A reminder of why we honor our Veterans

History of Veterans Day and its importance today

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GOSHEN COUNTY – After the guns fell silent one minute before the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, signaling the end of World War I, a deeply rooted American sentiment and tragic tradition was born. However, it would be another 20 years before it became a national day of observance and nearly four decades after the final shot of World War I, Veterans Day would be formally established.

Although the end of World War I, known then as “The Great War”, didn’t officially end for another roughly seven months on June 28, 1919, the last shot fired occurred just before 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918. That shot killed Maryland-native and German-American Army Private Henry Gunther; shortly before his death, Gunther was demoted from sergeant for criticizing the war in a letter home of which he wrote shortly after the passage of the Espionage Act. The act was aimed at boosting morale at home as well as addressing a number of other American military concerns; Gunther was pronounced dead at 11:59 a.m.

A cease-fire had been signed nearly 6 hours earlier in Compiégne, France, at 5 a.m. However, word of a cease-fire came less than 30 minutes after Gunther’s death. The war officially ended when the Treaty of Versailles was signed at the Palace of Versailles in France.

This tragic recurring phenomenon is what has become known as the “eleventh hour” in America and regrettably is memorialized in wars following WWI.

Like Gunther, Nebraska-native and Czech-American Private First Class (PFC1) Charley Havlat inevitably paid the eleventh hour sacrifice as World War II came to an end, word of the cease-fire reached his position commanders just minutes after his death on May 7, 1945. His death was recorded shortly after 8:20 a.m., 10 minutes later a ceasefire report caught up with Havlat’s patrol. The group had been ambushed by German troops of the 11th Panzer Division along the road, the division shot a burst of small arms and Panzerfaust fire from the wooded area along the road where Havlat’s patrol was.

Since then, America has recorded the last known American death in every conflict just minutes before a ceasefire was agreed upon or word of one reaching troops – with exception to the Korean and Vietnam wars due to some being former Prisoners of War (POW’s) and some service members still Missing in Action (MIA). It’s a tragic occurrence which still haunts the American military in modern and recent conflicts; such as the tragic loss of 13 U.S. Military service members on Aug. 30, 2021 when the U.S. was in the eleventh hour of its withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The reason the U.S. State Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs records the last American casualty dates back much further than just WWI; its origins began with the American Civil War and First U.S. President George Washington, of which both partially inspired the construction of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in 1921 following the end of WWI in addition to how France honors its fallen service members.

Arlington National Cemetery, originally known as Arlington Estate, was established by the adopted grandson of George Washington.

George Washington Parke Custis, whose daughter Mary later married U.S. Army 1st Lieutenant Robert E. Lee in 1831, intended the estate to be a living memorial of the nation's first president. However, due to the American Civil War pushing Confederate soldiers further south, the Lee’s ultimately abandoned the property near the start of the war, of which the U.S. Army seized Arlington Estate the morning of May 24, 1861. The Lee’s reportedly stated they would return to the property, however, never did. The U.S. Army contended they seized it as a strategic means to protect Washington, D.C., and not as a form of punishment aimed at the Custis-Lee family.

Eventually, during the war, the Army would build three separate forts on the sprawling estate: Fort Cass/Rosslyn, For Whipple/Fort Myer and For McPherson (currently Section 11 of the cemetery). It is on this estate the Union established the Freedman’s Village in June 1863 for freed and/or escaped slaves; today that ground covers Sections 3, 4, 8, 18 and 20 of the cemetery.

On May 13, 1864, the Union Army held its first military burial for William Christman after Brigadier General Montgomery Meigs, U.S. Army Quartermaster General responsible for soldiers burial rights, ordered Arlington Estate to be used as a military cemetery due to Washington, D.C.’s Soldiers’ Home and Alexandria National cemeteries running out of space.

One month later, On June 15, 1864, Arlington Estates would officially become Arlington National Cemetery by order of U.S. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.

Initially, the cemetery began with 200 acres but has since grown to 639 acres with room to add; Until former President Harry S. Truman desegregated the military, Arlington was also segregated by rank and race.

