Lesson Plan: Overview

Wives and Mothers in WWII

Grade Level: 8th

Academic Standards

Standard USHC 8:  The Student will demonstrate an understanding of the impact of World War II on United States’ foreign and domestic policies.


Indicator USHC 8.3:  Summarize the impact of World War II and war mobilization on the home front, including war bond drives, rationing, the role of women and minorities in the workforce, and racial and ethnic tensions such as those caused by the internment of Japanese Americans.

Social Studies Literacy Elements

L. Interpret calendars, time lines, maps, charts, tables, graphs, flow charts, diagrams, photographs, paintings, cartoons, architectural drawings, documents, letters, censuses, and other artifacts.

O. Consider multiple perspectives of documents and stories


Essential Questions:

How do service banners reflect the biggest hardship faced by families on the home front during World War II? 

What ultimate sacrifice did the gold star wives and mothers make? 

Why were Western Union telegram messengers feared during World War II?

Historical Background Notes

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.

  Primary Sources
  “Drayton Baptist Church Banner.” Photograph.  As reproduced in Anita Price Davis and James M. Walker, Images of America:  Spartanburg County in World War II,page 123. Charleston, S.C: Arcadia Publishing, 2004.Hay, Charlotte Hanckel. “You lived in dread of a telegram.” Quote on display at the Charleston Museum. Viewed 25 January 2005.
  “John W. Cathcart.”  Photograph.  Collection of the Charleston Museum.  Charleston,South Carolina. Photograph contributed by Jenny Reves. Viewed 25 January 2007.
  “Mrs. Daisy Lemons of Whitney, South Carolina.” Photograph.  As reproduced in AnitaPrice Davis and James M. Walker, Images of America:  Spartanburg County in World War II, page 82. Charleston, S.C: Arcadia Publishing, 2004.
  “Naomi S. Littlejohn.” Photograph.  As reproduced in Anita Price Davis and James M. Walker, Images of America:  Spartanburg County in World War II, page 2. Charleston, S.C: Arcadia Publishing, 2004.
  “Western Union Telegraph Notifying the Cathcart Family of the Death of John W.Cathcart.” Photograph.  Collection of the Charleston Museum.  Charleston, South Carolina.  Photograph taken 25 January 2007.
  “Americans Suffer When Careless Talk Kills!” Poster. War Manpower Commission. University of Minnesota Library.  Online at http://snuffy.lib.umn.edu.Viewed 01 February 2007.
  “…Because Somebody Talked!” Poster. War Manpower Commission. University of Minnesota Library.  Online at http://snuffy.lib.umn.edu. Viewed 01 February 2007.

“The Five Sullivan Brothers “Missing In Action” Off the Solomons…” Poster. War Manpower Commission. University of Minnesota Library.  Online at http://snuffy.lib.umn.edu. Viewed 01 February 2007.

  “He’ll Be Home Sooner…Now You’ve Joined the WAVES.” Poster. War Manpower Commission. University of Minnesota Library.  Online at http://snuffy.lib.umn.edu.Viewed 01 February 2007.
  “Help Bring Them Back To You!” Poster. War ManpowerCommission. University of Minnesota Library.  Online at http://snuffy.lib.umn.edu.Viewed 01 February 2007.
  “Longing Won’t Bring Him Back Sooner..Get a War Job!”  Poster. War Manpower Commission. University of Minnesota Library.  Online at http://snuffy.lib.umn.edu.Viewed 01 February 2007.

“Won’t You Give My Boy a Chance to Get Home?” Poster. War Manpower Commission. University of Minnesota Library.  Online at http://snuffy.lib.umn.edu. Viewed 01 February 2007.

