ILWACO, Wash. — When most people think of the American Legion, they picture veterans in parades, on Flag Day and at Veteran’s Day celebrations.
But what some may not know is the mission of the Legion.
The exhibit, “Coming Home: World War I and the Centennial of the American Legion,” at the Columbia Pacific Heritage Museum in Ilwaco, hopes to remedy that.
Chartered by Congress in May 1919, the Legion is a veteran’s organization dedicated to helping soldiers and their families.
“Many people don’t really have any idea of what was sacrificed and what they’ve done and this is to help them remember,” said 10th District Commander Dick Wallace, 74.
Soldiers had few benefits when they returned home from war and there weren’t any services for veterans with injuries or “shell shock.”
By October 1919, Ilwaco formed Legion Post 48 and named it after Don R. Grable, the only man from the town to die in World War I. Washington state Sen. Dean Takko is Grable’s descendant.
The Legion was able to get the first Veteran’s Assistance bill through Congress. They also helped get the GI bill through Congress after World War II, which provided educational benefits.
In the exhibit, museum executive director Betsy Millard wanted to show the American Legion is an active ahistorical organization.
“I loved digging into the different histories and finding the stories of the original guys,” Millard said.
The exhibit features memorabilia that spans the history of the American Legion. There are poems, newspaper articles from the Ilwaco Tribune and Chinook Observer, stories on the wall that detail local World War I history; including women from Ilwaco who served in the Red Cross, veterans’ groups, prohibition in Pacific County , Liberty Bonds and clothes people wore.
It also shows the history of where the Legion was housed. After World War I, it was in the former space of Columbia Hall/Finn Hall, a Socialist club.
Today, the Legion has 10 active members and 93 total members. The membership spans from World War II veterans like James “Buck” Donnelly, 98, who fought in the Philippines in World War II to those that served in the Iraq War.
At the end of World War II, the Legion had nearly 200 members.
Pacific County also has a much higher percentage of veterans than many other counties in Washington State.
Wallace noted that wars used to last three-four years.
He said veterans from the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq don’t join as much.
“So we have to try to get 1 out of 10 is success for us,” Wallace said.
The museum shares its space with the Legion.
In a previous life, one of the Legion’s halls belonged to the IWW communist group and was the worker’s temple. “Lenon’s name used to be up there on that wall,” Donnelly said.
Care for Vets
The Legion has a service officer who helps veterans get care.
“Part of our job here is to remind (veterans) we’re here to help if you need help,” said Legion commander Ron Robbins, 70.
The Legion will help veterans with their paperwork for the Veterans Affairs, assist them in paying their power, water or light bill and their rent.
“We become advocates for them,” Wallace said.
Administrators at the VA will pay attention to a veteran’s paperwork who was helped by a service member from the Legion because they know they are trained to help.
Wallace will pickup veteran’s who can’t drive and take them to the VA clinic in Longview.
He and others will also take veterans to the Disabled American Veterans van at the Burger King in Astoria that drives them to the VA.
For Wallace, the Legion “means we’re carrying on what our ancestors did to keep us free, and it’s our best way of giving back. I came through pretty much unscathed, but I know a lot didn’t, especially from Vietnam,” Wallace said.
He said soldiers from Vietnam weren’t welcomed home much. But he thinks people are more sensitive to what veterans go through now.
The Legion also does a variety of civic activities. They go to Blake Lake on Memorial Day and read the names of fallen soldiers, starting with Grable. They also retire old flags on Flag Day, participate in parades and provide scholarships, gun safety classes and present community awards.
Robbins said he sees the Legion as a place where “veterans can come to ask questions and get assistance. I want them to know we’re here, we don’t necessarily need them to join, but we want them to know that we’re here and that we’re here to assist them,” he said.
If you know a veteran who is struggling or needs help, Wallace can be reached at 360-642-4188.