Spotlight: The Pilgrimages of Gold Star Mothers and Widows

This past Sunday marked the 81st observance of Gold Star Mother’s Day in the United States.  On June 23, 1936, a joint congressional resolution was passed that designated the last Sunday in September as Gold Star Mother’s Day – a day to honor, support, and show gratitude to Gold Star Mothers and their families. Today, a gold star symbolizes a son, daughter, husband, or wife who died in the line of duty while serving in the United States Armed Forces.

Original Caption: “Party “A” – May 14, 1931. Transfer from SS George Washington to tender at Cherbourg, France.” Local ID: 92-GS-2-125.

After WWI, the American Gold Star Mothers’ Association began to lobby for federally funded pilgrimages to visit the graves of their sons and husbands who were buried overseas. A newspaper article from 1928 discussed the possibility of the pilgrimages by saying, “This is a trip that many of the bereaved have longed for and would have taken but for the hard obstacle of cost. The expense which the government is to bear will be small compared with the satisfaction of sentiment afforded by these visits.”

It wasn’t until 1929 that an act of Congress made possible the organized pilgrimages to the grave sites in Europe. The U.S. government paid the travel expenses for widows and mothers with the first group of pilgrims embarking on their journey in May of 1930. When the program ended in October of 1933, 6,693 women had made the trip.

The Still Picture Branch preserves five albums that document the federally-sponsored pilgrimages to grave sites in Belgium, England, and France. Recorded in the photographs are visits to Aisne-Marne American Cemetery, Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, Oise-Aisne American Cemetery, and Brookwood American Cemetery. Also pictured are activities that typically took place during each trip, including placing wreaths on graves or tossing wreaths into the ocean in memory of the loved ones who died at sea; posing for a photograph next to a burial plot; and touring sites such as Cathedrale Notre Dame de Paris, Les Invalides and Napoleon’s tomb, the Arc de Triomphe and the tomb of the unknown soldier, and the ruins at Montfaucon in France. 

For further reading, please see the two-part article written by Constance Potter, “World War I Gold Star Mothers Pilgrimages, Part I” and “World War I Gold Star Mothers Pilgrimages, Part II.”

Textual records relating to the Gold Star Mothers’ and Widows’ pilgrimages may be found in the records of the Graves Registration Service (GRS) within the Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General (RG 92).

To learn more about the history of American Gold Star Mothers, Inc. please visit their website.


Gold star pilgrims. (1928, February 24). The Reading Eagle, p. 12.

2 thoughts on “Spotlight: The Pilgrimages of Gold Star Mothers and Widows

  1. This series also contains information about the Gold Star Mothers. They are searched by the deceased service member’s name:

    Correspondence, Reports, Telegrams, Applications, and Other Papers Relating to Burials of Service Personnel, 1/1/1915 – 12/31/1939

    National Archives at St. Louis

  2. Beth, thank you very much for your post. Your readers may also be interested in my book, “The Gold Star Mother Pilgrimages of the 1930s,” published by McFarland & Company. There are also very recent books about individual Gold Star pilgrims: “Lillie’s Jasper” by Diane Green-Hartley and “When a Blue Star Turns to Gold” by Janet Cress Payne.

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