The American Legion Celebrates Centennial

People gather in Green RIver to see soldiers off as they board the train during World War I. Photo courtesy of Sweetwater County Historical Museum

ROCK SPRINGS– Next year, 2020, will mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of The American Legion’s local Archie Hay Post 24 unit. This year, 2019, marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the national organization of The American Legion.

It was on December 19, 1919 that efforts began to organize a local chapter of The American Legion following the beginnings earlier that year to organize the national group. Discussions and local organizational meetings continued during the first seven months of 1920.

Finally, in early August of 1920, the Archibald L. Hay Post 24 of The American Legion was officially chartered by the national organization. The official charter establishing Post 24 of The American Legion is still on display at The American Legion Hall on Broadway Street in Rock Springs. The charter reads:

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“Charter Archie Hay Post No. 24, Department of Wyo.
‘In Witness Whereof, this charter is given under the hand and seal of the National Commander, duly attested by the National Adjutant, at Headquarters in Indianapolis, Indiana, this first of August 1920; and countersigned by the Commander and the Adjutant for the Department of Wyoming at Casper the tenth day of August 1920.’”

The document is signed by M.A. Newell, Dept. Commander, Valentin Colomma, Department Adjutant, Franklin D’Olier, National commander, and Lemuel Bowles, National Adjutant

The local American Legion Auxiliary will also celebrating its centennial in 2020.

The National Organization Forms

Naturally, the local organization of The American Legion followed the institution of the national organization. The first caucus of The American Legion was conducted by the veterans of the American Expeditionary Force on March 15-17, 1919 in Paris, France, according to “The American Legion story” by Raymond Moley, copyright 1966 by Meredith Publishing Company. Moley was a navy veteran of World War II. The American military forces that fought on land, air and sea during World War I felt a need for the camaraderie that they developed during that conflict to continue in peacetime.

In 1920 and for many years afterward, World War I was called “The Great War” and “The war to end all wars”, which of course it wasn’t. However, nobody in 1920 anticipated that there would be a World War II.

Back stateside, another formation caucus was held in St. Louis, Missouri in May 1919. It was out of these two mentioned national organizational meetings that The American Legion was begun and eventually became the world’s largest veterans’ organization.

The formation of The American Legion was greeted nationally by loud applause and approval, from President Woodrow Wilson on down. As quoted in Moley’s book, following the organization’s formation, Wilson declared, “I am happy to have this opportunity to address a word of greeting and comradeship to the men who have served in the Army, Navy and Marine Corps and are now banding themselves together to preserve the splendid traditions of the service…The spirit of their service, and the continuation of that spirit in The American Legion, will make it always an inspiration to the full performance of high and difficult times.”

There was, of course, no Air Force Department as yet at the conclusion of WWI.

Amos S. Lowe, Green River railroader during WWI. Photo courtesy of Sweetwater County Historical Museum.

The Grand Rapids, Michigan Press was equally enthusiastic in a 1919 editorial quoted in Moley’s book: “We need worry none concerning the policies to which the vast power of The American Legion will be given. Its members are men who offered their lives for their country. The country therefore means more to them than perhaps to others who made but small sacrifices in the war. The liberty which the people of America enjoy, the nation’s law-giving institutions, the rights highly prized, are to the Legionnaire something bought at high price, therefore something not to be trifled with. Already there are evidences of the sturdy American stand which the Legion will take…If there ever comes a crisis in American affairs, a crisis either domestic or international, we can depend upon The American Legion.”

Originally, the United States Congress designated which veterans could join The American Legion, but since World War II any service person who was on active duty in the military for one day or longer is eligible to join the organization.

Archie Hay

The American Legion Post 24 Rock Springs chapter was and is named for Sergeant Archibald L. Hay, an American soldier who died fighting the Germans during World War I. “Sergeant Archie Hay was leading a company against a German machine gun nest when an enemy airplane came along and he was killed,” Post 24 Adjutant Leonard Merrell said.

Sergeant Hay’s remains returned to Rock Springs for burial in August 1921. The August 5, 1921 Rock Springs Miner explained, “(Sergeant Hay) leaves behind his parents and five sisters.” Hay’s funeral was conducted at the Episcopal Church, with the Reverend Morten Joslin officiating. The Miner article goes on to say, “The pall bearers were all members of his former company who had traveled many miles to perform this last service.”

Historical display at The American Legion Archie Hay Post 24.

Impact of World War I

Few people today can understand what the veterans of the First World War went through. There has been no military draft in the United States since 1972 and thus two or three whole generations have gone through a period of time when military service was simply one option among many that young adults could make for themselves.

In 1917-1918 things were much different for the men who would later form themselves into The American Legion. Once Congress passed the Selective Service Act of May 18, 1917, men ages 21-30 (and later, 18-45) were required to register for possible conscription into the armed services and to report for duty if sent a conscription notice.

Unlike during the American Civil War which had ended just over a half-century earlier in 1865, the World War I draft did not contain a provision allowing a conscript to opt out of military service if he could hire a substitute to go in his place.

Moreover, unlike during the Vietnam War, a conscripted man who wanted to avoid having to fight in WWI did not have the option of fleeing to Canada, as that country was itself involved in the European fighting as part of the British Empire. Nor was even flight to Mexico an option to avoid WWI conscription, since that country was in the midst of its own bloody decade-long revolution and civil war.

The WWI military draft had become an unfortunate necessity for the United States, since most Americans were reluctant to involve themselves in the European fighting which had already taken the lives of millions. Moreover, many young men living in the United States in the second decade of the twentieth century were the sons of immigrants who had come to the U.S. for the express purpose of escaping from seemingly endless European wars.

