Department: Social Sciences

Gold Star Pilgrimages Focus of Veterans Roundtable

October 23, 2015

A little-known pilgrimage to family members’ graves in foreign cemeteries will be the topic for the annual Veterans Roundtable meeting at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 5, in the Preston Family Room at the Memorial Union on the Emporia State University campus. 

The program, “A Final Goodbye: Gold Star Mother Pilgrimages 1929-1933,” will feature speaker Stacie Petersen, registrar of the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri.

The Gold Star designation reflects a paradox of war — the grief of the mothers whose sons and daughters died in service to their country and the pride they share in that service. 

Retired Col. John O. Sanderson of Emporia will introduce Petersen, who received a bachelor of science in history from Iowa State University and a master of science in museum science from Texas Tech University.

The Pilgrimages were a 10-year effort, initially begun in 1919 by then U.S. Representative Fiorello LaGuardia, and taken up by the Gold Star Mothers Association. The mothers lobbied for assistance from the government to visit the graves of their sons and daughters overseas. Approximately 33,000 of the 100,000 Americans killed in combat had been buried in special cemeteries in France, Belgium and England.

“The topic is really unique, because a lot of people are not aware of it,” Petersen said. “Politics came into play, of course.”

In March 1929, President Calvin Coolidge signed the bill that allowed approximately $5 million to cover all expenses to send the Gold Star Mothers to visit their sons’ and daughters’ graves overseas through pilgrimages that would be organized by the government between 1930 and 1933. Widows who had not remarried also were invited on the trips, Petersen said.

Petersen’s program will delve into the years of the pilgrimages made by the Gold Star Mothers whose families had chosen not to have the remains of their children returned to be re-buried in the United States.     

Such was the case of Grace Darling Seibold of Washington, D.C. Seibold’s son, aviator George Vaughn Seibold, had volunteered in 1917 during World War I. 

He was sent to combat duty in France and soon was reported as missing in action. His death finally was confirmed on Oct. 11, 1918, though his body was never identified for return to the U.S.

Seibold, who had worked as a volunteer with hospitalized veterans as she waited for news of her son and after his death, decided to organize mothers into a formal group. The purpose was not only to provide comfort and support for the grieving mothers, but to help give care to wounded veterans in government hospitals far from their home states.

The group was named for the Gold Star that families hung in their windows in honor of their deceased veterans.

After years of planning and service to those veterans, Seibold’s core group of 25 mothers was established officially as The Gold Star Mothers Inc. on June 4, 1928, in Washington, D.C.

The organization continues, although the Pilgrimages have ended. Perhaps its best-known member is Aletta Sullivan, who lost five sons to an enemy torpedo on Nov. 13, 1942. All five men were aboard the USS Juneau when it was sunk during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. 

Admission to the Roundtable is free and open to the public. Petersen will answer questions after the presentation. For more information, call Sanderson at (620) 342-0874.

Free parking will be available in the parking lots on the east side of Market Street, across from the Memorial Union. Roundtable committee members will be stationed at the entrance to guide people to the Preston Family Room.

The Roundtable is sponsored by Emporia State University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Department of Social Sciences, the Boertman Lecture fund and by the Lyon County Historical Society Archives and Museum.