Today’s post is written by David Langbart, an Archivist in the Textual Records Division at the National Archives at College Park.
On March 2, 1929, President Calvin Coolidge signed PL 70-952. That law authorized the War Department to arrange for trips, designated as pilgrimages, by the mothers and widows to the overseas graves of soldiers, sailors, and Marines who died between April 5, 1917 and July 21, 1921. Congress later expanded eligibility to include the mothers and widows of men who were buried at seas or whose place of burial was unknown.
After World War I, more than 30,000 American dead from that conflict remained overseas, buried in U.S. cemeteries. The passage of the law resulted from the work of the mothers and widows of those servicemen and their supporters who pushed for the pilgrimage to the gravesites at government expense. International travel was not as common as it is now and the cost of such travel was beyond the means of the families of many of the dead.
The War Department prepared and submitted to Congress a list of the mothers and widows it identified as falling under the provisions of the law. The report was arranged by state and thereunder by county. In addition to the name of the mother or widow, the list indicates the relationship to the deceased service member, the name of the decedent along with rank and service organization, the cemetery, and an indication of whether the mother or widow desired to make a pilgrimage in 1930 or later. The House of Representatives published the report as an official House Document.
The resulting trips took place between 1930 and 1933. Travel outside the United States required a passport. To facilitate travel by the mothers and widows, the Department of State established the “Special Pilgrimage Passport.” Those documents were valid only during the trip in which the mother or widow participated. The Department charged no fee for those passports.
Since the Department of State issued passports only to American citizens and numerous mothers and widows did not hold that status, the Department established the special “Pilgrimage Travel Document” for use by those women who owed allegiance to the U.S. The Department charged no fee for the travel documents.
The War Department asked the Department of State to collect information on the racial background of the travelers. The War Department wanted to know if the women were “of the Caucasian, Oriental, African, etc. races.” This was done to “obviate the possibility of embarrassment and confusion by reason of placing persons of different races together.” This segregationist move led to later controversy and some moves by the African American community to boycott the pilgrimages.
The Department of State sent the pilgrimage passports and travel documents to the War Department which in turn delivered them to the travelers. At the end of the trip, the War Department collected the documents for transmission to the Department of State for cancellation. The Department of State also facilitated contacts with the governments of the countries visited on such matters as securing the necessary visas and the formal ceremonial aspects of the visits.
For additional information on the Gold Star Mothers and Widows, see:
- Constance Potter, “World War I Gold Star Mothers Pilgrimages, Part I,” PROLOGUE, Vol. 31, no. 2 (Summer 1999).
- Constance Potter, “World War I Gold Star Mothers Pilgrimages, Part II,” PROLOGUE, Vol. 31, no. 2 (Fall 1999).
- Lisa M. Budreau, “The Politics of Remembrance: The Gold Star Mothers” Pilgrimage and America’s Fading Memory of the Great War,” THE JOURNAL OF MILITARY HISTORY, Vol. 72 (April 2008), pp. 371-411.
- Lisa M. Budreau, Bodies of War: World War I and the Politics of Commemoration in America, 1919-1933 (New York: New York University Press, 2010).
 Department of State to Clerks of Courts Who Take Passport Applications, Applications for Special Pilgrimage Passports and Pilgrimage Travel Documents for Aliens Issued Under the Act of March 2, 1929, February 10, 1930, file 138 Gold Star Mothers and Widows/orig., Passport Division, Decimal Files, Entry A1-3001 (NAID 2555709), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.
 Passport Division memorandum, January 4, 1929, file 138 Gold Star Mothers and Widows/orig., Passport Division, Decimal Files, Entry A1-3001 (NAID 2555709), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.