Prologue Magazine

World War I Gold Star Mothers Pilgrimages, Part 2

Fall 1999, Vol. 31, No. 3 | Genealogy Notes

By Constance Potter

Between 1930 and 1933, many of the eligible mothers and widows of U.S. soldiers who died overseas during World War I sailed to Europe to see the graves of their sons and husbands. The federal government paid the expenses of these Gold Star Pilgrims. The Gold Star Pilgrimage files are among the records of the Graves Registration Service (GRS) in the Records of the Quartermaster General (Record Group 92).1 The GRS files, which contain information on men who died overseas during World War I, are arranged alphabetically by the name of the soldier. The records of each Gold Star mother or widow are in the folders of her son or husband.

Part 1 of this article in the Summer 1999 issue described how the Graves Registration Service cared for the bodies of the soldiers and told the story of how one woman, Katherine B. Holley from Hedgesville, West Virginia, prepared for the trip. This article describes her trip to Paris as well as how the Office of the Quartermaster General organized the pilgrimage.

Born in Berkeley County, West Virginia, on July 31, 1893,2 Katherine Brown married Lewis Holley sometime in 1918 in Berkeley County. Lewis Holley arrived in Cherbourg on October 5, 1918, and died of pneumonia on October 14. The World War I monument in Martinsburg, the county seat, lists Lewis Holley as one of the soldiers who served from Berkeley County. Louise, their daughter, was born on April 6, 1919, six months after her father died. By 1920 Katherine was teaching school in Hedgesville.3 Katherine Holley was the only woman from the area to go on the Gold Star Pilgrimage.4

The quartermaster's intent was "to conduct the Pilgrimage with as little disturbance to the way of living of the Pilgrims as was possible." The details of the trip survive both in the files of the individual Gold Star Mothers files and among the administrative records of the Gold Star Pilgrimage.5 Although the files do not contain letters that the women may have written to their families about their trips, researchers can get a good idea of what sites the women visited as well as how the army organized the trip.

On October 1, 1929, Col. Richard T. Ellis, officer in charge of the Gold Star Mothers Pilgrimage in Paris,6 recommended that the Office of the Quartermaster General contact the French authorities responsible for various aspects of the trip. The American embassy in Paris contacted the French Foreign Office through Baron de Vitrolle, chief of the American Section of the Foreign Office. De Vitrolle subsequently agreed that direct contact with the various branches of the French government would be the most useful approach.7

The quartermaster made contact with the following French offices: Customs, Ministry of War, Administration of Public Hygiene and Assistance, Administration of Fine Arts, Prefect of Police and the Prefect of the Department of the Seine, Department of Touring, Quartermaster Corps of the French Army (which included the Ministry of Pensions), the Federation of Veterans' Societies in France, French State Railroads, and postal authorities.8 These contacts show the breadth of issues that the quartermaster had to work with to make the pilgrimage run as smoothly as possible.

Before the women left home, the quartermaster sent each a list of what to pack and gave detailed travel arrangements.. The War Department warned the women to wear "somewhat heavier clothing" to protect them against "the cold and dampness."9 Because of the lack of laundry facilities, the quartermaster urged them to pack "sufficient underwear, nightgowns, stockings, and handkerchiefs."10 The travel arrangements included dates and times of travel as well as berth, seat, or room number for the ship, trains, and hotel rooms.

The Quartermaster assigned a letter of the alphabet to each party. Katherine Holley was assigned to Party Q, the Oise-Aisne group, which was composed of African American women. The white and African American women had the same itineraries; however, they were segregated. In many instances the accommodations were different. For example, white women traveled on luxury liners; African American women, in commercial steamers. Katherine Holley sailed from New York on August 16 on the American Merchant. Col. Benjamin O. Davis was the officer in charge.11 Mrs. B. J. Runner and Miss N. Bost, nurses, and Mrs. N. Brown, hostess, also accompanied the party.

Colonel Ellis, along with a staff of ten that included two nurses, met the ship when it docked at Cherbourg on August 15. The War Department had made special arrangements with the French authorities to get the women off the boats as quickly as possible. Although French law required that baggage be checked carefully, the director general of Customs issued instructions that reduced the customs formalities to a minimum.

