Great War in Europe once seemed so far away.
True, even before the U.S. entered the war, some Americans had
gone to Canada and volunteered to fight in the British forces, and
others were serving in the war as nurses.
But for most families, reality did not hit until June 5, 1917,
when the war’s first draft registration was held.
a year later, counting draftees as well as volunteers, more than 60 –
the number kept increasing, so it was hard for people to be certain –
residents of Hicksville were in uniform.
The first U.S. soldiers had reached France, and their units were
preparing for battle. More
Americans troops arrived each week.
It would not be long before reports of casualties became a
regular feature of the local newspapers.
home, there was something new: the service flag.
The idea had started in Cleveland and then rapidly spread, both
across the country and over the border into Canada.
flags were simple enough to be made at home, although they could be
bought in a store. They
would be hung in the window of a
house, or out front on a pole, so that everyone who passed by saw that someone from the home was in uniform: a man or woman
(i.e., women could enlist in the Navy for non-combat duties, thus
freeing male recruits for combat roles) was off somewhere serving the
country. Each star – or in
Canada, each maple leaf – on a service flag honored a different
the flags began as a grass roots movement, soon their use was regulated
by state, and later by federal, government.
People treated many of the rules (which varied from state to
state) as mere guidelines, but most people respected the basic rule that
a family could only display one star per serving member.
That is, people who lived separately could not all fly service
flags publicly to honor the same relative.
were communal flags, too, for businesses, schools, churches, etc.
In October 1917, this flag with 40 blue stars hung outside the
offices of the Brooklyn Eagle
newspaper, in support of their employees who were then away in the
service. Stars on different
communal flags could signify the same person.
For example, one young Hicksville man had worked for a bank
before joining the Army. Thus,
he was represented by a star on his bank’s service flag, on his
family’s flag, and possibly on other flags as well.
1918, newspapers reported that Hicksville High School, like many other
schools across the nation, was creating a service flag to honor its
former students who were in the armed forces.
by articles in the Eagle, the Jamaica
Farmer, and the Long Islander,
nearly every place on Long Island prominently displayed a town service
flag, with blue stars for its residents who were in the services.
Hicksville added itself to the list with great ceremony on the
evening of April 26, 1918. The
event coincided with the opening of the nation’s Third Liberty Bond
Drive of the war.
those of us who may not remember after so many years, Liberty Bonds were
savings bonds, sold in order to help finance the war effort.
Friday at 7:00 P.M., the bells of the village’s churches began to
summon people to a parade. The
marchers included cohorts of the State Police, the town Fire Department,
and numerous service groups. There
were 100 boys from St. John’s Protectory, several hundred school
children (each waving a small American flag), notable local citizens, a Miss
Columbia, and a Miss Liberty.
Six sturdy men together carried the Community Service Flag,
unfurled for all to see. Sharp-eyed
spectators could have counted 70 blue stars as the flag passed, one for
each Hicksvillian in the military.
is likely that many women carried little versions of their family
service flags, put on sale specifically for this day’s events, and
available in a choice of fabrics:
winding its way through the core of the village, the parade ended at the
corner of Broadway and Marie Street, in front of the new Huettner store
photo shown below was the original Huettners on the corner of Broadway
and Marie Street that eventually became Whelan Drugs. Huettners sales
escalated and there
was a need for the larger facility.
ceremony began with an invocation by Rev. Robert Peterman of St.
Stephen’s Church; followed by the national anthem and stirring
speeches. The service flag
then was presented to Roscoe Craft, Principal of the School, who
accepted it on behalf of the entire village.
Rev. Father Lawrence Fuchs, Dean of St. Ignatius Church, blessed the
flag and addressed the crowd, which was estimated at 3,000.
festivities followed, both inside the store and out, including music,
dancing and a tea to raise funds for the Red Cross.
The people of Hicksville, much motivated by the event, bought an
astounding reported total of $70,000 of Liberty Bonds that night.
would be more service flag ceremonies to attend that Spring, equally
meaningful if not as grand. In
May, St. Stephen’s Church would dedicate its parish service flag, and
the following month, there would be the dedication of the High
1918, service flags were everywhere.
Merchants stocked up on fabric for making them; they sold flag
kits; they sold ready-made versions with 1, 2, or 3 stars.
Printers advertised the special programs they could make for
service flag dedications. Stores
sold sheet music for service flags songs.
People gathered together to sing them at homes, church socials,
or anywhere there was a piano, and thought about absent loved ones as
they sang. Or, they might
purchase recordings, and play the songs on their hand-cranked
the left is a cover for the sheet music of one of the many songs that
were part of (cynics would later say, “that cashed in on”) the
public’s appetite for service flags.
a while, Hicksville’s Community Service Flag was taken from its pole
and re-hung, suspended from a cable stretched over Broadway, unfurled
now so that its stars could always be seen.
As time passed, the stars multiplied.
In April, their number had seemed high for a village of fewer
than 3,000 people, but it kept growing, until it finally reached 141.
Each of those stars was echoed around town by a star on a flag
displayed at a home, and perhaps on one in the School and/or a business.
All these stars constituted Hicksville’s part of the new galaxy
of blue stars that were shining in all the nation’s towns and cities.
galaxy was about to start changing.
Long dreaded, reports of casualties finally began to arrive.
Given the war’s chaos, the news was uncertain, often
inconsistent, and usually very, very late.
Americans began to think more deeply about their service flags.
some places, women tried to announce with their flags that a son,
brother, or husband had been wounded, sewing a red star over his blue
one. That practice did not
last long – as a group, Americans did not want their towns’ windows
dotted with red stars that were reminders of the blood being shed in
Europe. In most places, it
was agreed that a star would remain blue as long as the person it
represented was alive.
flags, however, did not ignore deaths in the country’s service.
