Walter R. Borneman: Memorial Day -- Remembering when blue stars turned to gold

During World War II, one could walk down any street in America – from row houses on the west side of Cleveland to farmhouses scattered across the plains of Kansas – and see Blue Star banners hanging in front windows. They were trimmed with a wide red border and adorned with one or more large blue stars on a field of white.

Each star represented a child serving in the United States military. These banners belonged to Blue Star mothers, mothers who had reluctantly watched their offspring march off to war.

My grandmother had a Blue Star banner in her front window. It had only one star because that was all she had to give. My father was an only child. Photographs of him in his heavy Army overcoat show deep snow the December he left for the Pacific.

My grandfather stands beside him in some, but there are no pictures of him with his mother. Whether in the days before timers and selfies that is because Grandma was the family photographer or because she simply couldn’t bear it, is hard to say. Grandma knew what it meant were she to sew a gold star over the blue one.

In the months that followed, Grandma worried and fretted and re-read his letters. Then, the letters stopped. The Blue Star banner hung limp in the window. At long last, a telegram arrived. Her boy was safe and had been in transit with innumerable delays.

My grandparents told me the story of what happened next only one time. Grandma re-folded the telegram and went downstairs to the basement bathroom. Alone, she vomited weeks of stress.

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Other mothers were not so blessed. Their telegrams delivered unthinkable news and in time they sat and sewed gold stars to cover blue ones. Blue Star banners began during World War I because, one congressman vowed, “the world should know of those who give so much for liberty.”

When a mother lost a child in combat or associated military service, she became a Gold Star mother, and a gold star adorned the banner. While honored for her sacrifice, it was “an honor no one wants.”

Gold stars fell on all services, but they frequently did so in a flurry within the United States Navy. In a nation at peace, there had not seemed to be any particular danger to siblings serving together aboard warships. Family ties were persuasive recruiting tools and the Navy encouraged it.

On the morning of December 7, 1941, there were 38 sets of brothers, including a set of twins and two trios of brothers, serving together on the battleship Arizona. When the smoke cleared from the carnage at Pearl Harbor, 63 of those 78 men were dead – 63 brothers, 63 gold stars.

In 24 families, mothers sewed multiple gold stars on their banners – both sons had been lost. Many mothers left these symbols hanging in their windows long after they had faded and the war ended.

When the five Sullivan brothers of Waterloo, Iowa, heard that their friend, Bill Ball, an up-and-coming baseball player with major league aspirations, was among those brothers lost on Arizona, they drove to Des Moines and enlisted en masse. They had only one stipulation: they serve together on the same ship.

The five Sullivans were aboard the cruiser Juneau when it was torpedoed off Guadalcanal and disappeared beneath the waves in mere minutes. Aleta Sullivan, their mother, put a banner with five gold stars in her window and somehow found the courage to work tirelessly to support USO efforts throughout the war. The U.S. Navy never absolutely forbade such family service despite a perception among the general public to the contrary.

Blue Star mothers continued to worry about their sons and daughters in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Throughout those conflicts, blue stars turned to gold.

This Memorial Day, the national organizations of Blue Star Mothers of America and American Gold Star Mothers will honor all who served and particularly those who gave, as Lincoln said, “their last full measure of devotion.”

Clara May Morse was a Blue Star mother from Denver. Widowed young, her two sons, Frances and Norman, were all the family she had left. Needing a steady job, Francis joined the Navy and reported aboard the battleship Arizona. Younger brother Norman soon followed and requested service on the same ship. They were happy to be together and their mother took solace in that fact.

When Clara Morse heard the news of Pearl Harbor, the first thing she did was write letters to her two boys. Then, she waited. No word came until finally those letters were returned to her marked “Unclaimed.”

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Clara threw herself into work with the Red Cross in their memory but never recovered from the shock. She died alone a month short of 40 years after her loss. “Others will have their Pearl Harbors,” Clara Morse wrote in her diary on the 13th anniversary of the attack, “I feel for them very much because I know. God how I do know.”

America’s windows today are largely void of the Blue Star banner tradition, but the sacrifices of so many mothers’ sons and daughters in the service of our country continues. Let us thank and remember them all, but especially those blue stars that turned to gold.

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