Today, Section 13 remains the primary burial ground for White Civil War Soldiers and Section 27 remains the burial ground for African American soldiers and freed people; more than 3,800 freed slaves are buried in Section 27.

Arlington originally began as a site where military service members could be buried if a family could not afford to bring their soldier home; Arlington burials also provided a full military colors and guard service to all fallen soldiers buried there, a tradition which still continues today.

Eventually, in 1900 by Congressional order, Confederate soldiers were later moved to and/or buried in Arlington and remain in Section 16. The Confederate Memorial was constructed in 1914 to honor Confederate soldiers and to remind the U.S. of a time it split, but eventually came back together, “united under one roof” as the Memorial Day founding General said in a speech to the public.

As the westward expansion boomed in the U.S. National Cemeteries of Arlington’s likeness sprouted up in each new territory and today, there is at least one National Cemetery in every state.

After the war, on May 30, 1868, U.S. Army General John A. Logan issued a proclamation calling for “Decoration Day” to be observed annually and nationwide; Logan was the commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) and organization of and for Union Civil War veterans founded in Decatur, Illinois. In 1971, by Congressional order, Decoration Day became Memorial Day and a national holiday of remembrance.

Memorial Day is a day to remember military service members from all conflicts and wars who have died in service to the country. However, Veterans Day is a day established to honor all those who have served in the United States Armed Forces. A third day, Armed Forces Day, celebrated earlier in May, was established to honor those currently serving in the U.S. Military.

Like Memorial Day, Veterans Day sprung out of a deeply rooted American sentiment to pay homage to brave service members who fought for the nation.

The construction of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier – which was dedicated on Nov. 11, 1921 with interment of America’s first unknown soldier from WWI, by proclamation of former President Warren G. Harding – was the foundation that allowed Veterans Day to come to fruition. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is composed of materials from all 50 states today and is home to unidentified service members from each major war the American military took part in.

Since its inception, still to this day, the Tomb is guarded 24 hours a day, 365 days (or 366 on a leap year) a year in every weather condition by the U.S. Army Honor Guard; an honor of which has only been awarded 688 times and is the third least-awarded qualification of the United States Army.

There’s only one time in its history where remains of formerly-unknown Vietnam U.S. Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie, who was shot down in 1972 near An Loc, Vietnam, was positively identified and returned home to his family for burial.

Today, more than 400,000 veterans and eligible dependents are buried at Arlington National Cemetery and includes veterans from every American major war from the Revolutionary War to the latest war in Afghanistan. Former U.S. Presidents William Howard Taft and John F. Kennedy are buried at Arlington.

On Friday, America honors, remembers and reflects on what veterans past and present have done for the nation and what some continue to do in our local communities.

Veterans Day, previously called Armistice Day, got its origins as military members returned home from WWI, five years after it began on June 28, 1914. WWI began with a singular shot which killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire. America attempted to stay out of the mostly European war in an effort to stay neutral as proclaimed by former President Woodrow Wilson. America was already in a war with Mexico and stayed out of WWI until public opinion about neutrality began changing following the sinking of British ocean liner Lusitania by a German U-boat on May 7, 1915. Among the nearly 2,000 deaths aboard the Lusitania, 128 were Americans. News of the sinking came via the Zimmermann telegram which threatened an alliance between Germany and Mexico against the U.S. This singular threat propelled Americans into “the war to end all wars,” of which the U.S. promptly sent more troops to Mexico as global tensions boiled.

In March 1916, another German U-boat torpedoed French passenger ship Sussex, which killed several French citizens and Americans. In response to other global leaders, Germans issued the Sussex Pledge, in which they promised to stop attacking merchant and passenger ships without warning. This accord lasted less than a year and Germany announced on Jan. 31, 1917 it had reversed course and would resume unrestricted submarine warfare. German reasoning was America had fully engaged into allied war efforts and the submarine warfare would allow Germans to win the war before America could fully mobilize.

Several more German U-boats went on to sink an unknown number of U.S. merchant ships in a two-month long campaign, which ultimately fostered a deeper resolve of American military tactics.