Deaths were acknowledged by having gold or yellow stars sewn over
the blue ones. As the
flag’s white background did not contrast well with yellow, the new
stars could be made smaller, leaving visible the edges of the blue stars
to act as borders.
few days after the Armistice, just as families were beginning to feel
safe, Hicksville received news of its first war fatality.
In the next four weeks, two similar reports arrived:
Walter S. Wheeler, an electrician, had lived on Cherry Street.
In France for barely a month, he had died of bronchial pneumonia
on September 26th. The
news had taken six weeks to reach his family.
Joseph A. Barry of William Street was sent overseas on the last day of
July 1918. On November 3rd
he succumbed to meningitis. Hicksville
learned of his death at the end of that November.
Charles Wagner was wounded while under artillery fire, as he drove
supplies to (or drove back from) the Front.
He died of his wounds on October 2nd.
News of his death did not reach home until two weeks before
of Death for those lost in WW I sometimes are no longer recollected
accurately. Those given here
should be correct; they are per Soldiers of the Great War, published in 1920 by Soldiers Record
Publishing Association. Where
possible, the causes also were checked using the War Department’s
Abstracts of WW I Military Service
in the N.Y. State Archives.
so, the war already over, the village’s Stars and Stripes was flown at
half-mast three times, and three gold stars were added to Hicksville’s
service flag. On the next
Memorial Day, three commemorative trees were planted near the flag pole.
4, 1919 was Hicksville’s day to remember its heroes, to celebrate the
Great War’s outcome, and to try to start moving on.
The morning began with a Victory Parade, filled with too many
marvelous things and notable people (including Hicksville’s two
surviving Civil War veterans) to enumerate here.
The Community Service Flag was displayed on a float in the
parade. One hundred World
War I veterans marched along their home town streets, as did two
daughters of Hicksville who had served as Red Cross nurses.
After the parade arrived at what by
then had been named Depot Square, the boulder with its Honor Roll of
names was unveiled and dedicated.
Honor Roll and boulder were moved from the Square in 1947, to the
grounds of what is now the Middle School.
afternoon program included baseball at Cantiague Park and a concert in
the square. Next was a
dinner in the School auditorium for the returned veterans and their
families. The evening ended
with Block Dances at various spots around town.
Hicksville’s service flags would be retired, new ones would appear
during the second World War.
the 1950s, interest in such flags had waned.
If people wanted to show that loved ones were serving in the
military, they then were more likely to use bumper stickers, or later,
words on decals applied to their automobile’s windows.
the ribbon decal or sticker is the norm.
America went to war, no one knew how many men it would need – or lose.
Fearing rebuke by voters, the government drafted only as many as
it dared, hoping to encourage as many voluntary enlistments as possible.
service flag was an excellent way to do just that, for it offered the
proverbial duo of carrot and stick.
If patriotic appeal and family pride did not convince a man to
recruit, public shaming (i.e., due to the absence of a blue star in his
home’s window) might get the job done.
Sociologist Lisa M. Budreau offers a telling quote from a World
War I mother: “In every home in this wide land is now a service flag,
or explanations for the embarrassing lack of one.”
Wilson Administration worried about public reaction to casualties,
fearing that morale might plummet as it had in Britain, where many
mothers whose sons were coming of age now refused to let them enlist.
There, apart from the elderly, the only men to be seen in the
nation’s streets were crippled returned veterans.
Mourning women of all ages – who dressed head-to-toe in black,
for a year or longer – were everywhere.
Woodrow Wilson did not want to see his own country dappled with
response, the government came up with the bold idea of changing
long-standing cultural tradition. It
encouraged American women to mourn their lost men
by wearing white – while also wearing narrow black armbands that
the government would provide. These
were decorated with small, solitary embroidered stars fashioned of gold
thread. The armbands were
understated, inconspicuous, and they were official.
American casualties continued, another new idea was forming.
In Washington DC, Grace
Siebold, mother of an American RAF pilot, had stopped
hearing from him. Fearing he
had been lost, she devoted many months of energy, frustration, and tears
to trying to get news of him. Late
in 1918, she learned that her fears had been warranted.
she struggled with doubt, and then with the certainty of her son’s
death, she decided to honor his sacrifice by helping other mothers’
sons—veterans who had survived the war, but who had returned home
damaged, and in need. Word
spread, and other grieving mothers followed her example.
Their work led to the birth of a new organization, The
Gold Star (a meaningful name for anyone who ever saw a service flag
or a mother’s armband). Now
called the Gold Star Mothers,
it remains dedicated to serving veterans left needful by their service
in America’s armed conflicts; its members still fly gold-star flags in
their windows. They all had
children who served in times of conflict and died as a result.
In recent years, this has come to include deaths due to
last Sunday of each September is “Gold Star Mothers Day.”
In 1937, the Long Islander reported that on that day,
Hicksville’s Charles Wagner American Legion Post
once again had honored the sacrifices of Mrs. Samuel Wheeler, Mrs. James
Barry, and Mrs. Joseph Wagner.
flags are flown today by members of Blue
Star Mothers of America, a group formed during World War II.
This photo of a home in Washington DC was taken in 2010.
by Djembayz, courtesy of WikiCommons
conclusion, here is a song that tries to instill
pride while still respecting those who must mourn (you can decide
whether or not it succeeds). At
the URL shown below, you can hear The
Shannon Four perform “There’s A Service Flag Flying At Our
following lines from the refrain, talking about a hypothetical son in
the service, capture both the patriotic appeal and the emotional
conflicts inherent in the use of wartime service flags:
he may return to fame and glory
by chance we lose him in the fight
be a Service Flag flying at our house
new star in Heav’n at night
couple posing by
with WW I Service Flag