The Pilgrimage of Gold Star Mothers

On the evening of August 14, 1930, Katherine Bell Holley, an African American schoolteacher from Hedgesville, West Virginia, boarded the train at the Baltimore and Ohio station at North Mountain, outside the small town. At Martinsburg, she transferred to a train to New York, where she boarded the SS American Merchant for France. She arrived by train at Les Invalides in Paris on August 26. Holley traveled to France as part of a Gold Star Mothers pilgrimage, a United States government program that paid the travel expenses to the gravesites for mothers and widows whose sons and husbands had died overseas as members of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) during the war. Pilgrimage Gold Star Mothers

Katherine Holley made the journey to France to visit the grave of her husband, Pvt. Lewis A. Holley. Twelve years earlier, on October 4, 1918, Private Holley, Company B, 542d Engineers, United States Expeditionary Force, France, had died of pneumonia. Holley died at the Naval Base Hospital #65 at or near Brest, France. He had enlisted only two months earlier, on August 5, 1918, and had arrived in Brest just seven days before on the troopship USS American. The troops debarked on October 1, just three days before Holley’s death. Holley was one of the 53,000 American soldiers who died in France during the First World War. He was buried on October 7 in the American Cemetery in Lambezellac, France, northwest of Brest. On June 10, 1920, the Graves Registration Service of the Quartermaster Office reburied Holley in a different site in the cemetery at Lambezellac, and on October 25, 1921, the GRS moved his remains to the American Cemetery in Oise-Aisne.

The records that describe Katherine Holley’s trip to France and her husband’s death and interment are among the Burial Files and Graves Registration records in the Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General (Record Group 92).

World War I Graves Registration

During the Civil War, the military first developed procedures to identify and bury the dead, both Union and Confederate. With the Spanish-American War in 1898, the first foreign war following the Civil War, the War Department expanded these procedures to include the return of the bodies of the men who died overseas.

The problem of burying the dead only expanded with U.S. entry into World War I on April 6, 1917. As soon as the AEF landed in France in June, the problem of caring for the dead became an immediate concern. On August 7, 1917, War Department General Order 104 authorized the organization of a Graves Registration Service. The first Graves Registration unit reached France on October 31, 1917.

The GRS was not responsible for the original burial. The individual combat units had the responsibility of burying the dead as soon as possible. Most men killed in battle were buried within twenty-four hours, although it sometimes took a week or longer. Battlefield conditions made immediate and proper burial difficult after the troops advanced, but great care was taken to ensure that the graves were properly marked.

The GRS eventually moved the bodies to an American military cemetery in Europe or shipped them back to the United States. France, in particular, asked that the burial sites be consolidated. Throughout the process, the GRS continued to care for the bodies and kept identification records.

The work of the Graves Registration Service continued until the summer of 1919. It was not until after the war that the Office of the Quartermaster General asked each family if it would like the body to be brought back to the United States for final burial in a family plot, nonmilitary cemetery, or National Cemetery (such as Arlington) or buried in an American military cemetery in Europe.

Holley’s burial was not typical. Because Lewis Holley was a noncombatant and died on a naval base rather than in a combat zone, he was buried within four days of his death in an American cemetery. When the GRS first reburied the body on October 25, 1921, they found it buried in a pine box but under a cross marked “Paul Schur.” The identification tag on the body, however, identified it as Lewis A. Holley. When the GRS moved Holley’s remains the final time, the unit found the correct identification disc on both his body and grave marker. The GRS also found a reburial bottle in the coffin that gave Holley’s name, service number, rank, and unit. Because the bodies were usually “badly decomposed, features unrecognizable,” the examination report included detailed dental records.

In an undated telegram to the Graves Registration Service, Katherine Holley indicated that she wanted the remains brought back to the United States. In a letter dated April 20, 1920, however, Katherine asked that the “remains to Private Louis A. Holley Co. B 542 Engineer Corps [be] left in France.” There is nothing in the file that explains why she later changed her mind. In many cases, however, the family left the body as a reminder to the Europeans of the sacrifice their son or husband had made. Some families who originally asked that the body be brought back to the United States changed their minds when they received pictures of the graves of their sons or husbands and realized that they could visit the grave. Many families, however, could not afford the trip.

Whether a man was buried in Europe or returned to the United States, the GRS prepared a “Report of Disinterment and Reburial,” which listed the soldier’s name, serial number, rank, and organization. The form also showed where the soldier was originally interred and where he was finally buried. The GRS reburied the bodies as much as two to three years after the war, and report after report notes that the features were unrecognizable. No photographs of the bodies are in the reports. The GRS identified the bodies through dental records, identification tags, grave markers, or other means of identification.

Gold Star Mothers’ Pilgrimage

During the 1920s, the Gold Star Mothers’ Association lobbied for a federally sponsored pilgrimage to Europe for mothers with sons buried overseas. Although many of the women who belonged to the organization had visited their sons’ graves, they realized that women often could not afford the trip to Europe. In their testimony, these women placed great emphasis on the bond between a mother and son. The bond between wife and husband seemed almost secondary in the congressional debates. The bond between fathers and sons has barely been considered–the association maintained that the maternal bond surpassed that of the paternal bond.