However, shortly before the German about face on non-military vessels, the British intercepted and deciphered an encrypted message from German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann to German Minister Heinrich von Eckhart who was stationed in Mexico detailing a proposed alliance between the two countries for if or when America decided to join the war or help allies. The Germans thought this was a solid tactic due to Mexico already being at war with the U.S. These details were made public in the Zimmermann telegram after Germany announced its reversal by a sitting president.

America had decided to fully engage in the war efforts to permanently stop Germany from supporting Mexico in the Mexican-American War along the Arizona, New Mexico and Texas border. It was this same telegram where Germany asked Mexico to help convince Japan to join German war efforts.

After Germany announced its revocation of targeting non military vessels, former President Wilson gave the entirety of the intercepted Zimmermann telegram to the American press on March 1, 1916; Americans and the American government were finally in full support of war efforts.

By mid-1916, the U.S. sent more campaigns into Mexico to hunt down Mexican rebel leader Pancho Villa after a raid occurred in Columbus, New Mexico. By November, Americans were voluntarily joining European allied forces, namely enlisting in the French Foreign Legion, to help Europe in war efforts.

However, it would still be nearly a year before the U.S. offically joined allies in WWI.

On April 2, 1917, before a special joint Congressional session, Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany in which he said, “The world must be made safe for democracy.”

Two days later, on April 4, 1917, the U.S. Senate voted 82 to 6 to declare war on Germany.

Two days following the Senate vote, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 373 to 50 in favor of the war declaration against Germany.

Within a week, the U.S. Army rallied up 133,000 members to be sent to Europe; in May Congress passed the Selective Service Act, which reinstated a draft that had not been utilized since the American Civil War and brought in roughly 2.8 million men into the U.S. Military ranks after 2 million men voluntarily signed up.

The first American boots on the ground in European theatres began trickling in at the start of June 1917. Out of the roughly two million American troops sent to aid Europe, nearly all served at the Western Front in Europe; more than 50,000 died before the war ended on November 11, 1918. Remaining troops began arriving home just in time for Christmas.

According to a President Wilson’s State of the Union speech on Dec. 2, 1918, as digitally replicated by the National White House archives online, replicated in the National Archives Museum and permanently maintained at the National WWI Museum and Memorial, upon the return of American troops, the former president remarked how it was a miraculous moment of peace had become in the light of national and global unity.

“The year that has elapsed since I last stood before you to fulfill my Constitutional duty to give to the Congress from time to time information on the state of the Union has been so crowded with great events, great processes and great results that I cannot hope to give you an adequate picture of its transactions or of the far-reaching changes which have been wrought of our nation and of the world,” Wilson spoke before Congress and the American people. “You have yourselves witnessed these things, as I have. It is too soon to assess them; and we who stand in the midst of them and are part of them are less qualified than men of another generation will be to say what they mean, or even what they have been.”

“A year ago we had sent 145,918 men overseas,” Wilson explained. “Since then we have sent 1,950,513, an average of 162,542 each month.”

“I am proud to be the fellow countryman of men of such stuff and valor,” Wilson proclaimed during his speech. “Those of us who stayed at home did our duty; the war could not have been won or the gallant men who fought it given their opportunity to win it otherwise; but for many a long day we shall think ourselves ‘accurs’d we were not there, and hold our manhoods cheap while any speaks that fought’ with these at St. Mihiel or Thierry. The memory of those days of triumphant battle will go with these fortunate men to their graves; and each will have his favorite memory.”

“What we all thank God for with deepest gratitude is that our men went in force into the line of battle just at the critical moment when the whole fate of the world seemed to hang in the balance and threw their fresh strength into the ranks of freedom in time to turn the whole tide and sweep of the fateful struggle, - turn it once for all, so that thenceforth it was back, back, back for their enemies, always back, never again forward,” Wilson exclaimed during his speech.

“And throughout it all how fine the spirit of the nation was: what unity of purpose, what untiring zeal,” Wilson said. “I shall make my absence as brief as possible and shall hope to return with the happy assurance that it has been possible to translate into action the great ideals for which America has striven.”

