A Brief History of The American Legion
Carroll Goering and Jerry Pickard
At 11:00 am on Monday, November 11, 1918, the guns fell silent to fulfill the agreement that had been signed earlier at Compiegne, France. The Great War, at it was called at the time, was finally over. The Allies, including the American Expeditionary Force led by General Pershing, had defeated the aggressor, Germany. It was hoped at the time that it would be “the war to end all wars”, but that hope was dashed two decades later when Germany again attacked her European neighbors. The European neighbors, joined by the Americans, fought Germany again in what became WWII. The original Great War then became known at WWI.
From March 15 to 17, 1919, members of the American Expeditionary Force convened in Paris for the first American Legion caucus. They met again from May 8 to 10, 1919, and adopted “The American Legion” as the official name of a new organization. A draft preamble and constitution were approved. Meeting on June 9, the National Executive Committee adopted the Legion emblem. On September 16, 1919, The US Congress chartered The American Legion. From November 10 to 12, 1919, the first American Legion convention was held in Minneapolis. The delegates approved the preamble and constitution. They also voted, 361 to 323, to place the national headquarters of The American Legion in Indianapolis. Indianapolis was chosen over Washington, DC. Finally, the delegates approved a resolution in support of the Boy Scouts of America, support that has continued to the present time.
During its first century of existence, The American Legion worked tirelessly to secure improved benefits for military veterans and created numerous programs to help local communities, especially the youth of those communities. The Legion has accumulated a long list of accomplishments but, in the limited space available in this brief history, only the most important accomplishments will be mentioned.
Several important events occurred in the 1920s. Lobbying by the Legion resulted, on August 9, 1921, in Congressional creation of the US Veteran’s Bureau, forerunner of today’s Veteran Administration. Meeting in Washington DC on June 15, 1923, members at a Legion conference drafted the first “Flag Code” defining proper use of the flag. Congress adopted the code in 1942. On July 17, 1925, The Legion created The American Legion Baseball Program that continues to serve about 82,000 youths each year.
The decade of the 1930s brought 3 more Legion innovations. In September, 1932 at the National Convention in Portland, Oregon, the delegates officially recognized “The Sons of The American Legion” as a part of the Legion organization. Members include sons and grandsons of those who served in the US military and are eligible for Legion membership. The Sons were formed to honor the service and sacrifice of Legionnaires. On June 23, 1935, the first American Legion Boys State convention convened in Springfield, Illinois, to help youths gain a better understanding of the structure and operation of government. The first Boys Nation convened in 1946. Today, nearly 20,000 young men participate annually in Boys State and nearly all states send youths to Boys Nation. On June 1, 1938, the final round of the Legion’s first annual National High School Oratorical Contest was held in Norman, Oklahoma. Contestants compete in composing and reciting patriotic speeches which promote a greater understanding of the US constitution. More than 3,400 high school students compete annually with winners receiving thousands of dollars in college scholarships.
Two noteworthy events occurred in Legion history in the 1940s. On December 15, 1943, Past National Commander Harry W. Colmery started writing the first draft of what later became the “GI Bill of Rights.” President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the bill into law on June 22, 1944. The bill allowed 8 million veterans to obtain college degrees, get better jobs, buy homes and raise families. Estimates are that, for every dollar spent by the federal government on the GI bill, the nation eventually got $7 back through increased growth of the US economy. Also, on May 29, 1945, the Legion gave a $50,000 grant to a small, struggling organization called the US Heart Association. The grant helped launch a nation wide program for the study, prevention and treatment of heart disease.
In the 1950s, the Legion had two major accomplishments. On May 4, 1950, the Legion’s financial contribution to the mental health field helped launch the National Association for Mental Health. On July 9, 1954, The American Legion Child Welfare Foundation was formed. Since then, more than $11 million has been awarded to projects and youth organizations that help American children.
The Legion had great concern about the fate of prisoners of war in Viet Nam and, on September1, 1966, they announced that concern to the nation, urging a full accounting of all POWs and MIAs. They formed a special group of America’s major veterans organizations to press for resolution of this issue. To make certain the issue is not forgotten, American Legion meetings include a ceremony of placing a black POW/MIA banner on an empty chair near the lectern as the Post Commander reads a statement urging continued attention to resolution of the fate of POWs/MIAs. Also, on August 24, 1969, the Legion’s National Executive Committee established the National Emergency Fund to help cope with the damage from Hurricane Camille.
The Freedom Bell, sponsored by The American Legion, went aboard the Freedom Train on April 1, 1975, for its tour of the nation in celebration of the U.S. Bicentennial. Six years later, the bell was dedicated at its permanent home in Columbia Plaza, opposite Union Station in Washington, DC.
The Legion had four major achievements in the 1980s. On August 26, 1982, the Legion sent a $1 million check to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, becoming the biggest single contributor to the construction of the Wall in Washington, DC. On July 21, 1983, the Legion announced its sponsorship of an independent study of the effects of Agent Orange on Vietnam War veterans. The study was conducted by The American Legion and Columbia University and the results were presented to the US Congress in 1989. On January 1, 1989, following a long fight by the Legion, the Veterans Administration was elevated to cabinet level status as the Department of Veterans Affairs. Also, a long-held objective of the Legion to improve adjudication procedures to veterans claims was achieved when the US Court of Veterans Appeals became operational. Most of its provisions were included in the Veterans Reassurance Act, written by the Legion and introduced in Congress in 1988.
