Gold Star Mothers Pilgrimage

views updated


Gold Star Mothers derived their name from the gold star they displayed on service flags in their homes and armbands during America's participation in World War I (1917 to 1918). Each gold star publicly represented a son or daughter killed in war service and brought recognition to women for sacrificing a child for the nation.

Initially, there was no specifically named organization, but rather a collection of unofficial women's groups formed for mutual companionship and comfort. Commemorative organizations such as the American Legion offered affiliation for the Gold Star women. The American Gold Star Mothers, Inc. (AGSM) received official Federal Charter in 1928.

Controversy over the Gold Star pilgrimages—government-subsidized visits to the European grave sites of those killed overseas during the war—reflected lingering doubts in America over what World War I had accomplished. Debates over where the dead should be buried after the war further fractured the nation and added to questions regarding war aims. Many argued that the war dead should remain together, interred overseas in ground over which they had fought and died. Others believed the government should bring fallen soldiers

home. In 1919, the issue was resolved when family members were asked to make the final decision concerning the disposition of the dead. Once the debate concerning overseas versus domestic burial was resolved, the issue of the Gold Star Pilgrimages could proceed.

One issue dominated the efforts of the Gold Star Mothers almost as soon as the Armistice ending World War I was signed: appeals to Congress for organized, subsidized travel to Europe to visit the graves of their loved ones buried in American cemeteries overseas. Difficult logistical and economic questions were raised during congressional debates regarding the pilgrimage legislation. Dominating the hearings were budgetary objections, questions of logistics, and more sensitive issues such as eligibility under the proposed legislation, since many believed fathers should not be excluded from the visits. The congressional debate over the Gold Star Mothers pilgrimage was also a forum for questioning American involvement in World War I by drawing American attention to the loss of life, and a forum for reinforcing American isolationism and anti-militarism expressed in the Kellog-Briand Pact of 1928.


In March 1929, President Calvin Coolidge signed legislation authorizing Gold Star Mothers and widows with next of kin buried overseas to travel to Europe as guests of the United States government. Five million dollars was allocated to cover all expenses for pilgrimages that began in May 1930 and concluded in August 1933.

The army's Quartermaster Corps was designated with logistical responsibility for the Gold Star pilgrimages of mothers and widows. Relatives of more than 30,000 soldiers were contacted and approximately 14,000 women were found eligible to make the two-week trip abroad. Eventually, 6,693 women accepted the government's invitation, including widows if they had not remarried. The average pilgrim was between sixty-one and sixty-five years of age, but many were over seventy and frail or in poor health.

From the moment pilgrims left their homes, all reasonable expenses were paid. The lavish care extended by the government to the mothers and widows during their journey served to highlight the exceptional nature of their contribution. They were greeted by civic officials in New York at city hall receptions, boarded luxury liners, travelled cabin class, stayed at first-class hotels, and had an army officer, physician and nurse accompany them abroad. Pilgrims were escorted to the graves of their loved ones, then each group spent a week in either Paris or London where they were honored by the French or British government.

Though the government claimed to treat all women alike, African-American women invited to participate in the pilgrimage did so on the same segregated basis as their sons and husbands who had fought and died. They travelled as a separate group on commercial steamers, were accommodated in separate hotels, rode separate trains upon arrival in France, and were even provided separate entertainment. Neither the protest of African-American organizations nor the refusal of some women to participate in the pilgrimage succeeded in persuading the War Department to alter its policy on segregation.

As a public act of commemoration, the pilgrimages united women's groups in remembrance and possibly assisted the participants in the process of consigning the dead to memory. The experience also offers a remarkable "insight into the way many mothers and society at large attempted to portray and define the relationship that existed between mother and son and the nation's war dead" (Piehler, p. 102). The unprecedented pilgrimage legacy represents an unconventional attempt by the government to justify war losses while demonstrating that personal sacrifices had not been made in vain.


Gillis, John R., ed. Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Piehler, G. Kurt. Remembering War the American Way. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995.

Risch, Erna. Quartermaster Support of the Army: A History of the Corps 1775–1939. Washington, DC: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1989.

Lisa M. Budreau

See also:Monuments, Cemeteries, World War I; Feminism; Women, World War I; Women, World War II.