Friday, May 17, 2013

Gold Star Mothers

Named by the emblem that signified their loss, the Gold Star Mothers, a group that originated during World War I, wanted more than to grieve over the death of their loved ones. 
Mrs. Conrad Neth next to a grave
at Aisne-Marne American Cemetery

The Gold Star Emblem
 Although less elaborate mourning practices were increasingly common in the early twentieth century, World War I made the trend more widely accepted.  This change in how American casualties were remembered is chronicled in Bodies of War: World War I and the Politics of Commemoration in America, 1919-19133 by Lisa M. Budreau.  Shortly after the St. Mihiel offensive, Mrs. Louise D. Bowen, chairwoman of Chicago’s Women’s Committee of the State Council of Defense, proposed replacing the traditional black mourning dress with a simple gold star.

To earlier generations, black clothing symbolized sadness, grief, and the natural, negative reaction to death and war.  Bowen believed a gold star better demonstrated the passionate sacrifices made by soldiers in service to their country.  As the casualty lists grew longer, Budreau asserts traditional practices came to be seen as “somehow mentally and physically injurious to the bereaved and triggered a quick succession of editorials that wholeheartedly supported the patriotic chorus.”  Soon, women who had lost a son in the war were seen wearing a gold star.  Although the star made their loss easily recognizable, they struggled for acknowledgment as a formal group. 

The Gold Star Pilgrimage Act

Passage of the Nineteenth Amendment ushered in new opportunities for women in the United States and many women’s groups thrived in the 1920s.  Budreau states the basic interest of the Gold Star Mothers and their supporters was for the government to provide and fund travel for “women who could not otherwise afford to go to their son’s grave,”   Other Allied countries had rejected similar proposals and the Gold Star Mothers struggled to make their case heard.  As Steven Trout argues in On the Battlefield of Memory:  The First World War and American Remembrance, 1919-1941, that “because of the relative proximity of the Continent, [it was] concluded that it was unnecessary for the British government to subsidized family pilgrimages to British war cemeteries.”

The distance that hindered the development of British pilgrimages undoubtedly aided the justification for reburying American soldiers in the United States and development of a program that would escort mothers to cemeteries in France. Ultimately, support from predominantly white women’s organizations pressured Congress into siding with the popular belief that these mothers and widows deserved the opportunity to visit the burial sites of their loved ones.  In 1929, Congress approved the request of the Gold Star Mothers. Beginning in 1930, mothers of the deceased soldiers were invited to travel to Europe and visit the American Battle Monuments Commission’s cemeteries at government expense.

Gold Star Mothers on a ship's deck in transit to Europe
The Pilgrimage

Each pilgrim began her journey by traveling to New York City to meet with her group.  Once in New York City, the majority of the Gold Star mothers enjoyed staying in grand accommodations like the Astoria Hotel or Hotel Pennsylvania.  Mrs. Agnes Fraas remarked in a letter dated July 14, 1931, “This is a lovely hotel and we have the best of everything.” Similar sentiments were expressed about the accommodations aboard the transport vessels.  Mrs. Conrad Neth expresses her pleasure in her quarters  aboard the SS American enroute to Paris in  on August 12, 1931, “We have a nice room just like in a house: a rug on the floor, 2 chairs, 2 beds, bath room, electric fan and lights.”

While the early days of the pilgrimage were dedicated to the tourism and comfort of the mothers, memorials for soldiers and sailors spanned the entire length of the journey.  Mrs. Neth recollected in her letter dated August 16, 1932, “At 2:30 we went on dock for a memorial service for the boys that were buried at sea.  There was one Mother.  She dropped the wreath for her son.”  Although the trip continued to include sightseeing ventures, memorial services became the primary activity for the pilgrims.  After arriving in Paris, Mrs. Neth commented on August 23, 1931, about another memorial service attended by the mothers, “We all left by buss for a memorial service for the French and our oldest mother 77 years old layed the wreath on the unknown grave and one was layed for those berried at sea.  There was a great crowd gathered there and we marched 2 by 2 and lined up.  It was a sad sight.”

Memorial Service Program kept
by Gold Star Mother Mrs. Lizzette Shaw
Although general ceremonies were held throughout the pilgrimage, both Mrs. Fraas and Mrs. Neth recounted the personal experience of visiting their sons’ gravesites.  Mrs. Fraas noted that on July 28, 1931, the mothers “Had lunch at the hostess house than we were given a wreath of beautiful flowers to place on our beloveds grave.”  The group arrived at the St. Mihiel American Cemetery where Mrs. Fraas found her son Frank’s grave and placed the wreath provided at the hostess house.  Later she mentioned an inscription at the cemetery: “Their devotion their valor and their sacrifice will live forever in the hearts of their grateful country men Sept. 12-18... He sleeps for from his own in the sweet land of France St. Mihiel Cemetery.” 

Unlike Mrs. Fraas, Mrs. Neth did not have a grave to locate; her son, Carl Musbach, was included in the Tablets of the Missing at Aisne-Marne American Cemetery. Similar to Mrs. Fraas’ experience, Mrs. Neth received a wreath to place on a grave.  On August 26, 1931, discussed the placing of the wreath, “Each of us got 2 flags one French and one USA then each of us was given a large wreath to Place on a Grave.  Some found there boys grave and some were unknown.  So the unknown mothers placed a wreath on a Unknown grave saying it mite be my boy.”

Gold Star Mothers in front of the hostess house
The St. Mihiel American Cemetery and the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery are only two of the eight American cemeteries visited by the Gold Star Mothers during their pilgrimage.  Between 1930 and 1933, over 6,500 women like Mrs. Fraas and Mrs. Neth made the government organized pilgrimage to these and other American cemeteries throughout Europe to memorialize their sons.

Although Gold Star Pilgrimages were unique to World War I, Gold Star Mother, Inc. continues to exist.  For current information about the organization, visit


Budreau, Lisa. Bodies of War: World War I and the Politics of Commemoration in America, 1919-1933. New York: New York University Press, 2010.

Trout, Steven. On the Battlefield of Memory: the First World War and American Remembrance, 1919-1941. Tuscaloosa: University Alabama Press, 2010.

Frank X. Fraas (Mrs. Agnes Fraas), Jr., 1917-1931. 2002.50. National World War I Museum, Kansas City, MO.

Carl F. Musbach (Mrs. Conrad Neth), 1918-1931. 1985.165. National World War I Museum, Kansas City, MO.

Walter G. Shaw (Mrs. Lizzette Shaw), 1917-1919. 1982.83. National World War I Museum, Kansas City, MO.