Gold Star Mothers

The Sullivan brothers

Mission: Operation Watchtower

Location: Guadalcanal, one of three major islands in the Solomon chain of islands.

Objective: To deny Japanese forces from occupying these islands in order to disrupt supply and communications and to keep Japanese forces from landing in Australia and New Zealand.

Significance: The first major offensive move of the United States since the start of WWII.

Ship: USS Juneau CL-52, United States Atlantic Class Light Cruiser whose duties included supporting U.S. Marines of the First and Third Divisions involved in island fighting with Japanese forces on or around Guadalcanal.

It was November, 1943. The United States launched its first-ever offensive operation of the war after the famous Doolittle Raid that served only as a pin prick in the enemy’s finger. However, the raid did meet the objective of forcing Japan to closely guard the mainland. Thus far, there hadn’t been much good news coming in through America’s televisions about the war.

Each night, the country went to sleep after saying prayers for family members and friends involved in the war. At times, it took up to a month before word reached home about loved ones dead or lost at the hands of our enemies.

Good citizens saved everything they could for the war effort, and women took over the jobs that the men left behind. These women were now the backbone of our work force, working 50 to 60 hours a week to help build planes and ships. They were truck drivers and construction workers, baseball players and bosses. Yet at night, they went home to fold laundry and rock babies to sleep. And it was these women who had sent their grown children – some just barely grown – into harm’s way.

Each morning, the sun broke through the clouds with no band playing. That stifling silence let everyone know that the war was still there, and that we were still in it. For the Sullivan family, living in Waterloo, Iowa, one of those mornings would begin a day that they would never forget – a day that the nation wouldn’t forget, either.

A flag hung in the front window of the Sullivan home with five blue stars on it. Each star represented one son: George Thomas, Francis Henry, Joseph Eugene, Madison Able, and Albert Leo. When the sun went down on January 12, 1943, the five blue stars would be changed to five gold stars.

It was on that morning that father Rom Sullivan was preparing to go to work when three men in uniform, a Lieutenant Commander, a doctor and a Chief Petty Officer, approached the front door. They stood facing each other for a tense moment. That silent moment was broken when Tom asked why the group had come to his home.

The Naval Commander said, “I have some bad news about your boys.”

“Which one?” Tom asked.

“I’m so sorry,” the officer replied. “But it’s all five of them.”

With all four men frozen in place, the boy’s mother, Aletta Sullivan walked in. She knew that one of her boys had paid the ultimate price for war. But the wind was taken completely out of her when she learned that it was not one, but all of her boys that were lost.

Guadalcanal, an island that no one had ever heard of and most people couldn’t even spell, had taken the lives of all her sons. She looked around her empty home, the home that had seen all of her boys, no more than six years apart in age, run and play and grow up. She remembered the early nights, rocking and shushing crying babies at all hours.

She remembered when they were teething, when they lost their first teeth, their first days of school. She realized that all of those years of noisy happiness had come to an abrupt end. Aletta was even more distraught when the officers told her that her boys had died on or about November 14, 1942, eight weeks before she was informed. Her life had been shattered, and for weeks she walked around without even realizing it.

Tom and Aletta Sullivan’s story is just one of many of parents who have brought sons and daughters into this world only to lose them to war.

These parents taught their children to walk and talk, nurtured them through their early years, and then looked on with pride as they enlisted in the military. But these mothers and fathers also lived with the ever-present fear that they would lose their children.

Prior to the Vietnam War, it was common for the families of fallen soldiers to be informed via telegram. These telegrams would also inform families about their loved ones who had been wounded in action or who had gone missing. The only exception to this policy was when more than one family member was killed as in the case of the Sullivan boys.

During the Vietnam War, though, Congress determined that notification of next of kin would now be performed promptly in an appropriate and dignified manner by a uniformed service representative. The notification would be made personally and only between 0600 and 2200 hours.

Shortly after World War I, the American Gold Star Mothers Inc. was formed in the United States. This organization was born of the need for support for mothers who had lost sons or daughters to war. The group was named after the custom of families of servicemen to hang flags in their front windows, featuring a blue star for each member of that family currently serving his or her country. If one of those servicemen should die while at war, the blue star was changed to a gold star.

The Gold Star Mothers became active in supporting those mothers who had given their children to support our country. They were socially active if not political. Today, membership is open to any American woman who has lost a son or daughter in service of the United States. On the last Sunday in September, Gold Star Mothers Day is observed.

The group holds a Congressional Charter under Title 36 of the United States Code. Founded by Grace Darling Seibold of Washington, D.C., the group grows in strength each day. The organization concentrates on providing emotional support to its members, doing volunteer work in VA hospitals, and fostering respect and patriotism for our armed forces.

When serving our veterans at the Veterans Administration hospitals, supporting mothers struggling after the loss of their children, attending a military parade or funeral, or attending a monthly gathering of Gold Star Mothers, these women proudly wear their uniforms of a white skirt, white shirt, white blazer with gold stars embroidered on the lapels, gold cufflinks on their sleeves and white shoes. Aletta Sullivan is one of the most well-known Gold Star Mothers.

Every week, I get to honor a local veteran in the newspaper. At first I had so many names on my list, but as time went by, I noticed that the names dwindled on my list of World War II veterans until there were no names left. We have lost so many World War II veterans this past year. I was given the chance to go back in time with these veterans, and to live their experiences in my mind through their stories. Sitting in a room with an 80-year-young veteran and having him take me back with him to his high school days, boot camp and onto the battlefield is almost indescribable. The stories are all as unique as the soldiers who tell them, but they have one thing in common. Each story brings out a tear for the soldier’s mother. Every story comes back to Mom.

For all men and women who have served in the military, there are anniversaries and dates of significance that will be noted each and every year. The families of servicemen have these special dates, too. For Gold Star Mothers, there are two dates that they will never forget. The first is the day they brought their soldiers into this world. The second is the day they lost their sons and daughters to war.

To all of the Gold Star Mothers, thank you for your child’s service to our country. I am truly sorry for your loss. This week we not only honor your children, but we honor you.