war-mad world.”
At the time, America was in the grip of the Great Depression — the Gold Star Mother pilgrimages made for some welcomed positive news in an otherwise bleak time. Not surprisingly, their story was widely reported in the press.
The ladies, wearing white uniforms and holding bouquets, were photographed at the same piers from which their sons had debarked for war more than a decade earlier. Once in Europe, they travelled to the various battlefields and graves sites, attended solemn vigils and laid wreaths with French war mothers at the Arc de Triomphe. Others made radio speeches on how well they were treated by the War Department. But this moment of gratitude was a hard-won victory more than ten years in the making.
Congressman and future New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia first advocated honouring war mothers as early as 1919. Although the idea was strongly supported by the American Legion and other patriotic groups, a single woman by the name of Grace Darling Seibold is credited with forming a powerful alliance with other mothers that ultimately won the attention of lawmakers.
Shortly after the United States’ entry into the war in Europe, Grace was devastated to learn her 23-year old son, Airman George Vaughn Seibold, had gone missing somewhere over France. Clinging to hope that her boy might somehow still be alive, she desperately scoured hospital wards filled with recuperating soldiers near the family home in Washington D.C. Months later, she received a box containing her son’s personal effects. George was truly gone.
In her grief, Grace reached out to other military families to provide comfort. Under her leadership, a group of 25 women who’d lost sons of their own formed American Gold Star Mothers, Inc.
The organization was named for the gold star on the honour flags that hung in the windows of houses where a family member had died in service. The symbol was officially recognized in 1918 by President Wilson, in conjunction with the Women’s Committee of the Council of National Defenses, to be worn on a black armband — according to the Gold Star Mothers president in 1940, “For the honor and glory according the person for his supreme sacrifice . . . and the last full measure of devotion and the pride of the family.”
The tradition continued into WWII, but the government-sponsored pilgrimages of the 1930s never happened again. The gold star in the window never went out of fashion, even during the Vietnam era, when it often seemed outmoded (and sometimes even unsafe) to acknowledge the sacrifice of the troops. Today, American Gold Star Mothers, Inc. continues its mission to care for veterans and their families.
April Smith is the author of A Star for Mrs. Blake, a historical novel about five fictional women who undertake the journey to the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery near Verdun in the 1930s to say their final goodbyes to their lost sons. It was published in September by Vintage.