The nation’s Blue Star Memorial Highway program contains a bit of irony: though the imposing bronze signs dot roadways all over the United States — with about 146 in South Carolina alone — travelers are usually moving too quickly to decipher the wording. The signs are a bit mysterious as well. What does the Blue Star signify? What is the purpose of the sign? Is it a historical marker?
During World War I and World War II, families of those serving in the armed forces would often honor their loved ones by hanging an Armed Forces Service Banner in a window of their home or business. Rectangular, with a red border and white field, the banners featured a blue star for each family member in the military.
As World War II ended and soldiers returned to their hometowns, citizens showed their support by planting their yards, parks, city entrances, and roadways with a profusion of blooming plants. In Boonton, New Jersey, two members of the local garden club changed everything when they planted a 5½ mile long highway with more than 8,000 flowering dogwood trees. Inspired by the blue stars in the Armed Forces Service Banner, they named the highway section Blue Star Drive; by 1946, they had filled the entire highway with dogwood trees, renamed it a Blue Star Highway, and marked it with a bronze placard decorated with a single blue star.
Before long, the program expanded to create a system of Blue Star Highways that crisscrossed the United States. In the late 1990s, the program expanded to the Blue Star Memorial program, which provided a way for garden clubs to honor veterans with signs at civic locations. For years, the Columbia Garden Club maintained the plantings around a Blue Star Memorial at Sesquicentennial State Park, but in 2018, the group lobbied to have it moved to a more prominent location.
Current Columbia Garden Club President Trudy Wilson says that placement regulations require that a location has to fall within specific criteria. “They’re understandably strict about where the markers can be placed,” she says, “but one day, I heard that a Fisher House, which provides free housing to the families of patients receiving care at a VA hospital, would be built to serve families at the William Jennings Bryan Dorn Veterans Affairs Medical Center on Garner’s Ferry Road. It seemed like it would be a perfect location.”
Gathering local business leaders, government represen-tatives, VA medical center staff members, and staff members at the Fisher Foundation, Trudy and fellow garden club members — including Martha Morris, Sharon Shuler, Mackie O’Keefe, and First Lady Peggy McMaster — spent weeks figuring out if it could be done; by late 2020, they had gotten approval.
In fall of 2021, the marker was officially moved; surrounded by four benches and a red, white, and blue-themed garden of tea olives, begonias, and pentas, it created a jewel box oasis just steps from busy Garner’s Ferry Road. Even better, the marker’s words, and their powerful message, can be easily read by all who stroll by: A tribute to the Armed Forces who have defended the United States of America.
What began as a simple program of hanging a banner in a family’s window is now a nationwide tribute to the Armed Forces who defended the United States.