The VFW and American Legion:
Bridging Generations of Veterans
Introduction: Both the VFW and the American Legion are well beyond the 100-year mark since they were founded. An overview of either organization… even a superficial one… would be far too lengthy to share here. You will find below one basic question about each of the two organizations. There is also, a shorter item about each of the two legendary veterans whose names are etched into the identity of local American Legion and VFW posts, integral to the November 2023 Alumni Spotlight of NAHS grad Jim Dexter.
Q: How did the VFW get started?
A: The roots of the VFW can be traced back to 1899. Veterans of the Spanish-American War (1898) and the Philippine Insurrection (1899-1902) founded local organizations to secure rights and benefits for the sacrifices that they had made. Many arrived home wounded or sick. There was no medical care or veterans’ pension for them, and they were left to care for themselves. In their misery, some of these veterans formed organizations. At least five different names were used, independently:
In Columbus (OH) the “American Veterans of Foreign Service” first met in September of 1899. Their leader was a veteran of the Spanish-American War named James C. Putnam 1868-1956.¹
In Denver (CO), under the name “Colorado Society, Army of the Philippines” first met in December 1899, under the leadership of General Irving Hale.² This appears to have been the first use of the term Post and the organization reports that it has held a monthly meeting without fail since 1899. It has always referred to itself as Denver’s Post 1.
In Pennsylvania, at least four different groups sprang up. There were two in Philadelphia; One called itself the “American Veterans of Foreign Service” (AVFS); they also used the term “Post 1” for a while. Separately, (also in Philadelphia), the “American Veterans of Philippine and China Wars” began meeting, plus groups in Pittsburgh and Altoona called the “Philippine War Veterans”. By 1903, all four Pennsylvania groups merged and sought to take the name AVFS national by merging with Ohio under the same name in 1905. By 1913, plans crystallized to hold the first “encampment” (in Denver) and soon, the name “Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States” emerged.
By 1921, the VFW had 60,000 members; the first women veterans began to join. The current national headquarters was constructed in 1930, located in Kansas City, Missouri. In 1936, President Roosevelt signed into legislation the National Congressional Charter for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. That same year, membership had increased to 200,000. Today, the VFW has over 1.7 million members, representing over 3000 posts.
Q: How did the American Legion get started?
A: Unlike the VFW, it is a curious twist that the eligibility to join the American Legion is NOT based on participation in a “foreign war”. And yet, it was founded overseas in Paris, about six months (March 1919) after the end of World War I. Just six months later, in October, the American Legion was granted a federal charter by Congress (17 years before the VFW received a similar charter).
American involvement in World War I was all under the direct command of the “American Expeditionary Force (AEF)”, led by General John Pershing and incorporating all members of the Army, Navy and Marine Corps, whether they remained stateside or shipped off to Europe. Among the key decision makers in the 1000-plus AEF members who convened in Paris were Major General George White (of the Oregon National Guard) and Lt. Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., son of his late father, the 26th president. The former president had died just two months earlier in January of 1919. Colonel Roosevelt was particularly focused on the fact that hundreds of thousands of American troops considered themselves “pinned down” in Europe indefinitely until the logistics could be worked out to get them home.
Each of the past ten decades has brought new chapters to the American Legion’s story. The first occurrences of Boys’ State and Girls’ State, supported by the American Legion for nearly 90 years, were in 1935. A membership peak occurred in 1946 with more than 3.3 million visitors. Today, the American Legion has about 1.8 million members and its headquarters are located in Indianapolis. If you’d like to read a more detailed overview of the American Legion, take a look at the Wikipedia entry, History of the American Legion.
Q: Why is New Albany’s American Legion Post #28 named Bonnie Sloan?
A: The Post has a very low number because it was founded just a few months after the first group was convened in Paris (in March of 1899). On August 14, 1919, in the basement of the Elsby Building, Sherman Minton spearheaded the first organizational meeting to form New Albany’s new American Legion post. As temporary chairman, Minton conducted the first meeting on September 3, 1919, with twenty-two members in attendance.
They chose to name the post after a young man from Edwardsville named Bonnie Sloan, the first soldier from Floyd County killed in World War I, just 22 days after he arrived in Chateau Thierry, France. He was the son of Yenawine (1863-1940) and Mary Alice Livingston Sloan (1866-1932). Mr. Sloan’s great-great-grandfather, John William Sloan (1695-1750) immigrated from Ireland to Worcester, Massachusetts in 1733 and later settled in North Carolina. His U.S. Naturalization record was dated 1794. His grandson William Sloan (1795-1850) came to Floyd County, sometime before 1820.
Q: Why is New Albany’s VFW post #1693 named Hobart Beach?
