The Story of The American Legion Part 1

The Story of The American Legion.

by George Seay Wheat.


The American Legion was conceived by practically the entire personnel of the army, navy, and marine corps! Every man in the military and naval establishment did not think of it in just such terms, but most of them knew that there would be a veterans' organization of some tremendous import, and here it is!

"A veterans' organization of some kind will be formed." I heard that identical remark not once, but a dozen times on board a transport en route to France as early as September, 1918. In fact, one night in the war zone a group of officers were huddled around a small piano trying to make the best of a lightless evening, and, having sung every song from _Keep the Home Fires Burning_ to _You're in the Army Now_, paused, longingly toyed cigarettes which were taboo by ship's order, and then began to spin yarns.

"Reminds me of a G.A.R. reunion," one second lieutenant from Maine remarked, after a particularly daring training camp adventure had been recounted.

"Just think of the lying we'll all do at our reunions when this war is over," chirped a youngster from South Carolina. And then spoke a tall major from Illinois:

"The organization which you young fellows will join won't be any _liefest_--at least not for forty years. Don't forget there's some saving to do for the United States when this European mess is over. Us fellows won't ever get out of Uncle Sam's service."

How well the Illinois major hit the nail on the head! The incident on the transport seems worth recording not only because of the major but because it shows the general anticipation of what is now the American Legion. Perhaps it was this general anticipation which is responsible for the cordial reception that the Legion has had ever since its very inception in Paris.

No one can lay claim to originating the idea of a veterans'

association, because it was a consensus among the men of the armed forces of our nation. A certain group of men can take unto themselves the credit for starting it, for getting the ball rolling, aiding its momentum, and, what is more important, for guiding it in the right direction, but no one man or group of men "thought up" the American Legion. It was the result of what might be called the "spontaneous opinion" of the army, navy, and marine corps caused by a fusing together in a common bond of the various elements of the service, just as spontaneous combustion is brought about by the joint action of certain chemical elements.

Spontaneous opinion, like spontaneous combustion, is dangerous when improperly handled and beneficient when rightly directed. That's what the organizers of the Legion have been and will be mostly concerned with. They have their elements--these men of the army, navy, and marine corps, and the organizers mean to direct this united and organized patriotism into such channels as will make for the welfare of the United States of America primarily, and, secondarily, for the welfare of the service men themselves.

Just how much attention this Legion with four million potential members intends to pay to the United States of America, and just how much to themselves _per se_, is basicly important and pertinent as a question, nowadays when the Legion is being tried and is on the witness stand before public opinion. The answer is most clearly indicated by the preamble to the proposed constitution printed elsewhere.

This preamble stresses _Americanism, individual obligation_ to the _community, state_, and _nation; battling with autocracy_ both of the _classes_ and _masses; right_ the _master_ of _might; peace_ and _good will_ on _earth; justice, freedom_, and _democracy_! Only in the last two words of the preamble is mention made of the welfare of the men themselves. These two words are _mutual helpfulness_. But be sure and understand the connection in which they are used.

"... _we associate ourselves together ... to consecrate and sanctify our comradeship by our devotion to mutual helpfulness_."

This is the way the last purpose of the preamble reads.

The men who framed this constitution certainly did not believe that comradeship would be consecrated and sanctified by anything of a selfish character under the guise of mutual helpfulness. Certainly not the _comradeship_ that made bearable the zero hour in the trenches or the watch in a submarine infested sea.

To go a little in advance of the story and speak practically, mutual helpfulness has meant so far voting down a pay grab from Congress; a get-together spirit to foster the growth of the Legion; a purpose to aid in the work of getting jobs for returning soldiers, and the establishment of legal departments throughout the country to help service men get back pay and allotments. Mutual helpfulness in this case would seem to make Uncle Sam as much a partner in it as are the Legion members. Because, for every job the Legion gets an unemployed man, and for every dollar Legion lawyers help collect for back pay and allotments, a better citizen is made. And better citizenship is what the Legion most wants.

So here seems to be the place to make the patent observation that _mutual helpfulness_ will in future years mean just what it means to-day--doing something for the United States of America.

At the present time the Legion might be compared to a two-headed American eagle--one looking towards France and the A.E.F., and the other homewards to the service men here. The two are a single body borne on the same wings and nourished of the same strength. They are the same in ideal and purpose but directed for the moment by two different committees working together. One committee is the result of the caucus at Paris in March, when the A.E.F. started the organization, while the other was born this month in St. Louis, Mo., for the men here.


NEW YORK May, 1919.




