His story was not uncommon but that only increases its bittersweet quality.
In late September, 1918, just weeks before the end of the Great War that had decimated parts of France and Belgium and effectively destroyed an entire generation of men in Europe, Sergeant Headley Williams, a young man from Lebanon, Missouri, did as he’d been trained.
As a runner in Company C’s 129th machine gun battalion, he carried messages between commanders and artillery, and on September 28, according to the document awarding him the Silver Star, after penetrating enemy lines and securing important messages, Williams was killed by a high-explosive shell in the Argonne woods.
At that moment, a world away, although she would not know it for some time, Jessie Williams became a Gold Star Mother. The blue star on the banner she would have hung from the window to signify the family had a son in the war, would be covered by a gold star to signify his death.
Later, she would receive several photos. One showed two simple wood crosses in a muddy field, one of which marked her son’s grave, and another was of a man, by accounts her son’s commanding officer, kneeling before
the two graves.
Williams, who lived to be 100, was only one of so many mothers who lost a son to a war somewhere in
France. After the war the families of those who’d died were asked whether they wanted their dead returned or
to be buried in a dedicated American cemetery in Europe. The majority requested the return of their loved ones
but more than 30,000 were left in the land where they fell.
The world moved on, but something interesting happened. In 1928, a decade after the war’s end, Gold Star
Mothers across the United States organized and became a solid, and in some ways fierce, lobbying group.
They began to demand the government take them to the battlefields where their sons had fallen. The women mobilized and effectively turned what had been such a powerful tool of motivation and domestic propaganda
into a demand: You’ve told us there is no bond like that of a mother and a son, no sacrifice like the loss of a
son, they lobbied. Now, take us over there.
Eventually the U. S. government capitulated and by 1933 more than 6,000 women-- Gold Star mothers who
fit the narrowly-defined criteria --were taken to the American cemeteries in Europe on all-expenses-paid
pilgrimages to see the last resting place of their sons. That was only a fraction of the number who lost sons
(and daughters) to the war, but even the pilgrimages provide a window into American culture at the time.
African American mothers were also eligible but their tours were segregated. The white mothers traveled on
liners, the black mothers on freighters.
At American cemeteries in Europe, comfortable rooms, essentially parlors with comfortable furniture and a
homey decor, were created for the visiting women. In March, when President Barak Obama addressed the press on a trip to Belgium, he did so from the Gold Star room at the WWI Flanders Fields American Cemetery. I stood
in that room a few years ago and found it impossible not to think of the women who’d been there and the war
that had taken their sons.
In 1936, by presidential decree, the last Sunday in September would from that time on be known as Gold Star Mother’s Day. And today is that day.
Of course, the war that was to end all wars didn’t. Each year more women still become Gold Star Mothers because men and women still go into service and lose their lives. But in an age where every day is dedicated to something--Chocolate Chip Cookie day, Pet Your Dog Day, National Coffee Day-- Gold Star Mother’s Day gets lost, a forgotten monument to a forgotten war.
So today, National Strawberry Cream Pie Day, by the way, maybe we should take a minute to think about something that isn’t sweet. About soldiers who went over there, soldiers who still go over there, and mothers (and fathers) who are left with only a golden star.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap’s audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the U.S. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at email@example.com