Veterans Day traces its roots back to World War I, originally known as the Great War, because the carnage and scope (it involved all of the world’s major powers and a total number of combatants topping 70 million troops) of it surpassed any previous armed struggle experienced in the history of civilization. The official end of hostilities was marked by the Treaty of Versailles, signed on June 28, 1919 at the palace of the same name on the outskirts of Paris. But the actual bloodbath ended with an armistice, or truce signed earlier on the 11th hour of the 11th day of November, 1918, the day on which we now celebrate the holiday.
In the aftermath of the war, whole empires were toppled, entire world maps were redrawn, and millions of participants lost their lives outright, or were left permanently maimed. This motivated the president and Congress to set aside a special “Armistice Day,” to honor its returning warriors and to demonstrate the country’s commitment to the pursuit of international peace. This observance was, in turn, decreed a legal holiday by Congressional proclamation in 1926, then officially changed from Armistice Day to Veterans Day via legislation enacted by President and ex-General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1954. Over the years, the celebration was moved to observance on the fourth Sunday in October until 1978, then back to November 11 by a law signed by President and former Navy Lieutenant Commander Gerald R. Ford. In other areas of the globe, it is celebrated as well, alternatively as Armistice Day or Remembrance Day.
Venues for camaraderie
Among the dozens of service organizations initiated to assist America’s service men and women, the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars figure prominently, with three million members (in 14,000 Legion Posts worldwide), and 1.5 million in VFW posts across the United States, respectively.
The American Legion traces its lineage back to the aftermath of World War I as well, with the granting of a Congressional charter in 1919. Originally conceived to help reintegrate returning troops back into civilian life, after experiencing the horrors of warfare in Europe, the Legion has been credited with assisting in the creation of the Boy Scouts, Boys Nation–which annually brings scores of youngsters to Washington, D.C. for training in government, various youth athletic programs including the American Legion World Series. The organization also helped create the Department of Veterans Affairs, the G.I. Bill, and is credited for its continuous efforts to advance the welfare of service men and women via the expansion of disability, education, and medical benefits.
Here locally, the American Legion is well represented with several thriving chapters, among them “Jackie Robinson” Post #252 on Slauson Avenue west of Crenshaw Boulevard, named after the Pasadena native, ex-Army tank commander, and Hall of Famer who broke the major league baseball color line. The Ladies’ Auxiliary will begin serving a free dinner Thursday afternoon between 3 and 4 p.m.
During the week, there is Monday night football, ballroom dance classes on Tuesday and Thursday, and opportunities for socializing on weekends which may be explored by calling (323) 298-0308.
The American Legion Post #578, named for Daniel “Chappie” James Jr.–a legendary fighter pilot of the Korean War and the Vietnam conflict, and the first Black four-star general–is located at 7222 S. Western Ave. As with all Legion posts, veterans of all branches of the Armed Forces are eligible for membership, and the clientele here is predominantly over age 30. This year, the Ladies Auxiliary at Post #578 continues their tradition of a Veterans Day dinner on November 11 at 5 p.m. Everyone is welcome, although veterans are given preference. Later on in the year Post #578 travels over to Westwood to the 500-acre Veteran’s Administration complex set aside by Congressional decree for former soldiers. Here they hold an annual Christmas celebration for the veterans at the Wadsworth Hospital. Volunteers are encouraged to help serve refreshments and distribute gifts.
Regular events at Chappie James Post #578 include 99 cent taco Tuesdays, cards and dominos later in the week, and Karaoke nights are planned in the near future.
Several times a year the post members either travel to Legion sites in Las Vegas and Phoenix, or hosts those posts here locally for common fellowship. Former military personnel are encouraged to join and partake of the martial camaraderie.
The VFW’s roots go back to the turn of the century, when veterans from the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Insurrection banded together to secure benefits for their suffering in these colonial conflicts. Since then, the VFW has continued to push for the welfare of American servicemen and women, and has been instrumental in the formation of the Veterans Administration and the G.I. Bill (officially called the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944), which was pivotal in granting generations of returning combat soldiers to civilian life the opportunity to gain home ownership and higher education. It was arguably a major factor in the post-war economic boom of the late 1940’s and ’50s.
