Today’s artifact is a World War I service flag, donated by Gladys Benson. Owned by John William and Elizabeth Settle Benson of Brookeville, Montgomery County, it honored the military service of Lewis Wilson Benson (1896-1968), John’s son with his first wife, and Edwin Haines Chinn (1894-1917), Elizabeth’s nephew who had lived with the Bensons since 1908. The 16″ by 24″ flag is made of treated cotton (a stamp on the back says it’s “insect proof”) with two blue stars appliqued to the front and the back. On the front, the top-most blue star has been pasted over with gold paper.
The service or “blue star” flag was first designed and popularized in 1917, at the start of the US involvement in World War I. Blue stars indicate family members serving in war; gold stars honor those who gave their lives. The service flag – and other versions of the design, including lapel pins, tie tacks, and the like – was widely used during both World Wars; it was (and is) a powerful symbol of both pride in service and the human cost of war, and the imagery has been used in posters, magazines, advertisements, and even sheet music illustrations. Although the flag received official recognition from the government as early as the fall of 1917, it was not a regulated image until the 1960s, when the Department of Defense instituted design and manufacture standards. The flag is traditionally hung in the front window of one’s home or office, although I’ve seen many blue star stickers on cars in the DC area.
But back to the Bensons, and Edwin Chinn. Edwin and his brother Raleigh, born in Virginia, came to live in Brookeville with their aunt Elizabeth and her family in the early 1900s. Edwin was part of the first round of local Army recruits in September of 1917; an article in the Washington Post on September 29th described the “rousing send-off” given by 2,000 county residents to the “60 young men of the county who left for Camp Meade this afternoon.” After serving briefly with 307th Ammunition Train, Company B, Edwin died of pneumonia at Fort McPherson on December 30, 1917; his sister Eliza, a trained nurse, was at his side. It is believed that Edwin was the first Montgomery County resident to give his life for his country in World War I.
His step-cousin Lewis Benson fared somewhat better; he was inducted in May 1918 and honorably discharged in September 1919, having served overseas for eleven months with the 304 Sanitary Train and the 313 Ambulance Company. He was injured in service, and died in 1968 after spending many years at a VA Hospital in Cecil County. Both Edwin and Lewis are buried in Rockville Cemetery; Edwin’s stone contains the epitaph “The first soldier from Montg. Co. Md. to give his life in the Great War,” while Lewis’ stone notes simply “World War I.”
As for the flag itself, John and Elizabeth Benson hung it in their home in Brookeville, with Edwin’s gold star and Lewis’ blue star on display for their neighbors to see. The red cotton on the front is faded from the sun to a dark orange color, and there are two darns at the top corners, as if it had been hung up so long that it ripped the fabric. We don’t have a picture of the Benson home with the flag on display, but this poignant photo from World War II shows a Silver Spring home with six blue star flags in the windows.
For more on the history and use of the service flag visit the American Legion’s page.