The Operations Division worked with the International Dining and Sleeping Car Co. to provide meals for the women on their way to Paris. To avoid the congestion of the St. Lazare Station, special arrangements were made for the trains to arrive at Les Invalides, which was usually reserved for state occasions.12 The executive officer and his staff, nurses, and interpreters met the party at Les Invalides. Among the party that greeted the women of Q party were Noble Sissle and his band.13

The women stayed at the Hotel Imperator at 70, rue Beaubourg. The accommodations consisted of double rooms with twin beds and a bath. Traditionally, the police controlled registration at hotels in France and throughout Europe. Rather than have each woman provide the necessary information to the police, the Quartermaster's Office was permitted to submit the forms containing the names and room assignments of each woman as well as home address, date of birth, nationality, occupation, and the authority and purpose of the visit.14

Each party selected an "honor pilgrim," who laid a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe.15 Mrs. Louise Kimbro, the mother of Martin Kimbro, was Party Q's honor pilgrim. The Ministry of Pensions arranged with the Federation of Veterans Societies in France to have representatives at each wreath laying. Following the wreath laying the women had tea and reception at the Restaurant Laurent at the other end of the Champs Elysees. Aside from a trip to Fontainebleau, the women were free to see Paris, or be with their thoughts, until they left for the cemetery on the morning of August 29.16

On the twenty-ninth, the party left at 8 a.m. for Soissons17 via La Forte, with a rest stop at Hotel de la Terrassee at the Chateau Thierry,18 where they lunched at the Hostellerie du Bonhomme. At Soissons the party had dinner and spent the night at the Lion Rouge hotel. The itinerary for August 30 notes the women were to have "breakfast at the hotel." Even this apparently simple part of the day had required negotiations between the War Department and the French hotels. To provide an American breakfast, the hotel had to add kitchen staff. After negotiating with the seven hotels, the hotels and quartermaster agreed on a price per pilgrim per day.

The same day, the women visited Chateau Thierry. In the afternoon, they saw Belleau Wood,19 Aisne Marne Cemetery, Monument Hill 204, and the grave of Quentin Roosevelt (Theodore Roosevelt's son). Before returning to Soissons for dinner, the women had tea at the Oise-Aisne Cemetery.

The towns near the Meuse-Argonne, Oise-Aisne, and St. Mihiel cemeteries did not have restrooms or cafes that could efficiently serve the groups. The quartermaster therefore built, within ninety days, rest houses at each of these cemeteries. The rest houses had tables, comfortable chairs, and restrooms as well as kitchen facilities. Each rest house had a shady porch for the hot weather and a large, open fireplace for the cooler days.20

On the morning of August 31 they visited the Oise-Aisne cemetery. The quartermaster very carefully planned the reception at the cemeteries. To make the visit as personal as possible, they did not permit any ceremonies but focused on each woman's visit. The cemetery superintendent gave each pilgrim a grave locator card, and cemetery staff guided each woman to the grave. The guide then gave the woman flowers or a wreath to put on the grave and took a photograph.21

On September 1 the women were free to sightsee or visit the cemetery. After lunch at the hotel, they left for Reims where they spent the night at the Hotel Bristol Crystal.22 The following day they toured the cathedral as well as the Fort de la Pompelle. After lunch the party left for Compiegne, where they spent the night.23

The party arrived back in Paris the next day around 6 p.m. They had dinner at the hotel and spent the rest of their time in Paris visiting such sites as the Louvre, Versailles, Sacre Couer, Notre Dame, and Napoleon's Tomb and took a nighttime tour of the city. Although the purpose of the trip was serious, the women were still permitted time to see and enjoy Paris.

On September 7 Katherine Holley and her party sailed for home on the American Merchant.24 Ten days later, on September 16, they arrived at the port of New York and then returned to their homes.

The Gold Star Pilgrimage provided the chance for 6,693 women who might otherwise not have been able to visit their loved ones' graves to travel to France. Some of the women wrote to the War Department thanking them for the trip. Mrs. Kimbro wrote in part:

Dear Sir:
. . . As for myself I never will get through talking about the grand time we had. Everyone was happy over the way Col. Maroney and his wife treated us so nice. Also Mr. Ellis and his wife. . . . How can anyone forget such a trip . . . we never can. . . . I want to thank the whole War Department and every one concerned for the courtesy and kindness shown to the Gold Star Mothers and Widows. Yours very sincerely Mrs. Louise Kimbro President of Party Q.25

Mrs. G. A. Buckley of Grand Rapids, Michigan, wrote to Col A. E. Williams on October 2, 1930:

Since my return home I have talked to six different organizations, and am writing for the Daily paper about my Pilgrimage. I am telling of the very excellent way in which it was carried out from beginning to the ver[y] end. I am going to write to our United States Senator of how the Gold Star Mothers appreciate this great thing the Government is doing for them. I feel that a gap has been filled, and that now that I have seen my dear son's resting place, and know that it will for ever be kept beautiful, I am more contented. [emphasis added].26

See also these related articles:


The author wishes to acknowledge the assistance of Mitchell Yockelson, William Stewart, and Reginald Washington, and Russell H. Weidman.

