Honoring Gold Star Families

By Daniel N. Garas, Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division

The fate of the Sullivan Brothers is known by many as story of heroism, service and sacrifice. All five were killed in action when their ship, the USS Juneau (CL-52), was sunk by an enemy torpedo on November 13, 1942 during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. As a direct result the U.S. War Department adopted the “Sole Survivor Policy,” designed to protect members of a family from the draft or from combat duty if they have already lost family members in military service. In addition, the Sullivan’s mother became a national symbol of sacrifice and would highlight the presence of a relatively unknown group of Americans known as Gold Star Mothers.

Originally founded by Grace Darling Seibold, of Washington, D.C., on June 4, 1928, “The Gold Star Mothers” was a women’s group for mothers of children who died in WWI. Seibold’s own son George was killed in WWI.

The group’s name derived from the custom of families hanging a banner, or service flag, in the windows of their homes to represent a deployed family member. Flags contained a star for each family member serving. Living servicemen were represented by a blue star, and those who had lost their lives in combat were represented by a gold star.

Office of War Information poster 42, number 1943-0-510254. It shows the Sullivan brothers on board USS Juneau (CL-52) in early 1942. Donation of the Steamship Historical Society of America, 1965. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.

To prevent destructive, self-contained grief, Seibold channeled her energies into volunteering at veteran’s hospitals and supporting other mothers who sons had lost their lives in military service. After organizing these mothers into a group that grew over time, they chartered into a private nonprofit organization officially called American Gold Star Mothers, Inc. (AGSM). The group holds a congressional charter under Title 36 § 211 of the United States Code.

Over the years, membership criteria for AGSM has evolved from casualties of specific conflicts and war zones, to all deaths during time of service and included membership for mothers of those missing in action.

According to the U.S. Army’s website, any mother who has lost a child while in service of the armed forces is colloquially considered a Gold Star Mother, even if they are not formally a member of the organization. “Gold Star Mother Day” is officially observed as the last day in September and was officially established June 23, 1936 to honor them. The holiday was later expanded in a September 2012 presidential proclamation by Barack Obama to include parents, spouses and children and renamed to “Gold Star Mother’s and Family’s Day.”

In recognition of their sacrifice, Gold Star Mothers are awarded special pins known as Gold Star lapel pin buttons, which are issued to the direct next of kin family members through a casualty officer. The Government Publishing Office’s code of federal regulations states that the pins are an official decoration authorized by an Act of Congress and identify widowers, parents, or children of service members killed in a theatre of operations during a war. There is also a Next of Kin Lapel Pin which, of similar stature, is awarded to relatives of service members killed in service during peacetime or during a military exercise.

Today America seeks to honor the sacrifice of Gold Star families through official recognition and support, but there is little doubt that even the most well-meaning homages cannot begin to compare to the loss of a loved one in the service of one’s country. When Lydia Parker Bixby, a Massachusetts widow, was thought to have lost five sons in the Union Army during the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln wrote to her in an attempt to send his condolences. Perhaps he was best able to capture the spirit of patriotism and overwhelming loss of Gold Star Families in his now famous letter when he wrote the closing line:

“The solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom.”

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