LIMA — Babe the elephant lumbered down the gangplank and off the train at daybreak that summer day in 1918, leading an “almost continual line” of wagons, animals and “what-not” to the North West Street show grounds as the Barnum and Bailey Circus arrived in Lima.
Reality arrived with the evening newspaper. “LIMA BOY DIES IN BIG BATTLE,” announced the headline in the Lima Daily News on July 10, 1918, “Paul Gallagher First Local Soldier to Fall in Actual Engagement with Hun Forces Over There.”
“The astounding news bringing home vividly the horrors of war, spread like wildfire over the city upon receipt of the message from the war department announcing the soldier’s death to his mother, Mrs. John McCue, 537 N. Elizabeth St., on Tuesday afternoon,” the News observed.
Gallagher, the News wrote, was “the first lad from St. Rose Parish” to enlist after war was declared in April 1917 and the first to have a blue star placed on the service flag hanging in the church sanctuary. “A gold star will replace it now,” the News noted.
The idea of a gold star to denote a serviceman’s death was born the previous fall when an Illinois woman, a member of a women’s committee on her state’s defense council, started a movement to substitute it for “the black garb of mourning,” according to a story on Nov. 13, 1917, in the Washington Post. The “black garb of mourning,” it was believed, had a bad psychological effect on the troops.
By May 26, 1918, the idea had reached President Woodrow Wilson, who endorsed a recommendation that American women “should wear a black band on the left arm with a gilt star on the band for each member of the family who has given his life for the Nation.”
Service flags commonly displayed in churches, businesses and homes, which had a deep blue star representing each member of the family or organization in the service, would now have a gold star for each who had died. On April 25, 1918, the News reported that the YMCA was presented with a “beautiful silk service flag bearing 45 (blue) stars …”
When her son was killed, Mrs. McCue became, in a very real sense, Lima’s first gold star mother, although an actual Gold Star Mother organization did not yet exist. She soon had company, including Mrs. E.J. Veasey, who lived at the corner of West and McKibben streets. Her son, Lt. Edward Veasey Jr., according to the News “one of Lima’s most valiant young soldiers,” was mortally wounded the day after news of Gallagher’s death reached Lima. A second gold star was placed on the St. Rose service flag.
After the end of World War I on Nov. 11, 1918, the handful of gold star mothers became regular guests of honor at Lima’s annual Armistice Day Parade. After a drenching rain soaked the parade on Nov. 11, 1921, the News noted, “Gold Star mothers in the reviewing stand in public square were seen to add their tears to the already dampened atmosphere of the day as the veterans of four wars, heads held high, eyes right marched past.” The following year, the Lima chapter of the Ohio Federation of Women’s Clubs, invited the gold star mothers to the planting of 200 trees along North West Street Road near the state hospital for an “Avenue of Remembrance” in honor of soldiers of World War I.
On June 4, 1928, a group of 25 mothers living in Washington, D.C., organized a national group known as American Gold Star Mothers. The group was incorporated in January 1929.
As the 1920s ended, Congress approved a measure to pay the way for up to 7,000 gold star mothers and unmarried widows to visit the graves of their sons and husbands in England, France and Belgium. The first group of 232 women — “many of whose horizons have been limited to rows of corn or cactus and sage brush glimpsed from their kitchen windows,” according to an Associated Press story — left New York on May 5, 1930. Among them was Mrs. C.S. Smith, of Delphos, whose son, Edwin, was buried in France.
The 68-year-old Mrs. Smith, who, the News reported May 18, 1930, was “tremblingly eager” to make the trip, was placed under the care of nurses on the voyage after she “temporarily lost her memory.” She recovered and was able to visit her son’s grave, where she laid a “wreath of flowers picked in her own back yard.”
World War II swelled the ranks of gold star mothers. “Thirteen Gold Star mothers who have lost sons in World Wars I and II were honored at an attractively appointed tea given Sunday afternoon by the auxiliary to Edward J. Veasey Post, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Memorial Hall (Lima’s American Legion Post was named after Corporal Gallagher).” The guest list grew throughout the war.
On Nov. 7, 1947, the News reported, “A Lima chapter of the Gold Star Mothers was formed at an organizational meeting held Thursday afternoon in Memorial Hall, at which time Mrs. Mabel Ferguson of Sidney, explained the aims and purposes of the group …” Mrs. Earl Jennings was installed as the first president of the Lima chapter. Twenty women met to form the chapter.
Through the years, the Lima Chapter helped with many service-related events. On April 8, 1951, during the Korean War, the News announced the Blue and Gold Star mothers (the Blue Star Mothers group was formed in 1942) would serve at the servicemen’s canteen “to provide food for troops en route through Lima by train.” The canteen served an estimated four million soldiers, sailors and marines between 1942 and 1970.
In 1951, the 82-member Lima Chapter also worked with the Dayton Veterans Administration Hospital, collecting and sending rags to the hospital where blind veterans made them into rugs. “These rugs, in turn, are sold by the local chapter and the money returned to the veterans at the hospital,” the News wrote Aug. 10, 1951. The chapter also worked with the hospital to provide lap robes and bibs, wrap Christmas presents and fill bags with hygiene products for veterans.
As the chapter prepared to lay a wreath as part of a Veterans Day (the former Armistice Day) event in Lima on Nov. 9, 1993, Gold Star Mother Beda Shafer, whose son, James, died in Vietnam, reflected on the group’s declining membership. “That’s one society you don’t want to see grow,” she told the News.
In 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed the last Sunday in September to be observed as Gold Star Mothers’ Day.
Reach Greg Hoersten at TLNinfo@civitasmedia.com.