Relatives of fallen military personnel who passed away during active duty have been known as “gold star families” ever since World War I.
The designation harkens back to a time when the families of service members placed blue stars in their windows while their relatives were deployed. Families whose loved ones passed away replaced the blue with a star of gold.
That was the case for the family of brothers Phillip and Charles Howard Bixby, who both lost their lives during the conflict.
Both Bixby brothers had UW-Madison ties.
Charles Howard received his degree in chemical engineering in 1941, while the more agriculturally minded Philip attended the farm and industry short course, finishing in 1939. Charles Howard and Philip were raised on a farm in Appleton, Wisconsin—and growing up, the two couldn’t have been more different. Philip was always serious and pragmatic by nature, and he had a passion for farming. Charles Howard, by contrast, was a jokester with a winning sense of humor who befriended almost everyone he met. Endowed with a natural aptitude for science and math, Charles Howard pursued his chemical engineering degree while Philip had his eyes on taking over the family business of farming alfalfa and cabbage.
Both brothers served in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps while they attended UW-Madison. Phillip went on to enlist in the army, becoming a tank commander first lieutenant of the 67th Armored Regiment in the 2nd Armored Division in the European Theater. Charles Howard joined Navy, became an ensign, and served as a pilot in the South Pacific.
During the war, Charles Howard kept in contact with his sister, Janet, back at home, sending a steady stream of often humorous letters.
Sadly, those letters stopped arriving in 1943 when Charles Howard went missing in action after a 1943 plane crash off the coast of Australia. Merely two years later, Philip was felled by an enemy sniper in April of 1945.
On Dec. 7, 1945, Alice Bixby, Charles Howard and Phillip’s mother, received two gold star certificates honoring her two fallen sons. Philip was survived by his wife and high-school sweetheart, Rosemary, as well as their two children.
More than 1,000 UW-Madison alumni have passed away while serving their country, and the Wisconsin Union tells their stories through the Gold Star Honor Roll, a tribute unveiled in November 2017 that includes a kiosk outside of Memorial Union’s Main Lounge and a website sharing fallen heroes’ stories.
Author: Sam Million-Weaver