A Gold Star Mother Remembers
5 months ago
The forest smell in Belleau Wood, the blanket of morning fog over farm fields just north of Paris, a beautiful sunrise over Omaha beach… pristine, manicured, bucolic loveliness; these images play through my memory, and I am back in France. The crusty bread with rich butter, flaky pastry, champagne, cheese; all treats mastered by a centuries-old love affair between the French and cuisine.
This is the France that I know.
And yet, as I soaked all this in, my mind kept going back to the moment when all this beauty was transformed into a wasteland, when whole fields were moved, one shovel-full at a time, to build trenches. With trees burning, artillery exploding, smoke and death surrounding them all as they were struggling to hold or take a new plot of land – they grasped for anything, just anything, to break the stalemate that had become The Great War.
That “anything” was the American Expeditionary Force. The Yanks arrived, but their France wasn’t my France. What must it have seemed to these young men, almost all coming to Europe for their first time. Being the mother of a soldier who went to war, I can imagine raucous conversations aboard ship about French girls and French wine, along with more hushed and serious conversations about the enemy and what war must be like. They arrived to find a war-torn world, one already weary from years of fighting – not my France at all.
I found myself thinking of the Marines at Belleau Wood, the Army’s 82nd Division at Meuse-Argonne, and the American aviators flying with the British Air Corps over Somme. I thought of, almost felt, them as individuals, not a collective whole. They had names… and mothers: John Wichersham, Ferman Flegal, and George Seibold. There is something sacred about ground that has been hard won and defended in blood. The hallowedness is palpable. And yet, there is peace. Quiet peace.
At the American cemeteries adjacent to the battlefields, manicured trees line the pathways. White crosses of Carrera marble mark the resting places of the fallen. The chapels are decorated with unit patches of newly formed divisions, now storied, and proudly worn by modern troops. Always there is a striking image of St. Michael the Archangel, patron saint of those who fight for us. On the grounds, among the stones, there are statues, American fighting men with inscriptions of thanks from the people of France. And there is peace. Quiet Peace.
As I walked, I thought of the moms who came on the Gold Star Pilgrimages. Did they find beautiful France? When they came, did they feel the peace? Were they struck by the quiet beauty, the reverence, the gratitude? Was their grief new again, and raw, as they stood, for the first time, in front of a stone, and saw their son’s name etched upon it? Did they find some closure?
Amid all the questions in my heart, there was one gut-wrenching reality, that somewhere in the hell that is war, hundreds of fighting men were forever separated from their name. “Here Rests in Honored Glory, an American Soldier Known but to God.” What about the closure for those moms? Which grave did they choose as “theirs?” What about the warriors who rest in the unknown graves? What heroic feats will never be known; what medals never awarded?
At the heart of this pilgrimage, I found the answers to those questions. We followed the journey of the World War I unknown soldier from the battlefields to Le Havre. With gratitude, reverence, great ceremony, and an outpouring of French citizens, we remembered him, and all of them. He was an American Soldier and that was enough. He was awarded the highest honors from all the allied nations. He was interred in the Tomb at Arlington National Cemetery where the Centennials have kept perpetual watch. He was not forgotten. All the mothers who had grieved at a marble cross inscribed “Known but to God” knew that. We remember him still. A hundred years on, he is not forgotten.
After returning home, I visited The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. On the breeze that blew, I felt, almost heard, “He is not forgotten” as the shoe taps of the guard paced twenty-one purposeful steps.
Gold Star Mom of SGT Michael C. Hardegree
Past National President
American Gold Star Mothers, Inc.
During the National Commemoration of the Centennial of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (1921-2021), the Society proposed to the federal government that an essay contest be created with the theme "Why...
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Did you know?
Is it true a Sentinel must commit for two years to guard the Tomb, live in a barracks under the tomb, and cannot drink any alcohol on or off duty for the rest of their lives.
No, this is a false rumor. The average tour at the Tomb is about a 18 months. However, there is NO set time for service there. Sentinels live either in a barracks on Ft. Myer (the Army post located adjacent to the cemetery) or off base if they like. They do have a living quarters under the steps of the amphitheater where they stay during their 24 hour shifts. If they are of legal age, they may drink except while on duty.