Adding, “And what shall we say of the women, - of their instant intelligence, quickening every task that they touched; their capacity for organization and cooperation, which gave their action discipline and enhanced the effectiveness of everything they attempted; their aptitude at tasks to which they had – never before set their hands, their utter self-sacrifice alike in what they did and in what they gave? Their contribution to the great result is beyond appraisal. They have added a new luster to the annals of American womanhood,” Wilson further explained.

Wilson concluded his speech with a rallying cry to observe, honor, respect and pay homage to the military veterans both past and those returning home from WWI as well as the women and families who not only supported the home, but supported their service members from afar and the nation.

It is from this singular rallying spirit that Veterans Day was born.

In November 1919, Wilson proclaimed November 11 as the first commemoration of Armistice Day with these following words: “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 nations.”

Prior to Congress officially recognizing Armistice Day on June 4, 1926 a holiday, Americans celebrated and observed the day with parades, public meetings and briefly suspended all business activities in the eleventh hour, paying homage to the significance the eleventh hour had become for the U.S.

Congress declared November 11 to be Armistice Day and a national, legal holiday on May 13, 1938.

Following the Korean war, which began June 25, 1950 and ended July 27, 1953, former President Dwight D. Eisenhower prompted Congress to change it from “Armistice” to “Veterans” Day.

On Oct. 8, 1953, Eisenhower issued the first “Veterans Day Proclamation” in which he stated, “In order to ensure proper and widespread observance of this anniversary, all veterans, all veterans’ organizations and the entire citizenry will wish to join hands in the common purpose.”

Adding, “Toward this end, I am designating the Administrator of Veterans’ Affairs as Chairman of a Veterans Day National Committee, which shall include such other persons as the chairman may select and which will coordinate at the national level necessary planning for the observance.”

“I am also requesting the heads of all departments and agencies of the Executive branch of the government to assist the National Committee in every way possible.”

However, several states disagreed with Eisenhower’s push to make Veterans Day a three day government paid holiday; this prompted Congress to establish the Uniform Holiday Bill, which was signed into law by former President Richard Nixonnon June 28, 1968. This bill established Veterans Day to be observed in October and caused national confusion. In 1971, when the act officially went into effect, soon-to-be President Gerald R. Ford observed, “It was quite apparent that the commemoration of this day was a matter of historic and patriotic significance to a great number of our citizens.”

The confusion prompted Ford to sign Public Law 94-97 into law upon becoming president on Sept. 20, 1975, which returned the observance of Veterans Day back to November 11 beginning in 1978. This action was supported by the overwhelming majority of state legislatures, all major veterans service organizations and the American people.

Since 1978, Veterans Day remains largely unchanged, except national, state and local celebrations continue to dwindle with flare and enthusiasm.

For more than 100 years, on November 11, the Unknown Soldier observance, which is usually attended by a sitting president, holds a brief changing of the guard ceremony and is followed by a moment of silence in the eleventh hour in Arlington National Cemetery at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Afterwhich, a sitting president may pay his respects to the men who have been laid to rest in Arlington.

The heart of American exceptionalism and nationalism is rooted in Veterans Day, however, a significant portion of the nation keeps it at arm's length due to growing political divides.

According to a recent Pew Research, in its series of polls and studies aimed at the U.S. Military and Veterans, roughly 67% of Americans today do not understand, support and/or celebrate Veterans Day in a manner in which it was originally intended to be.

Pew Research conducted a study among veterans ranging from World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, Middle Eastern wars, such as Afghanistan, and service members from the 9/11 wars – the research institution determined 72% of veterans believe the government no longer gives enough help to returning service members. Additionally, 54% of returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans say American people offer support, but 46% say American people do not. The agency determined there was no correlation between political party, ideology, or whether or not a loved one served in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Roughly 87% of American veterans believe Amerians no longer understand nor observe Veterans Day as anything more than a paid government holiday, according to Pew Research; more than 60% of post- 9/11 veterans say they feel like how Vietnam veterans felt upon returning home from a tour of duty, met with disrespect and disdain from American people.

The Telegram sat down with several retired service members to understand their military service better and to learn their viewpoint of what Veterans Day means to them. The following stories are from Goshen County Military Veterans in honor of Veterans Day.