Monument at Bexar County Justice Center, July 14 2018
A large crowd of American Legion members and family that had spilled onto Dolorosa Street on Saturday finally got a look at what they had come to see as the ceremony closed: a new monument flanking the entrance to the Bexar County Justice Center. One tall marble slab displayed the seals of America’s five military services. The other included the Legion’s four pillars — Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation, National Security, Americanism, and Children & Youth.
The monument celebrates a century of American Legion history in Texas and San Antonio, where founders of the group formed to force the government to recognize that war veterans needed help, especially medical care.
At the time, the end of World War I with most veterans still in Europe, Washington hadn’t done anything.“They set out to do something and we wonder in their vision did they picture this happening a hundred years later with an organization in Texas of more than 62,000 veterans?” John Hince, commander of the Legion’s Department of Texas, told the crowd. “You wonder what they thought.”
Unveiled as Texas Legionnaires celebrated the group’s anniversary with a convention here this weekend, the monument, along with a time capsule buried in front of it, takes its place among many dedicated to historical people, events and organizations that dot downtown. Most mark wars dating to the Texas Revolution and can be found in an oval that runs from Commerce Street west to Milam Park and northeast to the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts.
Some celebrate success. Others take stock of abject failure.
Even after nearly century, the Legion remains a work in progress. Its membership, which reached around 3.3 million following the Korean War, now stands at 2.2 million worldwide. While still the largest veterans organization, said retired Air Force Lt. Col. Garnel “Al” Alford, commander of the 20th District, which covers all of Bexar County, the organization’s base has dramatically shrunk. Older veterans have been dying in large numbers, with fewer than 1 million from World War II still alive. The post-Cold War force is far smaller, he said, and troops serving since 9/11 are looking for something different as they leave military service.“We’re probably 30 to 40 percent smaller,” said Alford, 65, of San Antonio, adding that the Legion is trying to recruit younger veterans. “People tend to cluster in groups of Afghanistan war veterans or the Gulf War veterans. They’re going into smaller splinter groups, if you will, and not necessarily going into the American Legion.”
The Legion is only the latest in a series of veterans groups that sprang up after conflicts dating to the Civil War, among them the Grand Army of the Republic. The Legion got its start in Paris just short of 100 years ago, when U.S. troops serving under Gen. John J. Pershing gathered there March 15-17, 1919, for the group’s first caucus. They met in St. Louis two months later and adopted the American Legion as their name. That June, the group’s executive committee adopted an emblem for the Legion, and Congress chartered it in mid-September. A couple of months later, the first convention was convened in Minneapolis.
Veterans in San Antonio, meanwhile, started their chapter in 1919, holding the state’s first convention April 20 and 21 — during Fiesta. They made the Gunter Hotel their first headquarters, but it was too small. The group, then called the Texas Division of World War Veterans Association, not the American Legion, moved its 300 delegates to Main Avenue High School, now Fox Tech.“That’s why they came back for this one,” said retired Army Sgt. Maj. Robert Masten, 77, a former commander of the Legion’s 20th District, the largest in Texas, with 6,200 people at 18 posts.
The Legion has long involved itself in myriad activities. It’s lobbied Congress and legislatures on behalf of veterans, helped create the U.S. Veterans Bureau, the forerunner of the Veterans Administration, in 1921, and drafted the first “flag code” two years later. Congress adopted the code in 1942. The Legion also pushed both the World War II-era GI Bill and a post-9/11 law that allows veterans to let their children use their educational benefits.
Alford, the Texas Legion’s 20th District commander, said the group’s baseball program, launched in 1925, has produced such legends as catcher, coach and manager Yogi Berra, Cleveland Indians pitcher Bob Feller, Boston Red Sox left fielder Ted Williams and Houston Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell — all Hall of Fame members. It also produced one of the city’s best-known politicians.“I hate to tell you this, but I was a terrible hitter,” laughed Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, 77, who played on an American Legion ballclub one summer in Houston as a seventh-grader. “I played shortstop and I pitched.” An American Legion history says that more than half of all Major League Baseball players have graduated from its league and that 82,000 young people play in it each year.
The group also acts as the chartering agency for more than 64,000 youths in 1,700 Boy Scout units. The Legion’s Boys State program, created in 1935, teaches young people about government. It also has a National High School Oratorical Contest. More than 3,400 high school students nationwide compete.
Next month, District 20 members will welcome wounded troops from Joint San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston to Six Flags Fiesta Texas. They’ll feed GIs on the mend in October at Fisher House No. 3. Post 593 in Converse sends a van to Audie Murphy VA Hospital every month to take eight to 10 veterans out for a free steak dinner. On Thanksgiving, Legionnaries feed airmen in technical training at Post 300.
One early Legion legacy stands out. Concerned from its inception about the lack of medical care for World War I veterans, Legionnaires in the Lone Star State got involved in a stalled hospital project in Kerrville. The effort began in 1919, when the Benevolent War Risk Society of Texas raised money for a veterans hospital and the Schreiners, a prominent family, deeded property along the Guadalupe River in April 1920. Construction stopped the following January when funding ran dry. The Legion’s Department of Texas bought the project for $1 and started a fund drive. In April 1921, Legionnaires donated the unfinished buildings and 748 acres of land to the state of Texas, and the Legislature earmarked $1.5 million to finish and expand the hospital. Hince, the Texas Department commander, told the crowd the tale.“When those founders decided that there were only 30 beds in the state of Texas for men returning from World War I with TB and other diseases,” he said, “and they set out to build the hospital … did they envision a hundred years later the hospitals, the clinics spread across the width and breadth of Texas there, to serve our veterans?”