The Legion had many accomplishments in the decade of the 1990s. On October 11, 1990 the Legion created the Family Support Network to assist service members returning from Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Networks of local Posts offered financial assistance, mowing lawns, baby sitting and more. The FSN still assists families affected by military deployment. The Legion hosted the first Junior Shooting Sports National Air Rifle Championship on June 15, 1991. More than 2,000 high school students annually enter the contest to learn gun safety and marksmanship. On June 24, 1994, the Legion announced creation of the Citizen’s Flag Alliance, whose purpose is to work for a constitutional amendment to protect the US flag from physical desecration. Six times, the amendment has passed by a super majority in the House of Representatives and, in 2006, the amendment fell one vote short in the Senate. Veterans seek the amendment because the flag is the symbol of the United States of America. Many veterans risked or lost their lives defending that country. To veterans, disrespecting the flag disrespects the sacrifices those heroes made. On September 24, 1994 the Legion announced a partnership with the Smithsonian Institute and Space Museum to develop an exhibit for the Enola Gay bomber, the plane that dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. The exhibit met resistance but, on June 30, 1995, the Legion announced that a scaled-down exhibit without political commentary had been accepted. On October 1, 1995, the Legion formed the Persian Gulf Task Force to achieve enhanced service for the newest generation of wartime veterans who suffered from illnesses linked to service in the Gulf.
On September 11, 2001, the US suffered a massive terrorist attack and the Legion responded. On September 12, 2001, the Legion reactivated the Family Support Network to assist veterans who had suffered during the attack. On October 10, 2001, the Legion created the American Legacy Scholarship Fund for children of military members killed on active duty on or after September 11, 2001. On October 17, 2007, The Legion adopted The American Legion Riders as a national program of the American Legion. These motorcycle enthusiasts raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for local children’s hospitals, schools, veterans homes, severely wounded veterans and scholarships. On June 30, 2008, President George W. Bush signed into law the Post 9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act, a next-generation GI bill that provided veterans with substantially better educational benefits.
The decade from 2010 to 2019 is the final decade of the Legion’s first century of existence. On May 5, 2011, the National Executive Committee of the American Legion authorized establishment of The American Legion amateur Radio Club to promote emergency communications and disaster preparedness, engage youth in math and sciences and facilitate public communications with our nation’s federally licensed amateur operators who are veterans. In August, 2017, at the urging of the American Legion and others, Congress passed the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Education Assistance Act of 2017. Named for the author of the original GI Bill, the new GI Bill removed the burdensome cap to use the educational benefit and contained other provisions aimed at improving the lives of veterans and their families.
Today, the American Legion has over 2.4 million members in more than 14,000 posts world wide. The posts are organized into 55 departments, one each for the 50 states plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, France, Mexico and the Philippines. Within each state department are geographic Areas, Districts and local Posts. The Department of Washington, with 23,599 members, contains 4 Areas, 12 Districts and 160 local Posts. Legion members belong to Posts, Post Commanders report to District Commanders, District Commanders report to Area Commanders, Area Commanders report to Department Commanders and Department Commanders report to the National Commander.
Starr Sutherland, Jr. Post 227 is The American Legion local post in Shoreline. The Post building is located at 14521 17th Avenue NE. The post was chartered March, 1948 and was named for First Lt. Starr Sutherland, Jr., who was killed in the Battle of the Bulge in WWII and is buried in Luxembourg Cemetery. Starr graduated from Lincoln High School in the Wallingford area and enrolled at the University of Washington. In 1943, with the war underway, he left the University of Washington to join the Army. Post 227, along with 12 other Posts, is in District 11 and Area 1 of the Department of Washington. Post 227 meets the first Tuesday evening of each month at the Post building. Post 227 interacts with the local communities in various ways, including sponsoring boys to attend Boys State, hosting pancake breakfasts and a summer BBQ, awarding a Life Changer Award annually to a community member who makes life better for others, and inviting all veterans and visitors to attend Post meetings, which usually feature a speaker discussing some aspect of military life or history.
Most American Legion Posts have a women’s Auxiliary where wives of veterans meet and conduct programs in support of the local Post. Post 227 has a woman’s Auxiliary that was chartered about the same time, March, 1948, that Post 227 was chartered. The Post 227 Auxiliary raises funds in various ways, including distributing poppies each spring in exchange for donations and conducting rummage sales.
The celebration of the 100th anniversary of the American Legion began at the 2018 national convention that was held at Minneapolis, Minnesota, the site of the first American Legion convention. Local posts, including Post 227, are also celebrating the centennial. At their monthly meeting on January 8, Post 227 invited Department of Washington Commander Gary Roach to speak. Roach spoke about the American Legion and plans for celebrating the 100th Anniversary. After the Commander’s talk, those in attendance had cake and ice cream. The cake was adorned with 10 candles, one for each decade of the Legion’s existence. As the candles were blown out, the attendees sang “happy anniversary” for the Legion. The centennial year will conclude at the 2019 American Legion national convention, to be held August 23-29 at Indianapolis, Indiana, the home of the American Legion national headquarters.
The cake served at the January 8, 2019 meeting of Post 227
Dept. of Washington Commander Roach speaking at the January 8, 2019 meeting of Post 227.