Gold Star memories
By Sonia Duggan
In communities throughout the U.S., there are families who have paid the highest price in the cause of freedom.
These families, known as Gold Star families, experienced the loss of an immediate family member while serving their country.
The designation is meant to honor the service member’s ultimate sacrifice while acknowledging the family’s loss, grief and continued healing.
The recognition of Blue and Gold Star families started in World War I, when families hung banners in windows of homes featuring a blue star for immediate family members serving in the armed forces. If a family member was killed in the war, the star would change to gold.
The conflict that resulted in the most Gold Star families was World War II when an estimated 400,000 servicemen were killed, leaving behind spouses, children, fathers, husbands, brothers, uncles, cousins and grandparents.
Next month, three women, all from World War II Gold Star families, will be honored in the second annual Wreaths Across America (WAA) ceremony at the IOOF Cemetery in Farmersville.
The cemetery will be one of 4,000 locations participating in the national nonprofit program that culminates in a special wreath laying ceremony on National Wreaths Across America Day, Saturday, Dec. 16.
“The Gold Star families need to be highlighted just as much,” said Billie Goldstein, WAA organizer, “because somebody has been left behind.”
The trio of women, Goldstein, Betty Vamvakas and Claude Ann Collins, all reside in Farmersville and share a unique connection — the loss of immediate family in World War II while training stateside.
“All three of us never really had any closure with our family,” Goldstein said, adding that she’s in two groups that she doesn’t want to be in and nobody else wants to be in. “One is AWON, the American World War II Orphans Network, and the other one is the Gold Star program.”
Because Goldstein was just 23 months old when she and her mom became a Gold Star family, her memories are limited to what her mother shared with her.
Her father, U.S. Army Air Corps Capt. Melvin Lawrence “Bill” Holman, died in a training exercise on June 23, 1945, in Colorado.
Goldstein said, “George Gobel, the comedian, was the pilot and daddy was giving him a check ride and they were going to Chicago.”
Holman was flying a B-26 Marauder, also known as the Widowmaker.
“Those B-26s were hard to fly,” Goldstein said. “They had a short wingspan and were hard to take off and land.”
Following her dad’s death, Goldstein and her mom moved from Althus, Oklahoma, where her dad was stationed, to Comanche, Oklahoma where they lived with her grandmother until her mother remarried.
Years later when Goldstein asked her mother “how she did it” [as a single mother] she said she simply responded that “everybody was in the same boat.”
While dining at the home of Bill and Claude Ann Collins one night, Goldstein said she saw her folded flag on display, which started the conversation about their shared fate.
“Claude Ann’s dad died before she was even born, so it was her and her mom, and it was just me and my mom,” Goldstein said.
Collins’ father, U.S. Army 1st Lt. Claude Archer Riggs, Jr., was killed in June 1943, five weeks before his namesake daughter was born.
“Dad was a senior at A&M,” Collins said. “The whole senior class left to go to war and during their training — that was when my dad was killed.”
Riggs lost his life in a training exercise crawling under machine gun live fire.
“They say there was probably a bad bullet that went too low,” she said.
Because her dad was stationed at Fort Belvoir in Virginia, he was taken to Walter Reed Medical Center, where he later died.
After his death, Collins said they moved back to her parent’s hometown of Beaumont — the same place where he was buried — because her mom “didn’t want him buried in a military cemetery, she wanted him near where she lived.”
Collins said her childhood memories include bringing flowers to her dad’s grave and “playing around in the graveyard a lot.”
Her mother remarried when Collins was four. She said her stepfather served in World War II as a tank commander for about seven years and was never injured.
Even though Betty Vamvakas had just turned seven when she last saw her brother, she still remembers him.
“I remember where we were living and how he took care of me,” she said.
John Stroup was the oldest of nine children and Vamvakas was the youngest when he was drafted after graduating McKinney High School in 1943.
Stroup got his wings and had been at several airbases where he was trained as a tail gunner on the B-17, said Vamvakas, adding “he was about 6’3” so I didn’t understand how he could have stayed in that position for so long.”
She remembers that her brother loved to fly, “because he used to write my mother and us about how beautiful it was … and to know how much cotton we were picking.”
Stroup was stationed at MacDill Army Air Corps base in western Florida when he was killed June 25, 1944.
“My mother was getting worried because she had been receiving letters and telephone wasn’t an option,” she said, adding when her mother was finally notified, it wasn’t a serviceman who delivered the news, “it was someone from the post office.”
“He was on his very last mission, a nighttime training mission before being shipped out overseas when apparently lightning struck the plane,” she said.
Stroup’s plane went down in the Everglades, Vamvakas said, “so it took them quite a while for them to rescue his body.”
She said she has “a lot of memories of them bringing him home,” adding that his body came in by rail and she remembers meeting the train in Greenville to pick it up.
Because Stroup’s plane had been underwater for so long before his body was recovered, there was some question, she said, as to whether his casket contained anything but a uniform.
“I do have the dog tags, but I’m not sure if they were the ones he was wearing,” she said.
On Dec. 16, residents are encouraged to attend the special end-of-year tribute planned by Goldstein to honor Gold Star families and veterans buried at the IOOF cemetery in Farmersville on National Wreaths Across America Day. At the event, they will remember the fallen, honor those who serve and teach the next generation.
Gold Star families who want to be included, or to support, the IOOF Wreaths Across America event can contact Goldstein at 214-868-3485 or visit wreathsacrossamerica.org.