Lena Phillips grieved mightily when the news of the death of her oldest child was delivered to her Ashland home on Oct. 1, 1918, 100 years ago Monday, the same day he fell from the French sky, shot down on a reconnaissance mission.
Walter Anderson Phillips died just six weeks before an armistice ended World War I on Nov. 11, 1918. The death of her son would give Lena a sorrowful designation, that of a Gold Star Mother. Always the last Sunday in September, this year’s commemoration is Sunday, Sept. 30.
During WWI, families with men in the United States Armed Forces hung a service flag in the window. A blue star denoted military service, a yellow star a military death. And so, Lena pinned a yellow cloth star to the service flag hanging in the front window of her home at 1068 East Main St.
The title “Gold Star Mother” was conceived in 1929 because of that unfortunate gold star, a designation to honor and recognize the mothers who’d lost their sons. National Gold Star Mother’s Day was established in 1936 and, in 2011, President Barack Obama changed the designation to include families and recognize the service of both men and women.
Along with 87 other young Ashland men that included Oliver Edmund Dews, Henry Enders, Ning Ping and Shuck Wang, Phillips was registered under the draft law, according to records published in the Ashland Daily Tidings in 1917, but volunteered to enter service prior to being drafted.
Phillips entered Officers’ Training Camp at the Presidio on the Monterey Peninsula in California on May 8, 1917, and was then sent to Camp Travis, Texas, for field artillery training.
On Nov. 3, 1917, Phillips married Lillian Lee Towns of Nixon, Texas, in a small ceremony in that town, with none of his family in attendance. The Daily Tidings reported on the wedding, writing that Lillian was “a beautiful girl who possesses a voice of splendid quality.”
Walter Phillips was deployed to France in the spring of 1918. On Sept. 30, 1918, the Tidings gives an account of Walter’s assignment to France, saying he was 30 kilometers from the front, flying American-made planes with Liberty motors that could make 140 miles an hour. “Lieutenant Phillips stated that he wished he could take his mother up for a ride, so she could see how comfortable the planes really are,” the Tidings reported. “He claims he is more nervous riding in an automobile than in a plane.”
Not two weeks later, nine days before his 25th birthday, Walter Anderson Phillips was dead. His name is listed as one of 15 “men of Ashland and vicinity” who served in WWI listed on a memorial plaque affixed to a rock near the tennis courts in Lithia Park by the Ashland American Legion chapter in 1920.
Four of the 15 were Ashlanders who died in action; the others were Clement N. Summers, Archie Smith, Phillip Trefren and Arthur Morgan.
Two others listed on the plaque, according to a prior Mail Tribune report by Bill Miller, also died in action, but hailed from other Oregon towns and were listed because they worked in Ashland just before shipping out for the war: James Fountain of Walterville, east of Eugene; and Willis Hines, from a town near Forest Grove in Washing County.
They were among about 116,000 American servicemen to die in the war, about half in battle and half from illness.
Phillips was a first lieutenant attached to the 19th Field Artillery, First Aero Squadron, American Expeditionary Forces, 24 years old when he was killed over the fields of Meusse-Argonne. That extended military action was known as the Battle of the Argonne Forest and was the largest and bloodiest of WWI, serving as a decisive end to the war. More than 26,000 Americans lost their lives in the Battle of Argonne Forest, near the town of Verdun in the north of France.
At the end of WWI, some families could bring the remains of their loved ones home for burial or choose to bury their sons in European cemeteries. Beginning in 1930, the US government invited more than 7,000 Gold Star Mothers to return to France and visit the graves of the sons they lost. Lena Anderson Phillips was one who took that pilgrimage.
Lena left New York City on July 6, 1932, with 80 other Gold Star Mothers, traveling on the SS President Harding, a voyage celebrated with a lavish banquet. In Verdun, Lena rested her hand on Phillip’s grave. She returned to the states on the USS Leviathan. A farewell banquet and musical program was held on the last night of the voyage, Aug. 4, 1932.
The niece of an Ashland hero who died days before the end of World War I shares some of his memorabilia. (Video by Maureen Flanagan Battistella)
Today, Lena Anderson Phillips’ Gold Star Mother mementos are held by her granddaughter, Paulena Anderson Phillips Carter Verzeano. Paulena, she recalled in an interview with the Tidings, spent summers in Ashland with her grandmother at 1068 East Main St. She remembers Lena as small and stern.
Paulena also remembers the freedom of riding a horse where ever she pleased — as long as she was home for dinner, no excuses accepted. The house was big with secret spaces and two smaller, older homes attached.
Lena’s father, Eli Anderson, sold the property behind the home to the Ashland School District to use as a football field that was later named for Walter Anderson Phillips, once their star football quarterback and team captain.
Paulena says that, until her death in 1948, Lena let the Ashland High School football team use the back rooms of her home as changing rooms and to store equipment.
Earlier this year, Lena’s home at 1068 East Main was moved towards the front of the property. Two smaller, attached residences were removed, and construction for 33 housing units is well underway. Apartments along the back of the property will have a front row seat for Ashland High School football games on Walter A. Phillips field, so dedicated in 1940.
His name also occupies a prominent spot on the plaque on a huge Lithia Park boulder, centered at the bottom, just above a Latin inscription: “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (“It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country”).
Maureen Flanagan Battistella is a curator of the Stories of Southern Oregon collection in the Southern Oregon Digital Archives at SOU. Reach her at [email protected]