Sunday, November 11, 2007

November 11:

Presidents and Armistice Day

Though commemorating events on the battlefield, the creation of the remembrance known as Armistice Day and later Veterans Day in the United States included presidential involvement (the day has other histories in other Allied countries, which isn't in the purview of this site). The first US Armistice Day was in 1919, by proclamation of President Woodrow Wilson, who said:

"To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country's service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nation."

Toni Eugene wrote in Army magazine, November 2007, "In 1920, President Wilson named the Sunday nearest it Armistice Day Sunday and suggested services be held in pursuit of international peace...

"In 1921, the United States followed a custom established the previous year in England and France, where an unknown soldier was buried in each nation’s highest place of honor—Westminster Abbey and the Arc de Triomphe. To ensure anonymity, an American unknown was exhumed from each of the four major cemeteries in which U.S. war dead were buried: Aisne-Marne, Meuse-Argonne, Somme and St. Mihiel. Edward F. Younger, an infantry sergeant who had taken part in Chateau-Thierry, St. Mihiel, the Somme Offensive and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, selected the soldier who would represent the unknown soldier in Washington, D.C. The other three coffins were put aboard a truck and taken to Romagne Cemetery east of Paris, where they were buried.

"The coffin of the unknown bound for the United States was transported with great respect and ceremony by train, then ship and finally horse-drawn caisson to the Capitol rotunda in Washington, D.C. Brig. Gen. Harry H. Bandholtz, commander of the Military District of Washington, was responsible for planning the ceremonies there. That Armistice Day was probably the most elaborate of any veterans celebration before or since.

"Between 8 am and midnight November 10, some 90,000 people passed by the bier to pay their respects to the nameless veteran. At 8 am on November 11, the U.S. Army Band played a dirge, military units stood at 'present arms' and a field artillery battery from Camp Meade, Md., fired minute guns as the coffin was moved to the caisson that would carry it to Arlington National Cemetery, in Virginia.

"For this special day, President Warren G. Harding had requested that all flags fly at half-staff from sunrise to sunset and that all Americans pay silent tribute as the coffin was lowered into the tomb. Thousands of people lined the streets as President Harding, Vice President Calvin Coolidge, the chief justice and associate justices of the Supreme Court, military dignitaries and a parade of other distinguished guests followed the caisson bearing the flag-draped coffin to Arlington National Cemetery. After an impressive ceremony marked by a respectful two-minute silence, the coffin was lowered into the crypt. Three artillery salvos, the sounding of 'Taps' and a national salute of 21 guns concluded that national Armistice Day celebration."

President Franklin Roosevelt signed the bill in 1938 that made Armistice Day an actual federal holiday, as opposed to a remembrance day (it was a holiday in many states by then). In 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the bill changing the designation to Veterans Day.

According to All About American Holidays by Mayme R. Krythe, "In Emporia, Kansas, on November 11, 1953, instead of an Armistice Day program, there was a Veterans Day observance. Ed Rees, of Emporia, was so impressed that he introduced a bill into the House to change the name to Veterans Day. After this passed, Mr. Rees wrote to all state governors and asked for their approval and cooperation in observing the changed holiday. The name was changed to Veterans Day by Act of Congress on May 24, 1954. In October of that year, President Eisenhower called on all citizens to observe the day by remembering the sacrifices of all those who fought so gallantly, and through rededication to the task of promoting an enduring peace."

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