Local branches of the VFW include Post #5394 in Compton and Post #2122 in Inglewood.
Since its formation in 1960 under charter commander Clinton White, Post #5394 has established a strong tradition of community involvement, as well as a congenial environment for those of similar backgrounds, according to Post Quartermaster Alvino Willis. These activities include support of the Junior ROTC drill team at nearby Paramount High School, and support of neighborhood Little League Baseball.
This past year, out-going Commander Benjamin “Benny” London Jr. traveled to VFW headquarters in Indianapolis to accept the All American Post Commanders Award in recognition for these and other community-based activities such as their Voice of Democracy competition.
Here high school students vie for college scholarships by writing essays on patriotic themes. Post #5394 is located at 303 E. Palmer St. and provides plenty of opportunities for its 510 members to interact including Karaoke Sunday, and Thursday game nights. At this event, patrons may indulge in billiards and card games such as blackjack and poker. Monday evening is, of course, set aside for the great American tradition of NFL football.
The charter remains committed to assisting Iraqi/Afghan veterans through its field service officer, Howard Gardner. He, in turn, can refer vets, widows, and children to the appropriate departments at the Veterans Administration facilities at Long Beach, Westwood, and elsewhere. Information about these and other activities may be obtained by phoning the post at (310) 638-8848.
Operating under the command of Sherrod Conyers, Post #2122 is located at 335 E. Florence Ave., and will begin serving dinner after its 11 a.m. Veterans Day program on Thursday. Other activities include a regular D.J. spinning on Fridays. Call (310) 298-0308 for more on these, and other upcoming events.
The African American community holds a special reverence for those who have made the initial steps to be included in an often hostile society, and in keeping with this tradition, the Montford Point Marine Association was formed to preserve the legacy of the proud few who paved the way for entry into what some call one of the world’s elite fighting forces, the U.S. Marine Corps.
From 1942 to 1949, Marines of color trained at a separate, inhospitable enclave of prefabricated huts called Camp Montford Point, separated from the main Marine facility of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. To recognize the achievements of these pioneers and their triumph over adversity, a group of past and present African American Marines decided to form a non-profit organization in 1965 with the stated creed:
“To promote and preserve the strong bonds of friendship born from shared adversities and to devote ourselves to the furtherance of these accomplishments to ensure more peaceful times.”
From these beginnings, the group has become nationally recognized, established chapters from coast to coast, and contributed to the betterment of the community.
Locally, Montford Point Chapter 8 has 71 members scattered throughout Southern California (20 of whom are original recruits from those harrowing days in the 1940s), and encourages those newly mustered out of the corps to join ranks by calling Bob Reid at (951) 371-3355. Presently, the association is on the docket to receive a Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award granted by the U.S. government, and will take part in this year’s city of Palm Springs Veterans Day parade.
On Nov. 13, the group’s annual ball will be held at the Alondra Country Club at 16400 Prairie Ave. in Lawndale (tickets are $50), with details available at (310) 217-9917.
This event commemorates the birthday of the corps (officially, the birthday is November 10), and is traditionally observed with a formal dance, and the cutting of the cake. Among the festivities are the presentation of the first piece of cake to the oldest Marine present, who then passes it off to the youngest present (symbolizing the passage of knowledge to the next generation of Marines), the reading of Marine Corps Order 47 (the Congressional resolution that established the Corps), and a message from the current commandant.
Currently, the country is embroiled in a Middle Eastern conflict that has raged the last seven years (although President George W. Bush famously declared hostilities were over in a speech aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln in 2003), generating a flurry of opposition that might remind Americans of a certain age of the dissention between Hawks and Doves during the Vietnam War. The fact that dissent can take place at all is a testament to the freedom that the men and women of our armed forces uphold. Regardless of your political affiliation, or position on the moral justification of American involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, Veterans Day remains an opportunity to acknowledge our fellow Americans and their sacrifices.
