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The Quiet Mourners: Heroism on the Home Front

Blue stars and gold stars appeared in windows in both World War I and World War II.

Blue for an active service person, gold for the loss of a loved one from the home killed in the war.

The mourning period in both wars was long, perhaps in many ways lifelong. The officials in Washington tried to help ease the pain, particularly of mothers, who lost sons (usually) in World War I. Some years after the war, officials paid to take mothers from Indiana and other places to the burial places of their children in France.

This excerpt is from our upcoming book by Brian Spangle: Vincennes History You Don’t Know; the 20th Century in the Town by the River— “Our Times” Columns from the Vincennes Sun Commercial.

Gold Star Mothers Make a Pilgrimage To France

At midday on Sunday, August 17, 1930, Vincennes residents Margaret Robinson and Clara Cook were at Union Depot preparing to board a B&O train that would take them to New York, the jumping off point for a much longer journey.

Mrs. Robinson and Mrs. Cook were members of a very select group, the American Gold Star Mothers, women who had lost a son in the First World War. Both women had sons interred in cemeteries in France and they were on a pilgrimage to visit the graves for the first time. Members of the local War Mothers Chapter were at the depot to see them off. The manager of Vincennes Rose Gardens presented them with flowers.

The women were making their journey courtesy of the U.S. government. In the 1920s the Gold Star Mothers pushed for the government to sponsor such trips, since, while some mothers had been able to travel to Europe to see their son’s graves, others simply could not afford to go. Legislation was passed by Congress in 1929 authorizing paid trips to cemeteries in Europe “by mothers and widows of members of military and naval forces of the United States who died in the service at any time between April 5, 1917, and July 1, 1921, and whose remains are now interred in such cemeteries.”

The emphasis was decidedly on the “maternal bond,” as fathers were all but ignored.

Mrs. Robinson and Mrs. Cook were met in New York by a representative of the military and spent time touring that city. The two were part of a larger group of War Mothers from across the country. On August 20 they set sail on a 10-day voyage on the steamer George Washington. There were around 1,500 passengers on board, many of them tourists. They experienced calm seas on the trip.

The mothers disembarked at Cherbourg then traveled by train to Paris, from which city they would visit the cemeteries. Margaret Robinson’s son Charles enlisted on May 12, 1918 and did clerical work at the office of Inland Waterway Transportation in Paris. Robinson contracted pneumonia and died in a Paris military hospital on September 10, 1918. His mother visited his final resting place in the Suresnes American Cemetery outside Paris.

Mrs. Cook’s son Edwin joined the service shortly after the U.S. entered the war in April 1917, serving in the Hospital Corps. Cook died in an automobile accident in 1918. Cook’s mother had a bit of a longer trip to see her son’s burial place, because he was interred in St. Mihiel American Cemetery near Thiaucourt, France, 190 miles from Paris. Obviously, the visits had to be emotional experiences for all the mothers.

Sightseeing made up a part of the trip, with the women seeing all of the major sights, including the Louvre, Versailles, Notre Dame, and Napoleon’s Tomb. Each group of War Mothers also laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe. They started for home on September 10 and would experience rough seas on the journey, voyaging on the USS America. Mrs. Cook stayed in Washington DC for a short time upon returning to the U.S.

When this government program ended on October 31, 1933, 6,693 women had made the trip overseas.

The book is by Vincennes archivist Brian Spangle; watch for it in the fall!