While the members of Keesler-Hamrick-Gillespie American Legion Post 29 are no longer active members of the U.S. Armed Forces, they continue to find ways to serve their country every day.
“I think in a way what (the American Legion) does is it brings veterans together in an organization similar to a civic club, where we have blended in with the community but are still serving our country,” said Johnny Favara, who is in his 22nd year as Post 29’s commander.
The post members have not only served their country but also the community of Greenwood for the past 100 years.
Earlier this week, the Legionnaires gathered for their monthly meeting and to celebrate Post 29’s 100th anniversary, which was Friday. The event featured a performance by the Singing Legionnaires, a welcome by Greenwood Mayor Carolyn McAdams, an overview of the post’s historical information presented by Post 29 Historian Donny Whitehead, and a program featuring guest speaker Lt. Gen. James E. Sherrard III, a retired three-star general in the U.S. Air Force who is a Tutwiler native.
“We need to ensure that we keep particular organizations like the American Legion going for all the great things you do,” said Sherrard at the meeting. “Family support, the things you do to keep the patriotic picture for America visible, that they understand how important the flag is, and what we need to do, what we are doing, and what we should be doing. All of those are things that you know well and you do so very well.”
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The national American Legion was chartered on Sept. 16, 1919, by the U.S. Congress. The creation of the patriotic veterans’ organization followed World War I. Membership quickly grew to more than a million, and local posts sprang up across the country.
Shortly after the American Legion was formed, the Greenwood post was organized by Monroe McClurg Jr., who served as the post’s first commander.
“They had a meeting a week or so before to talk about chartering one with those 42 men,” said Whitehead. “Then, they sent off for a charter, and it came in a week later.”
Post 29 was officially chartered on Oct. 11, 1919. It was the 29th post in the state and had 42 original members.
When first walking into the American Legion Hut, located on East Claiborne Avenue, there’s a picture hanging on the wall with every name handwritten by the Post 29 charter members.
From there, the post grew.
In April of 1920, at a largely attended meeting, it was announced that “three soldiers of Leflore County who made supreme sacrifice are given honor,” and the post was officially named Keesler-Hamrick-Gillespie Post 29. The name honored Greenwood soldiers 2nd Lt. Samuel Reeves Keesler, who the Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi is named after and who died from wounds in a German hospital on Oct. 8, 1918; 1st Lt. Henry Ward Hamrick, who was killed by shell fragment in the Meuse-Argonne offensive on Oct. 15, 1918; and 1st Lt. James Gordon Gillespie, who was killed by shell fragment in the Battle of Flanders on Oct. 18, 1918.
“We feel that no higher honor can be bestowed on our revered heroes,” the Commonwealth reported on April 21, 1920.
In September of 1939, plans for a Legion Hut began. A formal dedication of the building was held on Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1941.
“This handsome building will be presented to Keesler-Hamrick-Gillespie Post No. 29, for use of members of the Legion and the Legion Auxiliary,” the Commonwealth reported.
In 1946, Post 29 welcomed its first woman member, Marguerite Smith, a veteran of World War II.
Smith paved the way for many more, including Capt. Viola Brown Sanders, who was the highest-ranking female officer in the U.S. Navy at the time she retired in 1966.
“She made captain and really kind of broke the ground for some of us who came after,” said Legionnaire Anita Batman. “We could have never of been promoted if it hadn’t been for Viola.”
Also in 1946, the Bank of Greenwood presented Post 29 with pictures of all World War II Leflore County service members, which are proudly displayed on the Legion Hut’s walls today.
After receiving the pictures, Post 29 Commander W. Frank Kerr said in a Commonwealth article, “As the years come and go, these pictures will be more and more valuable, and they will be preserved as a sacred trust by our Post.” His words remain true today.
In 1947, Post 29 had the most members it’s ever had in its 100-year history.
“They had a big drive in ’46 to reach 1,000 members,” said Whitehead.
Tommy Wiggly, who was blinded in World War II and was known for the concession stand he operated in the Leflore County Courthouse, was No. 1,000.
Soon, the post reached 1,200 members. A list of all the 1947 members is in a display case at the Legion Hut.
A few years ago, Post 29 had more than 200 members.
Favara said, however, “We had more than 65 who were World War II veterans,” and many have since passed away.
Now, the post only has about 15 World War II veterans with less than five who are active.
The post currently has about 100 members.
One of Post 29’s many notable members was Sgt. John A. Pittman, who received his Medal of Honor — the country’s highest military honor — in June of 1951 for the service during the Korean War. He was featured on the cover of Life magazine on July 2, 1951, and a poster-size copy of the cover is at the Legion Hut.
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Post 29 members meet once a month for about an hour and 30 minutes. They enjoy fellowship time, a meal prepared by the Ladies Auxiliary and a program that focuses on the military, whether it is a guest speaker or a film.
“The comforting thing is that it always starts the same way,” said Batman. “We start with a prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance and a patriotic song. That just kind of puts us in the right place.”
Batman said the members enjoy attending the meetings because, “We like each other. It’s a joy to get together.”
The post also serves as a support system for many of the veterans.
“I think one unique thing about the American Legion is we all have one thing in common,” said Legionnaire Gary McDonald. “We all served in some form or fashion in some branch or some unit of the military, and it is a continuation, I think, of the camaraderie. We support each other.”
Several of the post members are actively helping other veterans.
“We have several situations where we have veterans who are fighting for their VA benefits,” said McDonald. “We’re able to help get them to the necessary appointments or help that they need to get their disability benefits.”
Legionnaire Bobby Grantham recently had an experience where he was able to assist a fellow veteran who was wounded in Vietnam.
“I’ve been helping him find buddies in his unit, and I found one,” he said. “Luckily, I found the medic who treated him in the field, and he’s going to write a letter to help him on his VA claim. I think the Lord had a lot to do with that, helping me find him.”
The American Legion is similar to other area civic clubs. The members volunteer for The Salvation Army and Greenwood-Leflore County Chamber of Commerce events, such 300 Oaks Road Race and Bikes, Blues & Bayous. The members also sponsor Boys State and Girls State events, and the post awards scholarships to high school seniors each year.
The post is also responsible for disposing of old, worn out American flags. Assisted by Boy Scout Troop 4200, Post 29 holds the service twice a year.
“It’s a solemn ceremony,” said Whitehead. “It’s done with respect.”
Post 29 also features an honor guard, which has served at more than 400 funerals in last 15 years. The post works with three Greenwood funeral homes, and serves at about 38 funerals a year.
“I think one of the most rewarding things is the honor guard,” said Whitehead. “It’s quite rewarding to be asked to do that.”
Legionnaire Dave Becker, who is a member of the honor guard, agreed.
“It’s rewarding to us, and it’s rewarding to the family,” he said. “The families come over and shake your hand and thank you. They appreciate the fact that you honored their loved one in death. For me, it’s probably the most important thing that we do.”
The honor guard will fold the American flag and present it to the family of the deceased veteran. The members will also do a gun salute and perform taps.
“We try to display the flag of whichever branch of service that that particular soldier was in,” said Legionnaire Steven Hambrick. “Also, we put the soldier’s cross out at the corner of the tent.”
After 100 years, Post 29 remains an active American Legion post.
“A big part of it is the leaders,” said Becker. “If you don’t have some leaders in the group to take charge and move things along, you’re not going to have success. We’re lucky to have several good leaders. For instance, the honor guard. There’s a lot of chapters that do not have an honor guard because they do not have someone who is encouraging it. We encourage it, and we have a lot of people who do that. That’s important, because if you don’t have leaders it will disappear.”
• Contact Ruthie Robison at 581-7235 or email@example.com.