Memorial Day honors those who died while serving in the U.S. military. Visit the National Archives website for more information and related resources on Memorial Day. Today’s post comes from Rachel Bartgis, conservator technician at the National Archives at College Park, MD.
After the end of World War I, the U.S. Government sent out over 70,000 questionnaires to next of kin of those who died in Europe, asking them if they wanted their relative to be permanently buried in a military cemetery overseas or returned to the United States. While more than 40,000 Americans were brought home, tens of thousands of families made the decision for their loved ones to stay and be buried with honor in an American cemetery overseas.
For some of those whose loved ones remained overseas, that was not the end of their story. As Constance Potter wrote in an article for Prologue magazine in 1999:
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 was barely considered—the association maintained that the maternal bond surpassed that of the paternal bond.
In 1929 Congress enacted legislation that authorized the secretary of war to arrange for pilgrimages to the European cemeteries “by mothers and widows of members of military and naval forces of the United States who died in the service at any time between April 5, 1917, and July 1, 1921, and whose remains are now interred in such cemeteries.” Congress later extended eligibility for pilgrimages to mothers and widows of men who died and were buried at sea or who died at sea or overseas and whose places of burial were unknown. The Office of the Quartermaster General determined that 17,389 women were eligible. By October 31, 1933, when the project ended, 6,693 women had made the pilgrimage. Once the quartermaster determined a woman was eligible, she was sent a questionnaire.
The questionnaires and the family responses can be found in the National Archives Catalog and show a wide cross-section of the American men and women from a variety of cultural backgrounds who served in World War I.
The family of Nurse Nora E. Anderson opted for her to remain in a military cemetery in France. The families of other servicewomen made the same decision.
For women who accepted the offer of a pilgrimage to Europe, the act paid for all of the trip’s expenses, which lasted about a month, including the ocean voyage there and back. Each woman received a carefully detailed itinerary and instructions. The women were sent together in groups to help coordinate the effort of sending thousands of women overseas. Most pilgrims were between the ages of 61 and 65, and if their destination was continental Europe, few of them spoke a language beyond English; these two factors created additional challenges for the government officials arranging the trip.
While most of the family members that the 6,693 women visited were men, several family members made the pilgrimage to see the final resting place of a beloved sister or daughter who had served in the Army as a nurse, and were among some of the first female veterans to be buried in a military cemetery overseas.
Red Cross Nurse Florence L. Athay enlisted in New York City in 1917 and departed for Europe in September 1918. She died in England “in the line of duty” on November 12, 1918, and in 1922 was reburied in Brookwood American Cemetery. Her mother was deceased, making Athay’s next of kin her sister, Alice M. Morizot of Newark, New Jersey. Morizot became eligible for the pilgrimage after the passage of the act in 1929.
The careful itineraries prepared by the War Department chart 63-year-old Morizot’s trip from Newark to England via France in detail: she suffered from seasickness on the trip, and in Paris, stiffness and arthritis made it hard for her to walk and stand for long periods of time.
However, Morizot was able to successfully make the trip to Brookwood Cemetery, and after her return she wrote to the War Department, thanking them for the chance to take the pilgrimage.
Nurse Esther Amundson died of the flu on October 20, 1918. Her mother wrote to the Graves Registration Service in January 1919 to ask for a photograph of her daughter’s resting place and received a letter asking for patience while the Army sorted through the immense process of burying and reburying so many dead. When contacted by the Army in 1920 to inquire if they wished for the remains to stay in Europe or be returned to America, Amundson’s parents chose for her remains to stay in France, in the American Cemetery at St. Mihiel.
In 1931, 66- or 68-year-old (both years are listed) Mrs. A. I. Amundson chose to make the pilgrimage from Minneapolis, Minnesota, to see her daughter’s grave in France. She departed Minneapolis at 8:20 a.m. on July 3 and arrived in New York by way of Chicago on the afternoon of the July 6, having traveled by sleeper car, and sailed on July 8 as part of Party “I.” Party I arrived in Cherbourg on July 15, stayed in Paris where they visited Notre Dame and the Colonial Exposition, and had opportunities to visit St. Mihiel on July 20, 21, and 22. Their ship sailed for New York on July 29, and on August 7 they arrived in New York.
While Amundson complained of cold feet and fatigue on her trip to St. Mihiel and took brandy at the cemetery, she returned home safely and notified the government on August 10.
Amundson was entitled to an American flag from the government in honor of her daughter, and requested one upon her return from France. Like the other thousands of women who traveled to Europe from across America, the act of March 2, 1929, allowed Amundson to make a trip she may never have been able to afford otherwise, and see where her daughter had been laid to rest.
Learn more in the Prologue article World War I Gold Star Mothers Pilgrimages and The Text Message blog post Passports and Travel Documents for Pilgrims: Gold Star Travel.