Women and World War I Commemoration: The Gold Star Mothers and Widows Pilgrimages, 1930-33

In the aftermath of World War I, wives became widows, and mothers outlived their sons. More than 100,000 Americans died during the Great War, creating suffering and pain for those family members they left behind. Through the Gold Star pilgrimages of 1930 to 1933, the U.S. government specifically recognized the sacrifices of these mothers and widows who chose burial in an overseas American military cemetery for their sons or husbands.

As the war raged, the Gold Star became a symbol for mourning the fallen. Families who lost a loved one in the service hung a Gold Star in their windows. Their female relatives referred to themselves as Gold Star mothers and widows, and they created several national organizations for collective mourning and support. These groups lobbied Congress for an official government-funded pilgrimage to visit their loved ones’ graves, which the government authorized on March 2, 1929.

All mothers and un-remarried widows of someone buried or memorialized at an ABMC cemetery received an invitation. Over the course of the program 6,654 women participated. These pilgrims represented the diversity of the American army in World War I. However, in keeping with the Jim Crow-Era segregation of the military at the time, the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps racially segregated the pilgrimages. African-American women travelled in separate groups, a decision that created much controversy. While many objected, 168 African-American women still participated as pilgrims.

Even after the crash of the stock market in October 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression, the federal government funded the entire pilgrimage. The Quartermaster Corps meticulously organized the program and cared for the mothers and widows. They arranged every detail of the journey and monitored the pilgrims’ physical and emotional health. Escorted by Army officers and nurses, the pilgrims traveled to many of the major tourist sites in the countries they visited, including the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, where they laid a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. They subsequently traveled to the cemeteries and visited the battlefields and memorials in addition to the graves of their loved ones.

Cemetery staff decorated the graves with the flags of the U.S. and the host country. They provided a chair for the pilgrim to sit next to the headstone and reflect. Each pilgrim received a photograph of herself at the tombstone, where she also laid a memorial wreath. These personal touches added to the dignity of the pilgrimages and demonstrated the government’s commitment to the cemeteries.

The Gold Star pilgrimages honored these women’s sacrifices and eased their grief. After her 1930 pilgrimage to the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, Mrs. O.B. Johnson of Iowa told the Army how “the Government is certainly doing the right and square thing by the Gold Star Mothers. We were treated with respect and deference…on the whole a wonderful trip.”[1] Many pilgrims expressed their admiration for the ABMC cemeteries. Mrs. Ettie M. Brown and Mrs. George Ingersoll visited the Saint-Mihiel American Cemetery and declared that “the cemetery is kept beautifully and we feel our sons have a lovely resting place.”[2]

Through the Gold Star pilgrimages, women played a key role in the early commemorations at the ABMC cemeteries. The government recognized that these women served the nation through their losses, and acknowledged the importance of providing them with the opportunity to visit the overseas graves of their fallen family members. The ABMC mission during the Gold Star pilgrimages was the same as it is today: to maintain military cemeteries with honor, so that the loved ones of the fallen can find solace in the dignified care of their eternal resting place. 

[1] Letter to Mr. Bartlett from Mrs. O.B. Johnson, 1930 Folder: “330.1 Pilgrimage Gold Star 1930,” Box: 376, RG: 92, NACP.

[2] Undated letter to Ellis from. Mrs. Ettie M. Brown and Mrs. George Ingersoll, Folder: “330.1 Pilgrimage Gold Star 1930,” Box: 376, RG: 92, NACP.