  Secondary Sources
  Hamer, Fritz P.  Charleston Reborn:  A Southern City, Its Navy Yard and World War II. Charleston, SC:  The History Press, 2005.
  Kallen, Stuart A.  World War II:  The War at Home.  San Diego:  Lucent Books, 2000.
  Strock, Clancy.  Prologue to“We Pulled Together…and Won!”  Personal Memories of the World War II Years…From Over the Seas and Back at Home, as ToldThrough the Words and Snapshots of Those Who United For Victory.  Edited by Deb Mulvey And Clancy Strock.  Greendale WI:  Reiman Publications, L.P.,1993.
  Photos of primary source photographs and posters (on powerpoint)
  LCD Projector
  Graphic organizer handouts for analyzing photos and posters.
  Paper and pen for creative narrative.


No materials needed for this lesson plan.

Lesson Plans

1.This lesson is to be taught as part of a larger World War II unit focusing on the home front.  Review with students the previously discussed material on efforts of Americans on the home front to support the war effort such as rationing, liberty gardens, scrap drives, and bond sales.  Tell students that today’s lesson is going to focus on the experiences of those families with members serving in the armed forces overseas.
2.Divide the class into small groups.  Each group should receive a copy of one of the primary source posters containing the service banner and a graphic organizer for analyzing the poster.  Allow the students a few minutes to discuss the posters within the group and fill out the analysis sheet. 
3.Utilizing the LCD projector and power point, show students the posters as a class.  Conduct a guided discussion about each of the posters.  The student groups who filled out the analysis sheets on each poster should provide their insights as their poster is being discussed. 
4.After all posters have been discussed, point out to students that all of the posters had a certain symbol in common.  Introduce to students the history of the service banners.  Students should consider what concerns those family members left behind might have had.  Students should understand that the service banner served as a symbol of both pride in their servicemen and of grave concern. 
5.Guide the discussion toward the meaning of the blue star being changed to a gold star.  Query the students as to the meaning of this.  Discuss all questions as the students present them.  Students should understand that the gold star was a way of symbolizing an ultimate sacrifice paid by the serviceman and his family.
6.Discuss how family members were notified of a loss by the government.  Point out that the government used telegrams for initial notification, followed later by personal letters from commanding officers expressing their regret.  Ask students to consider how they might have felt to see a telegram messenger coming down their street in the early 1940s.  Share the primary source material from the Charleston museum.  Discuss all questions as the students present them.
7.Ask students to consider how “Gold Star Families” might have coped with their loss.  Were they bitter?  Or did they perhaps share a sense of pride in their departed serviceman who died a hero for his country?  Introduce the South Carolina gold star mom and the poem she wrote.  This is a good cross-curricular activity.  Give the students a moment to discuss the poem in their small groups and then elicit responses.
8.Students should understand that many entire communities shared this sense of loss and profound pride in their servicemen.  This is clearly illustrated by the Drayton Baptist Church banner.
9.As a closing activity show students the photo of Mrs. Daisy Lemons.  Give small groups of students a few minutes to look over the photo and discuss it among themselves.  Provide copies of the photo analysis sheet for students to fill out as they discuss the picture.  Students should note that the newspaper headline suggests it is near the end of the war and there is a composite photo of her seven sons in the military.  Using the photo as a springboard, students should write a reflective paragraph centering on the woman in the photo and the scene pictured.  The paragraph should incorporate items from the discussions during the lesson.

Teacher Reflections

I was thrilled to learn that I was going to attend the Teaching American History in South Carolina program.  At first, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but it sounded like an interesting opportunity and one heck of a good deal.  The program was more than I could have ever hoped for.  I am so glad that I participated.  Professionally, I feel that I benefited a great deal from this experience.  Not only did I have an opportunity to increase my content knowledge of United States history from Reconstruction to present day, but I also learned valuable new teaching methods and garnered wonderful new resources to enrich my classroom instruction. What a great deal!

As a high school teacher who struggles with how to get an entire American history course from Colonization through to present day taught within the time constraints imposed by a traditional school schedule, I must admit that I didn’t utilize many primary sources in my curriculum.  I wanted to, but wasn’t sure how to go about it.  This class was invaluable to me in that regard.  The master teacher, Michael Kreft, was a gold mine of ideas and insights as to how to search out and actually use this material in a class.  I couldn’t have been more excited to get out there and start using this material with my students.  To my astonishment the kids in class responded so well to this material that I started to wonder why I had been negligent before.

