The Gold Star Mother Pilgrimages and Remembering Fallen Soldiers from WWI

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Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman. This is The World. It's Memorial Day and all day I've been seeing and hearing stories of the men and women who have fallen in service to the US and those who are gathering to honor them. Today at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, President Obama spoke of the consequences of sending people into battle.

Barack Obama: And for those of us who bear the solemn responsibility of sending these men and women into harm's way, we know the consequences all too well. I feel it every time I meet a wounded warrior, every time I visit Walter Reed, and every time I grieve with a Gold Star family.

Werman: I want to take a few minutes to pick up on something the President mentioned there, Gold Star family. That's a family who has lost a son or daughter, or husband or wife, in battle. To understand the history you have to go back to the years after the First World War. More than 100,000 Americans died in that war and many of them were buried on foreign soil. Then 12 years later something remarkable happened. From 1930 to '33, nearly 7,000 mothers and widows traveled to Europe to visit the graves of their loved ones. It was all arranged and paid for by the US government. They were called Gold Star Mother Pilgrimages, and John Graham has written a book about them. He explained why it took more than a decade for Congress to act.

John Graham: This was before the New Deal, before anything remotely related to spending money for relief programs or things of that sort came to mind, and it took Congress about ten years to wrestle with this issue of what exactly is the government's responsibility to family members who've lost children or husbands in war. But at the end of the day, after about ten years, Congress got it right. They appropriated the money to send, like you said, almost 7,000 women overseas to visit these graves. And they had the Army, the Quartermaster service from the US Army, conduct and arrange all the trips.

Werman: And going right after the war seemed a little crazy, because some of these battlefields, it was like hell on earth, and nothing much had changed since the last battles.

Graham: Well, and that's exactly right. If you think about the scope of World War I, like you said, US lost total about 116,000 men in the war. That pales in comparison to the British and the French that lost more than a million men, and the battlefields and the cemeteries were just not ready to go. They weren't really ready to support any kind of visit and a lot of the, the US government gave the families a choice. They could leave the son overseas in one of the cemeteries to be built, or they could have the bodies shipped back home. And a lot of these bodies weren't returned until two or three years after the war, so it was something that, even if that notion had come to mind, it was just too soon.

Werman: Now these women that were known as the Gold Star Mothers, they flew flags during World War I with a gold star on it for each child of theirs who had died in Europe. There must have been many of these moms. How were they chosen for these trips, these pilgrimages?

Graham: It's interesting, the government had on file all of the correspondence available for the soldiers who were lost overseas, and for the women who chose to leave the body overseas, what they would do is send them a correspondence. It was an invitation saying the government would like to take you overseas for a pilgrimage. Would you like to go? Yes or no? And the ones who said yes, the government would then meticulously contact them, send them an itinerary, send them information on when their trip was going to take place, how to get a passport. Everything else was taken care of for them and it was all based on who was able to opt in.

Werman: So off this group of mothers go on this incredible trip, traveling by ship to Europe. What was the itinerary?

Graham: These trips took about five weeks from start to finish. Most all of them took a train to New York City, sailed overseas on a first-class ship that took about a week. All the groups were taken then to Paris and the groups had two or three days of sightseeing and ceremonies and things like that in Paris. In fact, it's interesting to talk to you today because exactly 80 years ago today, the last group of mothers in 1933 was visiting Paris, today as we speak. After that what happened is the mothers were broken up by what cemetery they were to go to, and that sub-party traveled by itself throughout the French countryside, stayed near the cemetery. The goal, the objective was to get these women to the cemetery to decorate their son's grave for, say, three or four different days. Then they made their way back to Paris, another day or two of sightseeing, and then back to New York City and back home. And like I said it took about five weeks total from start to finish for each one of them.

Werman: So we're talking a dozen or so years after these women's kids have fallen dead in a field of battle. Do you have the story of one mother, and her account, and how it all changed her life? There she is at this field of battle, these graves, and she's there for the first time.

Graham: In my book I profile the Ziegler family from Durand, Illinois. Louise Ziegler lost her son, Fred Ziegler was her son, and she brought her daughter Grace Ziegler with her. And the part that was fascinating for this, and I profile this in my book, is Grace kept a daily diary, and it was published in the Rockford, Illinois newspaper when she got back. And they talked about the trip, they talked about the sightseeing, and it really is just a marvelous story. And Fred also had sent home a lot of his letters, and the family shared those letters with me as well. And as he got overseas, he's full of enthusiasm, ready to go whip the Kaiser. And as he gets closer and closer into battle, his letters take on a more serious tone. His division was considered to be one of the most-gassed divisions in the whole war, suffering gas attacks. He'd been in the lines for days and days and days, hadn't changed his shoes or socks, hadn't shaved for more than a couple weeks, and he signed his final letter home "Fred Ziegler," not "Fred," because he knew what was coming. And he was killed basically a month before the war ended. So the evocative part about all these stories is the soldier, how he died, and then also the mother and the family members that went overseas.

Werman: That was John Graham, author of The Gold Star Mothers Pilgrimages of the 1930s with that incredible story about American mothers and their sons who died in World War I. We try to stay in regular touch with our online community of war veterans and we reached out to them today. We wanted to find out more about the rituals they've created around Memorial Day. "I visit the veteran graves from my family and place flowers upon each one." That from Timothy Powell, a retired Marine sergeant who served from 1987 to '95. Powell also writes that he takes at least one extra flower and places it upon a veteran's grave who has long been forgotten, say from the Civil War, to honor and remember his sacrifice. For Arthur Kitchen, this Memorial Day is a very sad day. He tells us that his father, a World War II vet, passed away two weeks ago. "I am lost," Kitchen writes. And finally, this vet emailed us today, Staff Sergeant Glen Harrison. He's going to be redeployed to Afghanistan.

Glen Harrison: Everything's volunteer nowadays, so they all raise their hand. And you know, from the men and women that came before me and the ones comes after me, you know, I just, I always think about the ones that came before me. They paved the way to make it easier for me but my last trip to Afghanistan, you know, we lost a few guys there, and you feel for them. You don't really want to call their families or nothing like that, because that's very personal, but you just take a minute and, you know, I get goose bumps just talking about it, but you know, you just, you feel for them. It's a brotherhood thing.

Werman: With his redeployment to Afghanistan just a few weeks away, Harrison mowed the lawn at his house today. He says he was also looking through old pictures of buddies he had been deployed with. As he told us, he's been focusing on the ones with their helmets hanging on their rifles. We leave you with that image on this Memorial Day. From the Nan and Bill Harris Studios at WGBH, I'm Marco Werman. We'll be back tomorrow.