Sweetwater County contributed its share of military men during The Great War. According to an April 12, 1918 Rock Springs Daily Miner article entitled “27 men called for April 26”, local conscription was in full swing: “…Sweetwater county will be required to furnish 216 men for the selective drafts to take place during the year. Under the new apportionment Sweetwater county must entrain 27 men on April 26th or within five days of that date. This call is approximately one-eighth each month…until the entire quota has been sent to the training camps. In addition to this call, the apportionment for the county on the special call for 12,000 men [sic]will take two or three additional [calls].

“According to the estimate,” the article continues, “the various calls under the draft during the year will take practically every man now in Class 1, in this county. If this entire list is taken up, then the calls for 1919 must be made up of those coming 21 since the fifth of last June, or from those in Class 2. Just what is in store for the future is unknown.”

The article goes on to list the names of the 27 men scheduled to be called up for “entrainment” on April 26th.

Those 27 men joined the contingent from Sweetwater County already in uniform. A February 8, 1918 Daily Miner article had stated, “Sweetwater county has made a splendid record for sending men to the front since war was declared last spring. In all 440 men have gone from this county. 260 men volunteered in the various departments of the army and navy, and 180 went under various drafts. At the present time this county is represented in camps in almost every section of the United States, as well as in England, France, Italy, China and other foreign countries. The people of this county have not only sent their husbands and sons, but they are ready to back them up in every way to bring the war to a successful conclusion.”

A captured Grumman anti-aircraft gun in Belgium during WWI, dated November 11, 1918. Photo courtesy of Sweetwater County Historical Museum.

By April 19, 1918 a total of 585 Sweetwater county men were in the military, according to the Daily Miner: “This report includes all men who have joined the colors up to April 1st, but does not include those who have enlisted since that date. If those who have gone to the army and navy during the past twenty days are added to the lists, the total number will be brought well over the 600 mark. We doubt if any county of like population in the western country can show a record to equal that of Sweetwater county…Very few of the boys we know are looking for non-combatant positions, but practically all of them want to carry a gun and want to kill a few Huns.”

Another Miner article from April 12, 1918 demonstrates how even those who were not subject to call-up for the military contributed to the war effort: “Coal camps all buy liberty bonds” described the efforts by coal miners to contribute war financing: “The Megeath coal camp at Winton is one of the youngest camps in this district but its people are not lacking in patriotism. In three days canvas the men at this camp subscribed for $9,200 worth of Liberty Bonds, U.M.W.A. local No. 3830, which was organized only two months ago, voted to buy $500 worth of the bonds. Gunn camp is taking pride in the fact that every man in the camp has purchased at least one bond. The camps at Superior, Reliance and Lion are all subscribing liberally…”

Newspaper advertisements implored local citizens to conserve items needed by the military and to avoid civilian use of such materials, particularly foodstuffs, as much as humanly possible. Ads in the Daily Miner denigrated people who hoarded sugar and flour, butter, meat white bread and candy. “Use eggs and save meat. Use fruits, syrup and honey and save sugar” one ad read.

Peace at a Price

World War I ended perhaps sooner than many expected. November 11, 1918 marked the day when the German government surrendered to the Allies with an armistice. People in Sweetwater County were ecstatic with joy. The Daily Miner headline on November 11, 1918 read “PEACE IS HERE” with the subhead reading “Armistice signed this morning ends bloodiest war of world’s history.” The first few sentences of the article read “The fighting has ended. Peace has been announced. The end came suddenly. Washington, the capitol of the nation, was slumbering perfectly when the news came…The armistice had been signed. This word was reported to the gray state, war and navy building at 2:45 this morning.”

The headline for November 12, 1918 was no less excited: “Victory Parade Tonight” screamed one heading, with a subheading which read “Big Parade at eight o’clock starts from the City Hall” [i.e.the 1894 building which currently houses the Rock Springs Museum]. Not that anyone waited to celebrate.

A November 13, 1918 article headline read: “City celebrates victory of America and allies for thirty-six hours.” The article began, “Rock Springs awoke very tired this morning, after a Victory celebration which began about noon on Monday [November 11] and continued to grow more intense until daylight Wednesday morning, when the last weary merry-makers reluctantly went to sleep. Business was completely suspended on Tuesday, and people paraded the streets all day long.”

Yet, even amidst the euphoria over the end of The Great War, there were still remembrances of what achieving this peace had entailed.

The same day that the Daily Miner announced that the war was over and peace had arrived, the newspaper carried this grim article: “Another boy is ‘killed in action’”, with the first sentences declaring, “Another Rock Springs boy has made the supreme sacrifice for his country on the battle fields of France, a telegram having been received here this morning, stating that John Potter was killed in action on October 8. The message will be a heavy blow to his mother, Mrs. Anna Potter, who is now in Kemmerer…”

Photo courtesy of Sweetwater County Historical Museum.

Newspaper articles all throughout 1918 had carried news of young Sweetwater County men killed in action against the Germans. Even into the early 1920s there were newspaper articles about local soldiers’ remains coming home to rest and funerals at various Sweetwater County churches.

It was in this milieu that The American Legion was formed. The Great War was unfortunately not to be the end of all wars that had been thought and hoped for, as worse was yet to come with Adolph Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September 1939 and the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

The American Legion is a prominent feature of parades and 4th of July celebrations as well as on other occasions such as Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day, reminding everyone that “freedom is not free.” It never has been and likely never will be.