My students this year really love analyzing photos, especially photos of significance to the Charleston area.  Before now adding pictures to a lesson was just a nice window dressing.  Now I have discovered that pictures can BE the lesson.  It is very rewarding to hear students look through a stack of photographs and talk excitedly among themselves as they discover things in the background of a shot that are historically accurate.  At times it might get a bit noisy in my classroom, but it is very rewarding to listen to and know that they are engaged with the lesson at hand.

Paul did a wonderful job of teaching a huge amount of American history in a relatively short amount of time.  He was engaging and I enjoyed the content instruction.  However, as an American history teacher myself, I can’t honestly say that this was of the greatest benefit to me personally.  Yet, the camaraderie and interaction between Paul and the other members of my group was very pleasant and I wouldn’t change the experience one bit.

As mentioned above, the master teacher sessions were of the greatest value to me.  Michael Kreft did an awesome job as he presented ways to use resources to enrich our teaching.  The methods he discussed had me excited and longing for school to get back in session so that I could start taking advantage of my new ideas.  Of special significance to me were the CAPS acronym for choosing primary sources and the RAD acronym for using them in class.  Armed with this new knowledge, I felt confident in seeking out primary sources and putting them to use.  He really lit a fire for me.  One that I am certain my students this year as well as my future students will be able to benefit from.  Mr. Kreft’s suggestions for ways to use primary sources as a springboard for learning are definitely the most valuable thing I took away from the program.

I was thrilled with each cultural institution that we attended.  As a military spouse, I have moved many times during the course of my career.  We have only been in South Carolina for two years and I wasn’t fully aware of all of the resources out there for me.  Personally, I greatly enjoyed the opportunity to do some sightseeing at these institutions.  Being able to use them in a professional capacity is an incredible bonus.  Each institute showed me that I have valuable information and help available to me as I seek to better my attempts to teach kids here in South Carolina.  Both Bambi at Patriot’s Point and Stephanie Thomas at the Charleston Museum were especially helpful in pointing me toward resources for locating primary sources.  I can’t thank them enough for giving me their time and expertise.

While visiting with Ms Thomas at the Charleston Museum, I learned about a special World War II exhibit that they were going to offer for educational groups.  She allowed me a preview of the exhibit and was gracious enough to allow me to take several digital photos of the exhibit.  I worked these photos into a unit that I was developing on World War II.  When I presented the lesson to the first group of students, I was astonished to discover how well they responded.  What particularly engaged this group were the photos of two telegrams.  The first telegram was to a soldier overseas telling him of the birth of his daughter.  The second telegram was to his wife announcing his death four months later.  Students were deeply touched that this man had never met his daughter.  These two telegrams sparked a discussion among the group that lasted through two class periods as students debated the personal cost of the war.  I was surprised at how insightful my students were and how willing they were to talk at great length about this issue and the connections they made to the struggle today in Iraq.  Students who rarely speak in class wanted to get involved in this discussion. 

Based on my successful experience with the first group, I went home and rewrote the lesson for the next few classes to focus on the ideas the kids had given me.  I also included a cross-curricular component to the lesson when I discovered a wonderful poem written by a South Carolina woman who had lost her son in WWII.  I got the same wonderfully engaged results from other groups.  I think that this lesson served to humanize the World War II era for these kids.  No longer was it simply a bunch of facts in a book that they had to remember for a test, but it had become a struggle of real human beings that they could relate to and sympathize with.  I only wish that I had included in the subsequent lesson the connections to the war in Iraq that those first discerning students came up with.  I will next time.

In conclusion, I can only reiterate that this has been a wonderfully rewarding experience.  I received a great deal of incredibly valuable insight, encouragement, and motivation from everyone involved in this program.  I can’t thank you all enough for helping me down the road toward becoming a truly effective educator.

Student Assessments

Teacher used attached rubric.

Examples of Students Work

No examples available for this lesson plan.


Lara Johnson
Fort Dorchester High