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American Legion celebrates 100 years
Great Bend residents celebrated the 100th anniversary of the American Legion with a program Saturday at the Argonne Forest in Veterans Memorial Park. Pictured here, from left: Peter Westerman, Lilly Ann Westerman, Tom Westerman, David Krallman and American Legion Post 180 Vice Commander Katharine Piper. - photo by Susan Thacker

Twenty-seven Barton County soldiers died serving our country during World War I, and one of the battles with the most casualties was the Battle of Argonne in Germany on Sept. 26, 1918. The American Legion was created in 1919. The 100th anniversary of the organization was recalled Saturday with a service in Great Bend’s own Argonne Forest, hosted by the Great Bend Tree Board and American Legion Post 180, which also bears the name Argonne.

“Our post will be 100 next year,” said JP Postlethwaite with the Legion Riders. “Our National Commander Brett Reistad visited us and said ours was one of the earliest charters."

Tree Board President Toni Rice said her group worked several years to improve the Argonne Forest located at the northeast edge of Veterans Memorial Park. In addition to planting new trees and adding signs to identify the species, the Tree Board created an entryway for the arboretum, with historic photos and signage. 

“We wanted this project to be done for the 100th anniversary,” Rice said. World War I began July 28, 1914, and ended Nov. 11, 1918. Although the display was unveiled last year, Rice said two improvements have been added in the past two weeks. First, the cutout image of a World War I soldier, also known as a Doughboy, has been replaced by a metal silhouette. The first two attempts at depicting a Doughboy were more lifelike but not historically accurate, some thought, without the iconic bowl-shaped, wide-brimmed steel helmet. The second new addition is a flagpole. The Tree Board also has plans to add lights to illuminate the flag at night, Rice said.

The program

Katharine Piper, vice commander of the American Legion Post 180, presented the program.

“The American Legion was formed by combat troops of the American Expeditionary Forces in Paris, France, a century ago,” Piper said. “Weary and homesick, these American Legion founders restlessly awaited passage back to the United States and a return to their civilian lives after World War One.”

She noted that the American Legion came to include an American Legion Women’s Auxiliary and the Sons of the American Legion.

“The American Legion would be built on strengthening the nation – not serving themselves – through four primary pillars of volunteer work on behalf of Veterans, Defense, Youth and Americanism,” Piper continued.

“The early American Legion fought for creation of the U.S. Veterans Bureau in 1921, the Veterans Administration in 1930 and the Department of Veterans Affairs in 1989. Empowered by its federal charter, signed into law on Sept. 16, 1919, The American Legion organized an army of expert service offices to provide free health care and benefits assistance to veterans and their families.”

Piper went on to note many achievements over the years, from finding jobs for hundreds of thousands of veterans in the 1920s and feeding entire communities during the Depression, to assistance after 21st-Century disasters such as hurricanes Katrina, Irma, Harvey, Florance and others. Over the last century, the American Legion has mobilized rescue crews and responded quickly with tens of millions of dollars in cash grants from its National Emergency Fund, she said.

The American Legion also conceived, drafted and pushed to passage the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 – the GI Bill of Rights. “It became known as the most significant social legislation of the last century,” Piper said.

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Pictured are, from left: Peter Westerman, Sons of the American Legion; Lilly Ann Westerman, age 5; her father Tom Westerman, Sons of the American Legion; David Krallman, past commander of American Legion Post 180; Katharine Piper, vice commander of Post 180; Tree Board members Toni Rice and Lisa Whipple; JP Postlethwaite, Legion Riders director; David Crawford, road captain for the Legion Riders; and David Brabander, a U.S. Navy veteran. - photo by Susan Thacker