Tuskegee Airmen past and future
By Gregg Reese
Editor’s Note: As we celebrate Veteran’s Day, it’s more than appropriate to see what’s happening with one of the most decorated groups of Black military personnel in history–the Tuskegee Airmen.
The old man cut quite the dashing figure as he worked his way through the crowd, glad-handing admirers like a seasoned politician in his dark blue uniform, resplendent with a plethora of medals, campaign ribbons, and other paraphernalia.
When he stepped onto the podium during a dedication ceremony for “the Boulevard of the Allies” a major roadway honoring the doughboys of World War I outside Pittsburgh, he was introduced as a surviving Tuskegee Airman (officially the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group, and a pioneering aviation unit of World War II.)
Many of the former soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen present wondered how a former fighter pilot could accumulate so many awards from different branches of the service, among them the Army’s Combat Infantry Badge, and the coveted anchor, pistol, and trident insignia denoting the select few who graduate from the Navy’s special warfare school, better known as Navy SEALS.
So many accomplishments seemed beyond the capabilities of one man.
In this case, they were.
This particular individual, T. Rafael Lee of New Castle, Penn., is not on any authorized roster of Tuskegee Airmen, or, for that matter, any ledger of World War II servicemen. He has turned up at several functions over the years in the greater Pittsburgh area in full military regalia, variously presenting himself as a lieutenant colonel, major, or captain, and alternatively a Korea and/or Vietnam vet, as well as a participant in the 1989 invasion of Panama.
Service records from the National Records Center in St. Louis, repository of all such documentation, show him as an Army private serving from 1948 to 1956. If the 84 year olds’ given age is correct, he would have been in his mid to late teens during the 1941 through 1945 time frame of the World War.
According to veteran journalist and Santa Monica College faculty member Ron Brewington, military impostors are a continual nuisance who generally pop up around patriotic holidays such as Veterans Day. Often they claim membership in groups with a certain panache–as did the rapscallion in this instance–or involvement in a historical event.
Scores of people now claim to be Vietnam veterans, decades after the actual combatants were routinely jeered and spit on as they returned to the U.S.
Brewington became aware of these charades, when he assumed the position of Public Relations Officer for the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. in 2004. Since then, he has become committed to exposing these frauds to protect the unit’s legacy and good name.
One telling method of authentication is the “DOTA” (Documented Original Tuskegee Airmen) database established by the late, former bomber pilot Theopolis “Ted” Johnson, which documents just under 15,000 personnel who formed the program, which lasted from 1941 to 1949.
Caucasians, civilians and in-uniform individuals, were included along with some 80 women, serving such capacities as typists, file clerks, mechanics.
Brewington believes a primary motivation for these charades seems to be ego gratification. This is especially true since groups like the Tuskegee Airmen have enjoyed a more visible profile in recent years, with the eponymous 1995 cable movie featuring Laurence Fishburne– “The Tuskegee Airmen”–and the upcoming major motion picture developed by “Star Wars” auteur George Lucas, titled “Red Tails.”
Among the perks are invitations and recognition at special events, especially Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration in 2008, a gala in which several possible charletans were reportedly denied entré.
On a Brighter Note
Meanwhile, during the last quarter of this year L.A. resident, veteran animator, and multi-media entrepreneur Leo Sullivan will launch an interactive multiple platform video game based on the World War II exploits of the Tuskegee Airmen. Initial plans are to market the game via Apple’s app store and iTunes at $2.99 retail for Apple’s iOS devices such as the iPod Touch, iPhone and iPad. There are future plans for compatibility with RIM’s Blackberry OS and Google’s Android system and most browsers.
The four-level game will feature a comic strip introduction geared to educating players about the Tuskegee legacy before they take off to do battle with the Nazi pilots of the German Luftwaffe. Part of the proceeds from sales will go to the Tuskegee Airmen Inc. More information about this new application may be found at www.afrokids.com/index.htm.