I’ve talked about my oral history interviews recently, but on Monday I had the honor of attending an American Legion Banquet. The national commander was in town, and the members of the local women’s Post acted as hosts. They invited me to come along, so I did, reaching outside my comfort zone to meet new people and see a little bit more about what all this is about.
The image above is from the POW-MIA ceremony, something I’d only heard about the week before and had never had the privilege to see. All American Legion events include this, which is meant to honor POWs and MIAs. The Honor Guard team marches slowly to a table set for one, each carrying a hat from one of the service branches (Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard).
They stand around the table and slowly rotate the brims of the hats to face them, then set the hats gently around the small circular table. Four of the members head to the side and stand at attention, while the fifth remains at the table to draw attention to the items there.
The POW-MIA table includes a plate with a slice of lemon and a pinch of salt, an inverted wine glass, a vase with a rose, and a candle that the Honor Guard lights. At the end, everyone takes a moment of silence.
It’s hard to really explain the experience and to do it justice. It was incredibly beautiful and moving, and I wished I had my camera (fortunately, my phone has one).
It was an amazing evening. I felt honored to get a glimpse into this organization and these women’s participation. And although I came in a little worried that I would know only one person, I was surprised at the number of people I did recognize or had spoken to – like Rose, the Korean War vet who saw me across the room and waved excitedly. And the ladies at the table with me, including Tori, my main contact, and Lowry, one of the other main figures in the organization (I forget official titles).
And I got to meet Melanie, a fun and fascinating Army vet who I got to interview two days later. It was great to connect after two weeks of playing phone tag, and it made me even more excited for our meeting later in the week.
Finally, there were the women I met: Mary Jane, a World War II Coast Guard vet who came in her uniform!, making everyone envious of her ability to still fit into it. And then there’s Esther, who, at 95, is still living a very busy life – too busy, often, to come to the Legion meetings! She and I will meet later this month, and the stories she told me Monday were a fantastic taste into what I might hear about her WW2 and Korean War service.
These are the women I’m coming to know, and these are the reasons why I’ve come to love oral history. Archives are wonderful, but making these connections and hearing the history firsthand from those who served? That, I think, is