Katherine Holley was eligible because Holley’s mother had died May 12, 1919, and Katherine had not remarried. In a letter to the quartermaster’s office, she asked if her daughter, Louise Elizabeth Holley, born April 10, 1919, could accompany her. Capt. A. D. Hughes replied:

As the Act of March 2, 1929, does not contain any provision for any member of the family to make the trip except the mother or unmarried widow, nor does it permit the mother or widow being accompanied by any member of the family, it is regretted to have to inform you that while your feelings with regard to taking your little daughter to her father’s grave are appreciated, she is not eligible to make the pilgrimage.

Once Katherine Holley accepted the offer to go on the pilgrimage, she received carefully written and detailed instructions on what to do and what to expect. The government paid all of her expenses. As Col. Richard T. Ellis, Officer in Charge of the American Pilgrimage Gold State Mothers and Widows in Paris wrote, the quartermaster had to develop an organization that could create and operate simultaneously as a hotel, travel, steamship, and welfare bureau. In 1930 alone, the quartermaster general provided these services for 3,653 mothers and widows between May 16 and September 22, with each trip lasting approximately two weeks. Whenever possible, the quartermaster wanted to organize the pilgrimage with as little disturbance “to the way of living of the Pilgrims as possible” and considered both physical and psychological comforts. Pilgrimage Gold Star Mothers

The age of the women created problems. Their average age was between sixty-one and sixty-five, which “reduced the speed with which almost all operations of the Pilgrimage could have been conducted.” The methods of travel, the food, and everyday living conditions were different from those to which the women were accustomed. The pilgrims visited not only Paris, a large city with all modern conveniences and medical facilities but also small country towns where many of the graves were located. To do this in a country with different laws and customs, the quartermaster needed to obtain special permission to do things that were not customary. Where the quartermaster general thought it would not be possible to get such permission, they tried to make such adjustments and compromises that would least disturb the women’s morale. The majority of the woman did not speak French, and provisions had to be made for bilingual field personnel. The nature of the visit also presented problems. Col. Ellis wrote that the trip “was in no sense a holiday or a pleasure trip but on the other hand it was necessary to prevent over-emphasis of the sentimental side in order to prevent morbidness or hysteria.” Pilgrimage Gold Star Mothers

In Remembering War the American Way, G. Kurt Piehler writes that the pilgrimage united different women: “Socialites and farm women; Catholics, Protestants, and Jews; native-born and foreign-born.” There was one difference, however–race. Membership in the Gold Star Mothers Association was limited to white women. African American women who made the pilgrimage were segregated from the white pilgrims. For example, white women traveled on luxury liners; African American women, in commercial steamers.

Pilgrimage Gold Star Mothers
A group of African American Gold Star mothers poses outside a replica of Mt. Vernon at the Exposition Coloniale Internationale in Paris while on pilgrimage in 1931. (Process History)

The War Department and quartermaster general received letters of complaint, although the original letters do not appear to have survived in the records. In response to a complaint letter from Mrs. M. E. Mallette, president of the Keith Improvement Association in Chicago, F. H. Payne, the assistant secretary of war, wrote:

I regret that you protest against that part of the pilgrimage regulations of the War Department which provides for the formation of groups of colored gold star mothers and widows. The large number of mothers and widows who will make the pilgrimage, together with the necessity of providing suitable accommodations for all, made impracticable the sending of the pilgrims in one body, and made the organization of groups necessary.

Payne defended the War Departments decisions:

After thorough study, the conclusion was reached that the formation of white and colored groups of mothers and widows would best assure the contentment and comfort of the pilgrims themselves. No discrimination as between the various groups is contemplated. All groups will receive like accommodations at hotels and on steamships, and the representatives of the War Department will, at all times, be as solicitous of the welfare of the colored mothers and widows as they will be of the welfare of those of the white race. . . . It would seem natural to assume that these mothers and widows would prefer to seek solace in their grief from companions of their own race.

By July 7, 1930, seven African American women had declined to take the pilgrimage because of segregation; however, Katherine Holley chose to make the pilgrimage to her husband’s grave. Pilgrimage Gold Star Mothers

Pilgrimage Gold Star Mothers
Telegram telling Lizzie Schafman that her son was killed in action, 1918. ( New Brighton Area Historical Society)

A War Department investigation revealed that 354 mothers and stepmothers from Minnesota were eligible to make the trip; ninety-one said that they desired to do so in 1930. Lizzie Schafman of New Brighton was one of the Minnesotans who made the pilgrimage. She visited the grave of her son, Walter Schafman, in France.

Lizzie Schafman’s pilgrimage invitation, ca.1929. (New Brighton Area Historical Society)
Pilgrimage Gold Star Mothers
Lizzie Schafman’s passport, 1930 with a special stamp. (New Brighton Area Historical Society)
Lizzie Schafman’s “Identity Card” used in France, 1930. (New Brighton Area Historical Society)


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