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World War I "Sons in Service" Flag

“Sons in Service” flag from the Washbush home in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, 1917-1918.
(Museum object #1985.34.1)

During World War I the Washbush family of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, hung this “Sons in Service” flag in the window of their home at 422 Thomas Street. Those passing by could tell that three boys from the family had joined the military. Later, after one brother was killed and another wounded, the family embroidered over the stars to indicate their losses. Gold meant that one son had died, silver that a son had been wounded, and blue that one remained in active service. Normally the mother of the family would have attended to the flag, but Elizabeth Washbush had died more than ten years before so her three daughters, Marie, Christina, and Philomene, most likely assumed her role.

August, John, and Arnold were the three Washbush brothers who served with the United States Army during World War I. August and John had registered for the draft on June 15, 1917, three months after the United States first entered the war. Arnold was a member of the 2nd Wisconsin National Guard and was called to active duty. In late October the Army sent John and Arnold to France as members of Company B, 150th Machine Gun Battalion, 42nd Division.

Another member of their company, Herbert Ralph Granger of Fond du Lac, kept a diary from February to December of 1918 and he mentions the Washbush boys a number of times. On Sunday, July 28, a day he described as having “all the hell any body wanted,” Granger wrote of John Washbush being wounded in battle. On that day the company “went over the top for the first time with the 2nd Section of the first platoon.” It managed to drive back the Germans about a mile, but the combination of their own artillery “falling short and killing our own men” and German machine gun fire that was “thicker than the devil” meant only two men in the first section were not killed or wounded.

One of the wounded was John Washbush. According to Granger “German planes were shooting the wounded laying on stretchers,” putting John in a dangerous situation. Family lore records that John survived the battlefield skirmish and the plane strikes. The next day, however, Germans attacked the hospital where he was being treated and John was killed. The gold star on the flag commemorates his death.

The same day that John died, Granger wrote that Corporal Arnold Washbush was wounded. Despite this, Granger, Washbush, and another private were forced to crawl for half a mile in a ditch. Granger spent most of the day lying in a hole with a sergeant, believing “the end was coming any minute.” The Germans shot shrapnel and gas onto the battlefield throughout the day making “every body about crazy.” Late in the evening Granger walked 5 miles to join the rest of his Company. He ends the day’s entry with “The way many was killed and wounded was something awfull.” Arnold Washbush survived this wound and was promoted to sergeant.

On October 14 the sixty-three men of Company B went over the top again. Granger wrote that the machine gun fire “was so dam hot that a mosquito wasn’t safe.” Only twenty-six came back unscathed. Eighteen of the others were gassed, including Granger. At least three were killed and the rest wounded. Sergeant “A. Washbush” was one of the latter. By the time he returned to Fond du Lac, Arnold had had his arm amputated. The silver star on the flag commemorates this injury.

August Washbush survived, neither killed nor wounded. The blue star on the flag represents his service to his country.

Service flags, first known as “Blue Star Banners” or “Sons in Service" flags, did not exist until World War I. In 1917 Army Captain Robert L. Queissner of the Fifth Ohio Infantry designed the small flag with a wide red border, white field, and blue star to represent each son in service, to honor his two sons fighting in France. On September 24, 1917, the United States Congress recognized the use of these flags in Ohio and they were soon displayed throughout the country.

In 1918 the Women’s Committee of the Council of National Defenses suggested that mothers who had lost a child in the war wear a gold star on their mourning armband. This led to the tradition of covering the blue star on service flags either with gold if a service member was killed or silver if he was wounded. Service flags continued to be popular during World War II, and were used throughout the Korean War as well. They fell out of favor during the Vietnam War, but returned to more widespread use during the Iraq conflicts.

[Sources: Herbert Ralph Granger diary at the Oshkosh Public Museum (SC411.10.24) online facsimile at; Delta Signs & Flags Co. website online at; Interview with John B. Washbush (son of Arnold Washbush) by WHS staff, May 2006.]


Posted on May 25, 2006

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