Thursday, March 21, 2013

Veterans' affairs

Writing about Carl L. Caviness yesterday, I mentioned that Chariton's American Legion post recently donated its earliest history book to the historical society --- and that a photograph of the Caviness, the post's namesake, accompanied it.

What I didn't mention was that a second photograph came along, too --- this image of another World War I soldier in uniform --- and that we don't know who it is. Nothing is written on the back, but it is in good condition and has been cared for.

It might be, I suppose, an image of Henry R. Johnson, whose remains accompanied those of Caviness home to Lucas County. On the other hand, Lucas County Legionnaires met a good many trains bearing the bodies of native sons during those years of repatriation. So it's just as likely to be someone else.

Whatever the case, if anyone out there comes across this image and recognizes the young man --- please let us know.


Also yesterday, I mentioned that Carl's mother, Minerva, and widow, Ruth, decided to have his body returned to Chariton from France after the war, an option offered by the Office of the Quartermaster General and Graves Registration Service to the families of all U.S. troops who died overseas.

Approximately 117,000 U.S. troops were killed (or died of other causes) during World War I (out of roughly 10 million when allied and central powers losses are combined).

Approximately 33,000 U.S. families decided to allow the bodies of their sons and husbands to remain in Europe, however --- for a variety of reasons. Some wanted the graves to serve as permanent memorials to and reminders of the role the United States played in the war. Others felt their loved ones would want to be buried among comrades. And most likely --- as a friend suggested yesterday when writing about his uncle who served during (and survived) World War II --- some may have distrusted the military's ability to match remains with identity and ensure that the right body reached the right family.

After the war, a lobbying effort began almost immediately to launch a government-funded program that would pay the way of mothers and widows to Europe to visit the graves of their sons and husbands who were buried there. The Gold Star Mothers Association, formed during the 1920s, became an especially powerful lobbying force.

The "gold star" designation refers to the common practice during World War I of families with sons or husbands in service to display banners bearing blue stars --- one for each soldier in service. When death occurred, a gold star was superimposed over a blue star, a universally recognized mark of honor in a grim sort of way.

Lobbying paid off when legislation authorizing the "pilgrimages" was passed in 1929 and the program continued until 1933. The Quartermaster General's Office determined that 17,389 women were eligible (mothers and widows who had not remarried). A total of 6,693 women took advantage of the program.

The motivation behind the program was admirable --- advocates and lawmakers alike knew that many mothers and widows would not otherwise have been able to afford the trip.

But there was a darker side, too, rooted in America's racist past. Black women were not eligible to join the whites-only Gold Star Mothers' Association. And although the government did extend the pilgrimage offer to black women, too, it insisted on strict segregation. White women traveled as a rule on luxury passenger liners. Black women traveled on commerical ships. In Europe, the U.S. insisted that accommodations be segregated, and black women and white women were not allowed to visit gravesites together.

None-the-less, brief visits among the French in France --- where race was not an issue --- were epiphanies to many of the black women who experienced, however briefly, life without racist undercurrents for the first time.

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