I believe that the army of to-day, when it goes back to citizen thinking and citizen acting, will be capable of so contributing to the commonwealth of the United States as to change the character of the whole country and lift it up to a higher plane.

BISHOP BRENT, _Senior Chaplain, A.E.F_.

Paris, March, 1919.

On a midsummer morning in 1918, ambulance after ambulance unloaded its cargo of wounded humanity at a base hospital in Paris. The wounded were being conveyed rapidly from the front and the entire hospital was astir with nurses, surgeons, and orderlies. A major, surgeon, almost staggered out of an operating room where he had been on duty for twenty-two hours and started for his quarters when a colonel arrived on an inspection trip.

"Pretty busy," remarked the colonel as he acknowledged the major's salute.

"Busy? Busy!" replied the major. "Good Lord, the only people about here that aren't busy are the dead ones. Even the wounded are busy planning to hobble around at conventions when the Big Show is over.

Already they are talking about how they intend to take a hand in things after the war when they get home."

Over across the street a sergeant, limping slightly, stopped under a shade tree and leaned against it to rest. He was almost well of his wound and eagerly awaited the word that would send him to join his regiment, the Twenty-sixth United States Infantry. As he paused under the tree another soldier with a mending wound in the knee and just able to be about stopped to speak to him. The sergeant's hand rose in quick salute for the newcomer was an officer.

"Expect to get back soon, sergeant?" said the officer.

"Yes sir," he replied. "Anxious to go back and get the whole job over, sir."

"So am I," responded the officer. "But what will we all do when the Germans really are licked?"

"Go home and start a veterans' association for the good of the country, sir," the sergeant answered.

Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, then major, was the officer, and Sergeant William Patterson, later killed in action, was the enlisted man, and the institution was Base Hospital No. 2.

Colonel Roosevelt, who was in the hospital convalescing from a wound in his knee caused by a machine gun bullet, told me the story and said it was the first time that he had heard the subject of a veterans'

association mentioned, although he had thought of it frequently himself as an organization with boundless possibilities for good. He found later that it was being very generally discussed by men in Base Hospital No. 2, particularly those who were so badly wounded that they could not be sent to the front again and who knew they must further serve their country along peaceful lines at home.

This was during war time, remember!

Then came the armistice!

When our victorious armies were wending their way towards the Rhine, when men of the navy and the marine corps realized that peace had come and that home was again within reach, this thought of a veterans'

band, which had slumbered far back in the subconscious thoughts of all of them, burst into objectivity. An association of some sort was widely discussed not only by the men but by the officers as well. But how could even the start of it be begun? Those who considered the project most seriously were confronted with a difficulty which seemed at first to be almost insurmountable: that was the difficulty of assembling at one time and in one place a gathering which might at least approximately represent the whole army, navy, marine corps, or even the A.E.F.

This difficulty tended to narrow what is believed to have been the wish of everyone when he first thought of the matter, that is the hope that it would be another Grand Army of the Republic, another United Confederate Veterans, but greater than either because representative of a United Country. Talk started then about all sorts of imagined and fancied veteran organizations. Some advocated an officers'

association. This was believed to be possible because officers had more freedom and more financial ability to attend a convention. Others thought the enlisted men should perfect organizations by regiments first, then divisions, and finally form one great united body.

The present leaders in the movement have since said that they realized that all of these schemes must come to naught because no organization except one on the broadest possible lines could be effective. They believed that all officers and men of the three branches of the service and all enlisted women, whether they served at home or abroad, should be eligible and urged to join one thoroughly democratic and comprehensive organization. They knew that any organization leaving out one or more elements composing the military service of the United States would be forced to compete constantly with the organization or association so discarded. In short, they knew that in union there is strength. And they believed, and still believe, that the problems of peace after a catastrophe such as was never before witnessed in history are so grave that they can be met with safety only by a national bulwark composed of the men who won the war, so closely knit, so tightly welded together in a common organization for the common good of all that no power of external or internal evil or aggression, no matter how allied or augmented, could hope even so much as to threaten our national existence, ambitions, aspirations, and pursuit of happiness, much less aim to destroy them.

Don't forget that the leaders of the movement realized all this, and also remember that they include among their number the enlisted man of the A.E.F. and home army and the sailor in a shore station and on board a destroyer. The realization may not have been in so many words, but each knew he wanted to "make the world safe for democracy"--he had fought to do that and had thought out carefully what it meant, that is, that it didn't mean anything selfish--and each knew enough of the principle of union and strength to embrace the idea when "organize"

first began to be mentioned.

But how to do it, that was the problem.

Then kind Fate in the shape of G.H.Q. came to the rescue with what proved to be the solution.

Chapter end

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