1. These and other federal records (excluding service records) may be obtained from the Military Textual Reference Branch (NWCTM), National Archives, 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD 20740-6001. When writing, include a daytime telephone number.

2. Records of Births, Berkeley County, WV, 1918-1922, Vol. 10, p. 84, Berkeley County Courthouse, Martinsburg, WV.

3. Hedgesville, WV, Enumeration District 23, p. 12, line 68, (Fourteenth Census of the United States, 1920 National Archives Microfilm Publication T625, roll 1148), Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group (RG) 29, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Washington, DC.

4. See "World War I Gold Star Mothers Pilgrimage, Part I," Prologue: Quarterly of the National Archives and Records Administration (Summer 1999): 140-145.

5. Files for individual women are in the Graves Registration Service files of their sons or husbands. Administrative records are poorly organized and can be difficult to use. Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General, RG 92, National Archives at College Park (NACP), College Park, MD.

6. Col. Richard T. Ellis was born in Ohio on October 16, 1870. On September 16, 1920, he transferred to the Quartermaster Corps and became a colonel on July 16, 1915. Official Army Register, January 1, 1928 (1928).

7. Col. Richard T. Ellis, U.S. Army, Officer in Charge, "Report on the activities in Europe of the American Pilgrimage Gold Star Mothers and Widows 1930" (Ellis Report), p. 3, file 319.1, Pilgrimage, Gold Star, RG 92, NACP.

8. Ibid., pp.3-6.

9. Capt. A. D. Hughes, Quartermasters Office, to Mrs. Katherine B. Holley, June 13, 1930, Holley GRS file, RG 92, NACP.

10. Ellis Report, p. 27, RG 92, NACP.

11. Col. Benjamin O. Davis (June 1, 1877-Nov. 26, 1970). Davis went on six of the Gold Star Mother Pilgrimages. In October 1940, Davis became the first African American brigadier general. He spend much of his military career easing racial tension and ending racial discrimination in the military.

12. Ellis Report, p. 5, RG 92, NACP.

13. Noble Sissle was one of the major Harlem musicians who introduced the jazz craze to Paris. He first arrived in France during the war with the New York 369th Infantry Regiment. A drummer, Sissle led the unit's forty-four-piece jazz band along with bandmaster, James Reese Europe. Sissle returned to France in the late 1920s and gave several concerts in Paris. Tyler Stovall, Paris Noir: African-American in the City of Light (1996), pp. 20, 32, and 49.

14. Ellis Report, pp. 8-9, RG 92, NACP.

15. The author has not found among the administration records information on when or how the president of the group was chosen.

16. Party Q itinerary, Holley GRS file, RG 92, NACP.

17. The cathedral at Soissons was heavily damaged during the war.

18. Scene of a major battle during World War I and site of an American Cemetery for the World War I soldiers.

19. On June 6, 1918, Belleau Wood was the site of a major victory of U.S. troops over the Germans.

20. Ellis report, pp. 15-17, RG 92, NACP.

21. The quartermaster gave the photographs to the women; copies of the photographs are not in the files.

22. The Germans shelled Reims extensively between 1914 and 1918. By the end of the war, only 60 of 14,130 houses remained livable. The cathedral suffered extensive damage but was restored between 1927 and 1938 with a grant from John D. Rockefeller.

23. On November 11, 1918, the armistice that ended World War I was signed in a train outside of Compiegne.

24. Passenger and Crew Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1897-1957 (National Archives Microfilm Publication T715, roll 4828), Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, RG 85, NARA. Katherine Holley and Benjamin O. Davis are both listed on the manifest, as is Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., the son of Colonel Davis.

25. Not all of the parties were as pleased.Variables appear to be the size of the group, the officers in charge, and the interaction of the women.

26. Mrs. G. A. Buckley to Col. A. E. Williams, Oct, 2, 1930, Graves Registration file for John W. Buckley, Graves Registration files, RG 92, NACP.


Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.