RBC I The day that World War II ended, Nov. 11 — has been a sacred day on the calendar for 95 years. It was eight more years, 1926, before Congress officially dubbed Nov. 11 as Armistice Day.
Yet that gesture did not make it a legal national holiday.
The 12-year quest to do so is one the of the proudest chapters in Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) history. Rep. Bertrand W. Gearhart (R-Calif.), a card-carrying VFW member, led the charge in the House of Representatives.
Gearhart’s determination, bolstered by members nationwide, resulted in the signing of Public Law 510 on May 13, 1938. But because states also had to legalize holidays, VFW prevailed upon governors to proclaim Nov. 11-19 as Veterans Week. That same year, at least 20 states set aside this week for special observance.
In the aftermath of two major wars — World War II and the Korean War — it became clear that Nov. 11 must become an all-encompassing holiday.
Initiated by Raymond Weeks, a member of VFW Post No. 668 in Birmingham, Ala., and spearheaded in Congress by Rep. Edwin K. Rees (R-Kan.), the name was officially changed to Veterans Day on June 1, 1954.
In 14 short years, however, the significance of Nov. 11 was ignored when Congress pushed through the Monday holiday law placing the day in October, beginning three years later. This ignited a seven-year battle that galvanized all veterans into action.
After years of lobbying at the grassroots level, 46 states had restored Veterans Day to Nov. 11.
Congress got the message, passing P.L. 94-97 to return the holiday to its rightful place on the calendar starting in 1978. The power of a strong and united veterans’ voice had been demonstrated once again.
Today, Veterans Day no longer draws large crowds except at a few key locations. But that does not diminish its importance.
Remembering and respecting the service of America’s more than 22 million living veterans should be society’s obligation. Although veterans as a percentage of the general population are rapidly dwindling, the numbers broken down by wartime era still remain impressive.
The largest number of living vets by far hail from the Vietnam era at 7.4 million. Afghanistan/Iraq comes in second at a distant 2.5 million. Korea counts 2.3 million. The 1991 Persian Gulf War is not far behind with 2.2 million. World War II trails behind with 1.7 million.
Keep in mind that these figures reflect the totals who wore a uniform during the respective eras, not those who actually served in war zones.
Whatever the numbers, the VFW takes great pride in leading the fight to legally recognize and preserve the integrity of Nov. 11 during the 20th century.
Observing and celebrating the service of the nation’s defenders is a tradition that hopefully all Americans will always cherish.
By William A. Thein
Commander in Chief
Veterans of Foreign Wars