When Congress declared war on Germany in April 1917, 23-year-old real estate broker George Vaughn Seibold signed up for duty. No civilian job had quite satisfied him. Patent law was too dry. The Government Printing Office too dull. Affable and from a prominent Republican family in Washington, DC (his mother, Grace Darling Seibold, was friends with Calvin Coolidge’s wife), George considered a future in politics.
Then, war broke out. His mother Grace leapt into her role as civic leader for the war effort and cheered when George quit his job and joined the Army. There’s no record of what she thought when George requested a spot in the Aviation Detachment of the Signal Corps.
Only the most fearless flew airplanes in 1917. Half of all landings were crashes. You could tell the pilots not by their goggles and scarves, but by their slings and crutches. The entire Aviation Detachment consisted of only 13 officers in 1917.
George got his wish for pilot training. He was to report to the Long Branch Aerodrome, just west of Toronto on Lake Ontario, to train with the Royal Flying Corps. British Canada had been at war for almost three years and was far more advanced in combat aviation than the US. George married his sweetheart, Kathryn, and shipped off the next day.
In Canada, George got a crash course in airframes, engines, navigation, Morse code, and duel-control take-offs and landings—that was just the first week. He wrote to his mother religiously, filling her in on his exciting progress. Week two was soloing—loops, banks, glides, stalls, formations, Chandelles and Immelmanns. Then, bomb dropping, machine gunnery, and aerial photography. With that, he received his commission as 1st Lieutenant and headed to San Antonio, Texas. So great was the need for pilots, George became a flight instructor to train the swelling ranks of cadets in the fall of 1917.
Then, in January 1918, he shipped across the North Atlantic on the RMS Adriatic, a White Star liner converted into a troopship. German U-Boats prowled the sea lanes. In a letter to his mother, he reported seeing the ship in front of him, SS Tuscania, take a torpedo and sink before reaching Liverpool.
Back home, mother Grace focused her volunteer efforts on visiting wounded troops in the hospital and even helped to found American War Mothers to organize hospital visitations and provide mutual support.
George sailed to France and joined the 148th Aero Squadron, an American unit under British Royal Air Force command. It was a fighter squadron tasked with shooting down enemy aircraft, escorting reconnaissance and bomber squadrons, and providing close air support of ground operations.
That summer of 1918, as the war was reaching its devastating crescendo, George wrote home weekly. He detailed his dogfights, including one that ended in three crashed enemy planes. The British government cited George for distinguished service.
Then, in early September, the letters stopped. One week by, then two, then three. Grace Seibold contacted the War Department, which responded that it did not “keep tabs” on those under British command.
Grace didn’t give up hope for her son. She redoubled her hospital visits, scouring the wards to see if her son were among the many wounded who returned without identification. Maybe no one knew he was here. Grace also found that assisting other ailing, lonely men helped with her own rising sense of panic and loss. She would later say, “grief, if self-contained, is self-destructive.”
A poignant, if not wholly accurate family story has it that on Christmas Eve, 1918, a package appeared on the doorstep. On it, a label:
Effects of deceased officer 1st Lieutenant George Vaughn Seibold, attached to the 148th Aero Squadron, British Royal Flying Corps.
The package was real, but it was delivered in October, before Christmas. A week before the Armistice of November 11, the Seibold family learned that the War Department had declared George dead, killed in heavy fighting in the Pas-de-Calais, on August 26, 1918. His remains had not been identified, but he was presumed buried in a French cemetery.
Grace appears to have had trouble accepting the truth. She continued to search for George well into 1919.
The war was over, but Grace worked tirelessly with wounded veterans. She also reached out to other grieving mothers, providing consolation and the opportunity to work through their grief through volunteering. Out of these efforts, Gold Star Mothers, Inc., was born.
It’s a sad testament to our world that since George Seibold’s death, there’s never been a year when Gold Star Mothers was not needed. Today, its 1,000 active members are among the most honored in the military community. They continue to assist veterans, serve the community, and keep alive their children’s memories.
Being a Gold Star Mother is an honor no one wants. But because of Grace Darling Seibold, it’s one that doesn’t have to be borne alone.