The December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and America’s subsequent entrance into World War II united the American people together as a nation like nothing before or since. There was scarcely an American who wasn’t involved – in one way or another – in the war effort. Some 10 million men and women served in some branch of the military, while another 3.5 million Americans reported to armament plants to aid in amazingly successful wartime production efforts. (Strock, 7) With millions of soldiers to feed and equip overseas, Americans at home dealt with shortages, rationing, disruptions, and inconveniences. However, many Americans felt that coping with this was their personal contribution to the war effort, giving their lives a sense of purpose and direction as never before. (Kallen, 41) Families took pride in assisting the war effort in any way possible such as buying war bonds, planting victory gardens, rationing gasoline, and collecting for rubber or scrap drives. Wives and mothers contributed by doing without nylon or silk stockings that could be used for manufacturing parachutes. Another important way that housewives across the nation helped in the war effort was by saving and recycling cooking fat. The fat was a vital ingredient in making gunpowder, and households were asked to deliver their contributions to the local butcher on a weekly basis. (Hamer, 110)
While Americans at home were struggling with these small sacrifices for the war effort, the real hardships were the constant worries and concerns for loved ones overseas. The death of a husband or son was the ultimate hardship. And something from which some people never recovered. When the war was over, the United States had lost more than 400,000 of our fittest and brightest young men. (Kallen, 99)
Every city, county, and state in the nation shared this sense of sacrifice for the war effort and the fear for loved ones serving overseas. South Carolina was certainly no exception to worry and loss. Some 6.000 people from Spartanburg County served with distinction during the war. (Davis and Walker, 2) Although the roles of the men and women from Spartanburg varied, there was a shared desire that each return home safe and unharmed from their tour overseas.
South Carolina families, like families across America, hung Service Flags in their windows. Service Flags, sometimes called Blue Star Banners, consisted of a white rectangular banner with a blue star and a red border. The flag was usually no larger than about one foot long and hung vertically from a front window of a home. The blue star represented one family member serving in the armed forces. Additional blue stars would be added if multiple family members were in the service. Blue stars would be changed to gold with the death of a loved one. A gold star became the symbol of the ultimate sacrifice during the war years.
Organizations and corporations extended this practice to create flags consisting of stars for each of their members who were serving overseas. The blue stars would be changed to gold whenever news reached them of a loss of one of their own overseas. These larger banners, such as the one created by Drayton Baptist Church in Spartanburg showing 37 members in service to the country, were displayed to entice the community to remember their service personnel and create a sense of shared community support in the war effort. Unfortunately, two of the Drayton Church members died in action and had their stars overlaid in gold.
As did mothers everywhere, Mrs. Naomi S. Littlejohn of Spartanburg, the mother of four sons who served in World War II, never wanted to convert the stars in her window from blue to gold. Sadly, one of her boys didn’t make it home. She stated her feelings in the following poem:
No Gold Star
There’ll be no Gold Star in my window
For the dear lad who went away
On a bright summer morning
With a heart so light and gay.
He answered the call of duty
Giving his life at the very last
That men might live in peace
And freedom and that fear be past.
Of course I’ll grieve for him
Keep a place for him set apart,
But no Gold Star goes in my window,
For he’ll always live in my heart.
-- Naomi S. Littlejohn
Mrs. Littlejohn, sadly, joined grieving wives and mothers all across this land. Unfortunately, the list of “Gold Star Moms” grew extensive as the war progressed. South Carolinians went about their daily lives as best they could while keeping one eye on the daily casualty lists printed in the newspaper, always fearful of finding friends on the list. One anonymous Charleston woman summed up the anxieties of South Carolina wives and mothers when she said, “Everyone was scared to death but they didn’t want to show it…all these people we knew were dying.” (Anonymous Charleston woman, Collection of Charleston Museum)
Without meaning to, the one person who could strike fear into the hearts of every wife or mother with a loved one overseas was the Western Union telegraph messenger. Everyone knew that the War Department notified relatives of war casualties via telegram. These telegrams all began in the same frightening way: “We regret to inform you….” Anyone receiving such a message was distraught, causing Charlotte Hanckel Hay of Charleston to confess, “You lived in dread of a telegram.” (collection of Charleston Museum)
America’s gold star wives and mothers experienced great grief and sadness, but also much pride. These women consoled themselves with the thought that their loved one died fighting for what he believed in, for what we all believed in, and was honored by his country as a hero. Anne Fox of Charleston summed up the feeling of South Carolinians during World War II with “It was an interesting time, but sad.” (collection of Charleston Museum)
Eventually the war ended and America’s servicemen returned to ticker tape parades and hometown celebrations. Some came home to children they had seen in photos but never held in their arms. They came home to their wives and mothers and the appreciation of their nation. Regrettably, not all of them made it home. While others celebrated the return of the heroes, the gold star mothers and wives mourned. One could only imagine the feelings these women must have been experiencing as they watched the homecoming celebrations. The war was finally over, but their loved one would not be coming home. For this Americans could only express their gratitude and extend their sympathy to America’s gold star families.