The American Legion commemorated its 100th anniversary last Friday, and dozens of people, including veterans from Baldwin, Freeport and surrounding communities, gathered in William J. Martin Park in Freeport to mark the occasion.
The William Clinton Story American Legion Post 342 of Freeport hosted a ceremony at which veterans, including World War II vets, recognized the gift of a 240-mm trench mortar from the now-defunct Freeport chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic that was used in major World War I battles. The mortar, developed by Batignolles Company of Paris, sits in the park where passersby can view it.
“These weapons, these mortars, were used in siege warfare on the Western Front to destroy enemy strong points, bunkers and similar hard targets which were invulnerable to lighter mortars and field mortars,” said David Cockerel, adjutant and former commander of the Freeport post.
“I’m really grateful for the service of all American Legion members,” State Assemblywoman Judy Griffin said at the ceremony. “We can never take [our armed forces] for granted, and I am certainly someone who doesn’t.” She presented a 100th anniversary certificate to Legion members in attendance.
American Legion William Clinton Post 342 was founded on Sept. 13, 1919, according to Freeport Historical Society records. It was named for William Clinton Story, one of the first Freeporters to die in World War I.
Baldwin American Legion Post 246 will host a separate ceremony on Sept. 13 commemorating its 100th anniversary, which fell on Aug. 12.
“All of our World War I veterans are gone now, so we have a couple of World War II veterans, and our senior member in Baldwin is a World War II vet, and he’s in his 90s now, so certainly being with him is very awe-inspiring,” said Bob Hare, commander of the Baldwin American Legion post. “It’s nice to have a memento in the community that the post is putting up. I’ve never seen a trench mortar before — maybe on TV, but not in person.”
The commander of the Nassau County American Legion, Al Ficalora, of Baldwin, said that 16 of the 52 posts in Nassau County have existed for 100 years, including those in Baldwin, Freeport, Hempstead, Rockville Centre, Lynbrook and Valley Stream.
“This is a big distinction,” Ficalora said. “There were so many posts, and only 16 that had 100 years, so we had a big ceremony at the military ball where we gave out a special streamer for the 16 posts for their post flag — they have a streamer that says 100 years centennial.”
Cockerel spoke about the history of the American Legion and the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization composed of veterans of the Army, Navy, Marines and Revenue Cutter Service who served in the Civil War. The GAR was founded in 1866 in Springfield, Ill., Cockerel said, and grew to include hundreds of posts, or local community units, across the nation. Before it was dissolved in 1956, it assisted veterans after their days of combat.
On Dec. 2, 1884, Freeport chartered its own GAR, the Dandridge B.P. Mott Post 527. The local GAR was named after Freeporter Dandridge Beverly Pitts Mott, who died at age 17 in Pine Mountain, Ga., in 1864 under the command of Gen. Joseph Hooker.
Capt. John Anderson, a Freeport GAR member, served as the Mott post’s first commander, and was known for his participation in the New York City funeral procession for President Ulysses S. Grant in 1885, historical records show. Members also attended the dedication of the Civil War memorial in Greenfield Cemetery in 1888, and the unveiling of the Spanish American War trophy “Trubia” in 1902.
By 1929, the post had disbanded, with only seven living post members remaining. The post’s annals and mementos were given to William Clinton Post 242. The last surviving member of the Mott Post, Carlton Greenleaf, died in 1934.
“The GAR,” Cockerel said, “became the first organized advocacy group in American politics, supporting voting rights for black veterans, promoting patriotic education, helping to make Memorial Day a national holiday, lobbying the United States Congress to establish regular veterans pensions and supporting Republican political candidates of that era.” The GAR, he added, was succeeded by the Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War.
“Every state, even those of a former confederacy, fell within a GAR department, and within the departments were posts,” Cockerel said. “These were forerunners of modern American Legion halls and VFW halls of today.”
By 1919, the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Club, also known as the Soldiers and Sailors Welfare Club, featured the first memorial in Nassau County to World War I veterans. The club, on Grove Street in Freeport, now Guy Lombardo Avenue, had 16 rooms for returning military personnel. The clubhouse, records show, was previously the headquarters of the Marquis de Lafayette Garrison, No. 72 Army and Navy Union.
Freeport was also the home of the predominately African-American Henry Morrison Post 785 of the American Legion, which was chartered in 1920. It was named for World War I soldier Henry Morrison, who died on Oct. 1, 1918, in the Argonne Forest in France, along the Meuse River. Morrison lied about his age when he enlisted at 16, and he died at 17, records show.
The Henry Morrison Post also had an active Women’s Auxiliary. The post was eventually renamed to the Morrison-DeLoney Post 785 after Oscar DeLoney’s death on April 12, 1945, in Germany at the end of World War II, records show. DeLoney’s name was eventually added to the post. Historical records do not indicate when Post 785 disbanded.
“For all of us who served and now serve in the Legion, we understand the importance of remembering,” State Sen. John Brooks said at the ceremony before presenting the Legion with a proclamation from the State Senate.
“We remember our lost and missing soldiers,” Brooks said, “we remember the veterans that we have now that are in need of assistance in different ways, we remember those who are on active duty now all across this world, and we recognize that part of our duty wasn’t just to serve in the military when we served, but it’s to provide for those who also served who are in need now.”
Lawmakers and policymakers should be invited to events like this, Nassau County Legislator Debra Mulé said, so they are reminded to keep veterans’ needs and priorities at the forefront. “You all have earned that right and that respect,” she said.
“Citizens, support your country and its veterans,” Cockerel said. “Veterans, your oath is forever seared in you — a tattoo on your soul. You have been discharged from active duty, but not your duty to act.”
Nadya Nataly contributed to this story.