By Michael Isam
St. Augustine, Fla, (October 29, 2012) –
If you ask people on the street what Veterans Day means to them, usually the first answer is “A holiday?” When pressed further about why we have it, their eyes glaze over and the detachment is complete.
Several years ago Col. Ed Taylor approached St. Johns County Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Joseph Joyner about students attending school on Veterans Day. “It is a make-up day for hurricane days,” replied Dr. Joyner. Always quick on the uptake, Col. Taylor suggested that a video be made and presented to all the schools about the history of Veterans Day. He did not mention a captive audience. Dr. Joyner, an avid supporter of Veterans, agreed and offered the use of the media department to produce it.
For those who know Col. Taylor, he is not one to be denied when he asked a person to do something, refusing was just not done. From whence came the term, “a volunteer effort.”
The mini-documentary was presented in three parts: Dr. Giles McCoy, a World War II veteran of the USS Indianapolis. His ship was hit by a Japanese torpedo in the Philippine Sea. More than 300 men were killed in less than 12 minutes. McCoy survived by staying afloat and fighting off sharks for four days, while more than 800 of his fellow servicemen perished. County Commissioner Ben Rich gave a stirring recitation of the poem, “Flanders Field”, and I “volunteered” to present the history of Veterans Day.
I gleaned much of the following information from the VA, VFW, and American Legion websites as well as a travel website speaking about the Armistice Memorial, Compiegne, France.
I offer you my part.
The beginning: The memories of a grandfather.
The pre-dawn hours were cold! So cold the breath of the men walking toward the rail carriage could be seen nearly a foot in front of them. Of course, it was November and we were in the Forest of Compiegne in Northern France.
The men were stopped and searched when they reached a pre-determined spot. Even in the dim light from my vantage point of a rail carriage, I could see the look of resignation on some faces, and on others I saw disgust and even haughtiness. These men would never admit defeat.
As a young man, I expected the leaders of the German army to look like giant ogres, but to my surprise, the men entering the rail carriage looked just like ordinary humans, some were short, and some tall.
Regardless, their purpose for being here was historic. They were to sign a declaration of armistice putting an end to “The War to end all Wars”. The anticipation I felt was mounting so great my heart felt as if it would leap from my chest at any moment. “The world would never see another war” was running through my mind.
Shortly after 5 am, November 11, 1918, my eyes witnessed the application of signatures to the document. It was only 6 hours until the fighting completely stopped.
Far away the artillery could be heard, as they used up rounds so the munitions would not have to be packed up and shipped back to the depot. Somehow, knowing what was to come, it seemed to make the noise louder.
On the final stroke of eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the year 1918 the guns of Europe fell silent; and that silence that was deafening. After four years of the most bitter and devastating fighting, “The Great War” was finally over.
The noise of the cannons, rifles, and grenades was quickly replaced by the blowing of whistles, the pealing of church bells, and the voices of people holding impromptu parades in the nearby village. All over the globe were demonstrations celebrating peace. (It is fitting to note that Adolf Hitler demanded that the same rail carriage from the German surrender in World War I be used for the formal surrender of France in World War II on June 22, 1940.)
In 1919, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed November 11 as “Armistice Day”, but it took Congress until 1938 to pass a bill proclaiming that “each November 11 shall be dedicated to the cause of world peace and …hereafter celebrated and known as Armistice Day.”
In many communities the American Legion was in charge of the observance which included parades and religious services. At 11 a.m. ALL TRAFFIC STOPPED; and in tribute to the dead, volleys were fired and taps sounded.
If the realization of the idealistic hope that World War I was “the War to end all Wars,” November 11 might still be called Armistice Day. Only a few years after the proclaiming of the holiday, war broke out in Europe again. World War II was upon us and my father became an active participant in the second hope that this would really end all wars. However, it was not to be.
From My Memories:
The Korean War followed closely behind WWII and introduced my youngest uncle to war. The Vietnam War followed in 1961 where my turn in the family rotation came. There have been so many more since then.
Two of my grandsons served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Realizing that peace was equally preserved by veterans of WW II and Korea, Congress made an occasion to honor those who had served America in all wars. In 1954, when I was just beginning 2nd grade, President Eisenhower signed a bill proclaiming November 11 as Veterans Day.
Leading up to that point were several events:
After World War II, there were many new veterans who had little or no association with World War I. The word “armistice,” means simply a truce; therefore as years passed, the significance of the name of this holiday changed, Leaders of Veterans’ groups decided to attempt to correct this and make November 11 the time to honor everyone who had fought in all American wars, not just in World War I.
In Emporia, Kansas instead of an Armistice Day program on November 11, 1953, there was a Veterans Day observance. Ed Rees, of Emporia, was so impressed that he introduced a bill into the Kansas House to change the name to Veterans Day. After this passed, Mr. Rees wrote to all state governors and asked for their approval and cooperation in observing the changed holiday.
I was 7 years old when the name was changed to Veterans Day by Act of Congress on May 24, 1954, President Eisenhower referred to the change of name to Veterans Day in honor of the service men and women of all America’s wars.
In 1968, well into my first enlistment in the Air Force, a law was passed changing the national commemoration of Veterans Day to the fourth Monday in October. It soon became apparent, however, that November 11 was a matter of historic and patriotic significance to a great number of our citizens. It was 1978, 10 years later, that the observance of this special day returned to its traditional date by enacted legislation (Public Law 94-97), which brings us to today.
Knowing what you know now, who among you will stop at 11am on November 11 with a moment of silence to thank those young soldiers who gave up their lives? Who will remember the graves of 400 Americans buried in Flanders Fields and at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier?
I will, My children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will. Will you?