The American Legion is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, and American Legion Post 32 Commander Steve Sweet said, “It’s not so much that we’ve been here 100 years, it’s what we’ve done for 100 years.”
The American Legion was chartered and incorporated by the U.S. Congress in 1919 as a patriotic veterans organization, making it the nation’s largest wartime veterans service organization, committed to mentoring youth and sponsorship of wholesome programs in local communities, advocating patriotism and honor, promoting strong national security, and continued devotion to their fellow service members and veterans.
Currently located on Hinds Street, the post’s location has changed several times throughout the years, including the upstairs of the William Alexander Memorial Library, the barracks at the Greenville Air Force Base, buildings on Highway 1 and Colorado Street, and down by Lake Ferguson before moving to its current location on Hinds Street a few years ago.
“We needed to get away from the water. With the flood of 2011, we had water above the roof … our membership is down and the membership we have is elderly, it just got to be such a hassle. So, we bought this building from the Methodist Church and we’ve been here ever since,” Sweet said, noting they have put a lot of hard work and effort into cleaning the space and repainting the walls.
Because of the flooding that hit their building in 2011, Sweet said they lost a lot of their history, leaving some of the information from the years unclear.
Named for Washington County soldiers who died while in service, Post 32 was originally organized as the Beppo Arnold Post 32 on Oct. 15, 1919. On March 26, 1947, the title changed to Beppo Arnold Knowles Post 32 Inc. It’s unclear when it became the Arnold-Knowles-Fisher-Crosby American Legion Post 32.
Sweet said their post members stay busy with various projects and activities throughout the year, such as placing American flags at Washington County cemeteries for Memorial Day and Veterans Day; hosting flag retirement ceremonies at area schools to teach youngsters how to properly dispose of worn American flags; Flags for First Graders; hosting a Veterans Day ceremony at the World War II memorial; participating in the Veterans Day Parade; the Oratorical Contest at Boys State; attending the annual American Legion National Convention; and more.
“There’s so much here in the American Legion that people just don’t realize we have and what we do. I hear it all the time, ‘Well, they’re just a bunch of drunks sitting around the room telling stories.’ After World War II and the Korean War, just about all the posts had bars, but that’s not the case anymore. We don’t have a need for it.”
Years ago, Sweet said they had some members who were survivors of Pearl Harbor and the Bataan Death March.
“If they wanted to bring a bottle of whiskey up there and have a drink, there wasn’t anything I was going to say to stop them. I figured they had earned that drink,” he said.
Although those members have since died, Sweet said they think of them often, just as they do for those with the POW/MIA (Prisoner of War and Missing in Action) table.
Pointing to a table with a white table cloth holding a plate, an inverted glass, a vase holding a single red rose, only missing a pinch of salt on the plate and slice of lemon, in the front of their meeting room, Sweet said it’s an important table set up used at the opening of every meeting.
The table setting represents, in part, according to legion.org:
“This table, set for one, is small, symbolizing the frailty of one prisoner, alone against his or her suppressors. The tablecloth is white, symbolic of the purity of their intentions to respond to their country’s call to arms. The single red rose in the vase signifies the blood they may have shed in sacrifice to ensure the freedom of our beloved United States of America. This rose also reminds us of the family and friends of our missing comrades who keep the faith, while awaiting their return. A slice of lemon on the plate reminds us of their bitter fate. The salt sprinkled on the plate reminds us of the countless fallen tears of families as they wait. The glass is inverted. They cannot toast with us this night. The chair is empty. They are not here. The candle is reminiscent of the light of hope which lives in our hearts to illuminate their way home, away from their captors, to the open arms of a grateful nation.”
“That’s so we never forget they’re still out there. It’s all we can do to support the ones that are actually out there looking for them and bringing their remains back to the states. … It’s a big part of what we do.”
Reflecting on this year, Sweet said 2019 hasn’t only just been a special year because the American Legion turned 100, but also because he was given a special title.
In August 2018, Sweet was named a National Vice Commander of the American Legion, a position that lasts a year. There are five vice commanders who act as representatives of the national commander and in their role, they may preside over meetings of the National Executive Committee or the national convention, and perform other duties for the commander.
“It was the year 2000 the last time Mississippi had a national vice commander. For me to be national vice commander on our 100th anniversary was really unbelievable.”
There have been about 50 commanders at Post 32 since its inception, and a picture of each of them lines the wall of their meeting room.
Meeting every third Thursday of the month, Sweet said sometimes there aren’t enough people to meet a full quorum, which requires 10 members to be in attendance.
“Our membership is down, so there’s not that many of us that attend meetings,” he said.
During their meetings, Sweet said one of the biggest aspects is just being there to support each other.
“When we’re up here, we may talk about Korea one time or have a World War II veteran show up and we’ll listen to his stories. That’s what we do, that’s what we’re about is helping veterans,” he said.
Sweet, a Navy veteran who served from 1966-70 during the Vietnam War, said there were 1,200 members when he joined the Post in 1970.
With 79 members today, Sweet said it’s a good meeting if they have 13 members attend.
But, despite their low numbers, Sweet said, “We may not be big, but we have big hearts.”
Although he doesn’t expect their numbers to reach 1,200 again, Sweet said he would like to see their number of members increase.
Getting younger veterans is especially difficult, he said, noting a lot of that may be due to the fact that memberships were closed off to younger veterans until this year.
“In the years I’ve been involved with it, we have sent resolutions to Congress to get them to change the dates and they just wouldn’t do it. But now, they have changed the dates and opened eligibility up to all veterans,” he said.
Now, any veteran who has served federal active duty in the United States Armed Forces since Dec. 7, 1941, and has been honorably discharged or are still serving is eligible for membership in The American Legion.
“For us, that was a big deal because there’s veterans out there who in the past had wanted to join but they couldn’t because they fell in those cutoff dates and it just wasn’t right. I’m hoping once they realize they can join that they will join us.”
Local veterans can apply by stopping by the American Legion Post 32, 120 N. Hinds St., or by calling 1st vice commander Ronnie Stewart at 662-822-3961. Or, they can apply online at members.legion.org.
American Legion history
The American Legion was chartered by Congress in 1919 as a patriotic veterans organization. Focusing on service to veterans, service members and communities, the Legion evolved from a group of war-weary veterans of World War I into one of the most influential nonprofit groups in the United States.
Membership quickly grew to more than 1 million and local posts sprang up across the country. Today, membership stands at nearly 2 million in more than 13,000 posts worldwide. The posts are organized into 55 departments: one each for the 50 states, along with the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, France, Mexico and the Philippines.
Over the years, the Legion has influenced considerable social change in America, won hundreds of benefits for veterans and produced many important programs for children and youth.
American Legion Baseball is one of the nation’s most successful amateur athletic programs, educating young people about the importance of sportsmanship, citizenship and fitness. The Operation Comfort Warriors program supports recovering wounded warriors and their families, providing them with “comfort items” and the kind of support that makes a hospital feel a little bit more like home. The Legion also raises millions of dollars in donations at the local, state and national levels to help veterans and their families during times of need and to provide college scholarship opportunities.
For more information about the American Legion, visit legion.org.