A: You might have actually wondered… “is Hobart Beach a place that has a special significance to the VFW?” No… while there IS a place named Hobart Beach on Long Island, New York… it’s actually the name of a person: the second soldier from Floyd County killed in World War I.
Hobart George Beach (1898-1918) was the second son of John (1867-1958) and Freda Biel Beach (1865-1932). He died in Paris, several months after he was transferred from the battlefield to a hospital there. He was laid to rest at Suresnes American Cemetery in France.
Hobart had two noteworthy first cousins; all three were the grandsons of Rynear Covert Beach (1832-1908), a school teacher who came to Greenville sometime before 1858. The first was George Covert Beach (1892-1959) from Greenville, father of NAHS Hall of Famer Bill Beach (1937-2021), class of 1955 (inducted into the 2012 Hall of Fame class). A third brother (to Hobart’s father and uncle) was William A. Beach Sr. (1863-1949), father of Colonel William “Billy” Beach Jr., (1885-1955), a highly decorated officer in the U.S. Army for thirty-five years after he graduated from West Point (1910). He went to the U.S. Military Academy after graduating from New Albany High School in 1905. He served in the Infantry for many years, including service with the 23rd, 24th,13th and 17th Infantry Regiments in the US and in the Philippines. In World War I he was attached to the 41st Infantry Division in France. He was in the Verdun Sector during early 1918 and later was Director of Infantry Weapons School at Gondrecourt, France. During the occupation of Germany, he commanded the 124th Battalion, Military Police Corps at Neuwied, Germany. Upon return to the US, he commanded the 2nd Battalion, 63rd Infantry at Washington, DC. He retired as a Colonel with disability on May 31, 1945. Colonel Beach was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery, Section 6, Site 8381-B.
Post-script: The NAFC Education Foundation has multiple goals, and one of those is to envision our “future history” in the coming century. The decisions that we make now will impact the students of today and tomorrow, the ever-changing community they will help forge, and the role our schools will play.
This supplemental blog posting has been prepared as part of our November 2023 Legacy Ledger edition, shared as a “deeper dive into a history of the past” for a few events and exceptional Americans, chosen from centuries of stories. In that context, this is a personal note from yours truly, as the principal contributor to this newsletter feature for the past 38 months. There are so many ways to learn American history and enjoy it (a lot). I want to share with you two books, my personal favorites. Each brings to life some of the amazing people who made up the Putnam and Hale families, mentioned above.
Both were written by the late historian, David McCullough 1933-2022: “1776” (written in 2005) and “The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West” (written in 2019). History doesn’t get any better than this.
Rex Bickers, Floyd Central class of 1970
¹In a 1933 history, written for the “VFW 34th National Encampment”, the claim is made that James Putnam authored the first constitution and bylaws of the group.
Although there is no mention in other VFW history, it is noteworthy to mention that James Putnam is a direct (sixth generation*) descendant of the highly celebrated (and notorious) family of John Putnam (1580-1666) and Priscilla Gould (abt. 1585-1649), original settlers of Salem, Massachusetts.²
In addition to the service of James Putnam in the Spanish-American War, the following patriots and veterans are from the same family: (1) Major General Israel T. Putnam (1718-1790), hero of Bunker Hill and the American Revolution, (2) a son of Israel’s first cousin (Elisha), Brigadier General Rufus Putnam (1738-1824) who served as Washington’s Chief Engineer along the Hudson and a commander at the Battle of Saratoga, (3) a fifth-generation descendant of Israel’s brother (David), his namesake David Endicott Putnam, an ace in World War I over France, responsible for 13 kills before he was shot down himself and (4) a seventh-generation descendant of Israel’s first cousin (Isaac), Paul Albert Putnam (1903-1982), USMC Brigadier General, awarded the Navy Cross for his role as commander in the defense of Wake Island Dec 21, 1941.
*James Putnam is a sixth-generation direct descendant to David Putnam (1707-1769), the brother of General Israel Putnam, or a ninth-generation direct descendant to John and Priscilla Gould Putnam, the great-grandparents of the brothers Israel and David.
²Irving Hale is also a (third generation / fourth generation) direct descendant* of numerous historic figures and military leaders who are part of his Hale family ancestry. Like the Putnam family, some Hale family members had key roles in the Salem Witch Trials. The two families were significantly interrelated by marriage.
Two heroes of the American Revolution were his great grandfather David Hale M.D., 1758-1833 and David’s father Colonel John Hale, M.D. (1731-1791), surgeon to the New Hampshire regiment. Two of David’s brothers also served as physicians in the War. Additionally, Colonel John Hale was probably a distant (fourth) cousin to Nathan Hale (1755-1776), hanged by the British at age 20 for espionage. Nathan Hale is recognized for uttering the last words “I regret that I have only life to give for my country”.