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Blue Star Mothers: first in Flint: this national organization of mothers whose sons and daughters serve honorably in the nation's armed forces has its roots in World War II-era Flint.

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It all began with a notice placed on January 22, 1942 in the Flint News-Advertiser by a veteran named George Maines.

Maines, the newspaper's defense editor, wanted to see if there was any interest in forming a military mothers group in his town. The ad drew more than 1,000 responses. Shortly after, 300 of those mothers gathered at the Durant Hotel in Flint, with Maines chairing the meeting, to form a permanent organization.

On February 6, the group--called the Blue Star Mothers of America (BSMA)--was mentioned in the Congressional Record. Spurred by this exposure, chapters formed quickly throughout Michigan and in Ohio, Wisconsin, Oregon, Iowa, Washington, Pennsylvania, and New York. By the war's end, there were chapters in every state and more than 500,000 members.

First There Was Gold

There was a precedent for what Maines and his cofounders were doing. And it started with the practice of hanging a flag in a home's front window bearing a blue star for every loved one serving in the Great War--World War I. As the conflict progressed and men were killed in combat or later died of wounds or disease, their blue stars were replaced with gold ones.

After that war, Grace Darling Siebold--the mother of a fallen aviator--realized that her grief was becoming self-destructive and decided to do something about it. To heal herself, she devoted her time and talents to working in veterans' hospitals as well as extending the hand of friendship to other mothers who had lost their sons. On June 4, 1928, she formalized her efforts by gathering a group of 25 such mothers in Washington, D.C. There, they established a national organization called American Gold Star Mothers.

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Pearl Harbor Prompts the Founding

Thirteen years later, America was drawn into a second world war. A more wide-ranging conflict than the first, it would require the commitment of 16 million American servicemen (and women)--four times more than those sent to fight in the Great War.

Maines' motivation for establishing BSMA just weeks after Pearl Harbor is unknown; one story says he was inspired by the Gold Star Mothers. Another claims that General John J. Pershing encouraged him. Whatever the reason, the time was right. Flint-area women responded in droves to his suggestion. And national publicity brought in countless requests for more information. (Newspapers around the country followed the News-Advertiser's lead and encouraged their local mothers to join the fledgling organization. Every new member received a placard--later, a flag-with a blue star to display in her front window.)

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By March 1942, BSMA had called its first convention, held at Flint's Central High School. And 800 women attended. Adda Harris of Mt. Morris was elected the group's first national president and a constitution and bylaws were adopted.

By mid-year, it was obvious that a headquarters was needed to administer the growing membership. The News-Advertiser financed the rental of rooms in Flint's Industrial Bank building for this purpose. Included in the space was a servicemen's lounge and recreation center as well as mending and food services.

That December, Michigan Governor Murray Van Wagoner declared December 7 as Blue Star Mothers Day.

Duties of Blue Star Mothers

In addition to providing moral support to their peers, Blue Star Mothers pledged to do everything they could to make life easier for military men and women at home and abroad. A report from the chair of the Welfare and Service Committee outlined some of those activities: "The Phyllis Wheatley chapter of Lansing, Michigan bought $1,075 in war bonds; [the] Willoughby, O., unit gave $2,450 in [holiday] gifts; Toledo opened a canteen and maintained it as did Mrs. Ethel Hammond's group in Jackson, Mich., who also saved 1,600 pounds of grease [used to make explosives and] turned in 2,500 pounds of metal...."

Their most important contribution, however, was their commitment to visiting wounded soldiers who had been shipped to government rehabilitation centers in the U.S. and equipping those facilities with wheelchairs, crutches, and other medical supplies.

Not content to operate in a vacuum, Blue Star Mothers also worked with their local Red Cross and civil defense offices to further those organizations' goals.

Still Growing in 1943

By the time of their second convention, BSMA had expanded to include 300,000 members from across the nation. Ida Alford, an Arkansas mother, was elected president. (She had previously presided over the Army Mothers Club of America, and was credited with facilitating the assumption of those members into the larger group.) The mothers also voted to establish a servicemen's convalescent center, to be financed by levies on membership. A newly formed chapter in Pontiac contributed the first $100.

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Also in that year, Hattie Caraway--a U.S. Senator from Arkansas--introduced a bill calling for a national charter for the group. (For unknown reasons, that charter was not agreed upon until 1960.)

During 1944, the Blue Star Mothers hit a couple of bumps in the road. In January, the Michigan Department of BSMA challenged the authority of Genesee County chapters that had formed an unauthorized council. It took six months and a lawsuit to settle that dispute. Then, in June, a rival group known as the National Blue Star Mothers of America showed up on a list of organizations accused of spreading dissent and disunity. It took the editorial intervention of the Flint News-Advertiser and other impartial voices to clear up the confusion between the two entities.

Despite these difficulties, the Blue Star Mothers group grew to 500,000 members across America and its territories.

Post-War Activities

With the cessation of hostilities in Europe in June 1945, the worldwide war began to wind down. But BSMA was still in the fight. They simply redirected their efforts to welcoming returning veterans home, especially those requiring continued medical care.

One effort included the establishment of a "Blue Star Girls" group--an idea first put forth by the Robert Mandeville chapter in Genesee County. To qualify for the group, which brought musical entertainment to military hospitals, young women aged 18 and older had to demonstrate their talents in a professional audition. Founder Laura Norman's rationale for developing the group was this: "If we ever needed more talented girls to bolster the lagging morale of patients in our veterans' hospitals throughout the nation, it is now."

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In 1952, at the 10-year anniversary of its founding, BSMA which then included Korean War mothers--took on some new responsibilities. That was the year Blue Star Mothers divested itself of its convalescent center and used the proceeds to establish a rehabilitation fund for vets still struggling with post-war injuries. The mothers also began raising scholarship funds for the sons and daughters of World War II warriors.

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By the 25th anniversary in 1967, membership had dipped to about 9,000, but the pride and passion for giving were still there among Vietnam War-era mothers.

Blue Star Mothers Today

Because the number of men and women serving in today's armed forces is far smaller than the number that served in World War II, it's more of a challenge to see a blue star flag in a window. But the flags do still exist and the Blue Star Mothers persevere in their purpose. From the Persian Gulf War to present day, the Department of Defense News notes, "They're there when military men and women head overseas. They're there to shower them with love when they come home again. Their thoughts are with them every day, no matter where they are."

ORIGINS OF THE SERVICE FLAG

The Service Flag is an official banner authorized by the U.S. Department of Defense for display by families who have members serving in the armed forces during any period of war or hostilities.

Also called the Blue Star Flag, the banner was designed and patented by WWI Army Captain Robert Queisser of the 5th Ohio Infantry, who had two sons serving on the front line. The flag quickly became the unofficial symbol of a child in service. President Woodrow Wilson became part of this history when, in 1918, he approved a suggestion made by the Women's Committee of the Council of National Defense that mothers who had lost a child serving in the war wear a gold gilt star on a black armband. This led to the tradition of covering the blue star with a gold star on the Service Flag to indicate that the serviceman or woman had died.

Family members authorized to display the flag include the spouse, parents, children, brothers, and sisters of a member of the armed forces. The flag is intended for indoor use and is to be displayed in the front window of a residence.

The Service Flag may also be displayed by an organization, to honor members of that organization who are in service to America.

Excerpted from www.bluestarmothers.org.

Barbara Platz is a past president of the Blue Water Chapter of Blue Star Mothers of America, based in St. Clair, Michigan.
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Title Annotation:Blue Star Mothers of America's origin in Flint, Michigan
Author:Platz, Barbara
Publication:Michigan History Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2011
Words:1505
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