Origins Of Veterans' Day

Compiled by John M. Holman, Legion Post 35 Chaplain

Hamptons' American Legion Post #35

Atlantic News, Thursday, November 7, 2002

[The following article is courtesy of the Atlantic News]

In 1921, an unknown World War I American soldier was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. This site, on a hillside overlooking the Potomac River and the city of Washington, became the focal point of reverence for America's veterans.

Similar ceremonies occurred earlier in England and France, where an unknown soldier was buried in each nation's highest place of honor (in England at Westminster Abbey; in France at the Arc de Triomphe). These memorial gestures all took place on November 11, giving universal recognition to the celebrated ending of World War I fighting at 11 a.m., November 11, 1918 (the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month). The day became known as "Armistice Day."

Armistice Day officially received its name in America in 1926 through a Congressional resolution. It became a national holiday 12 years later by similar Congressional action. If the idealistic hope had been realized that World War I was "the War to end all wars," November 11 might still be called Armistice Day. But only a few years later after the holiday was proclaimed, war broke out in Europe. Sixteen and one-half million Americans took part and 407,000 of them died in the service, more than 292,000 in battle.

Armistice Day Changed to Honor All Veterans

An answer to the question of how to pay tribute to those who had served in this latest, great war came in a proposal made by Representative Edwin K. Rees of Kansas: Change Armistice Day to Veterans' Day, and make it an occasion to honor those who have served America in all wars. In 1954, President Eisenhower signed a bill proclaiming November 11 as Veterans' Day.

President Eisenhower's Proclamation

For P.M. Release October 8, 1954:
Murray Snyder, Assistant Press Secretary to the President
The White House Office
Lowery Air Force Base
Denver, Colorado

In connection with the signing of the proclamation on Veterans' Day, the President today sent the following letter to the Honorable Harvey V. Higley, Administrator of Veterans' Affairs:
"Dear Mr. Higley:
"I have today signed a proclamation calling upon all of our citizens to observe Thursday, November 11, 1954, as Veterans Day. It is my earnest hope that all veterans, their organizations, and the entire citizenry will join hands to ensure proper amid widespread observance of this day.

"With time thought that it will be most helpful to coordinate the planning. I am suggesting the formation of a Veterans Day National Committee. In view of your great personal interest as well as your official responsibilities, I have designated you to serve as Chairman. You may include in the Committee membership such other persons as you desire to select and I am requesting the heads of all departments and agencies of the Executive branch to assist the Committee in its work in every way possible.

"I have every confidence that our Nation will respond wholeheartedly in the appropriate observance of Veterans' Day, 1954."
/s/ Dwight D. Eisenhower

On Memorial Day, 1958, two more unidentified American war dead were brought from overseas and interred in the plaza beside the unknown soldier of World War I. One was killed in World War II, the other in the Korean War. In 1973, a law passed providing interment of an unknown American from the Vietnam War, but none was found for several years. In 1984, an unknown serviceman from that conflict was placed alongside the others. To honor these men, symbolic of all Americans who gave their lives in all wars, an Army honor guard, the 3rd U.S. Infantry (The Old Guard), keeps day and night vigil.

A law passed in 1968 changed the national commemoration of Veterans' Day to the fourth Monday in October. It soon became apparent, however, that November 11 was a date of historic significance to many Americans. Therefore, in 1978 Congress returned the observance to its traditional date.

National Ceremonies Held at Arlington

The focal point for official, national ceremonies for Veterans' Day continues to be the memorial amphitheater built around the Tomb of the Unknowns. At 11 a.m., on November 11, a combined color guard representing all military services executes "Present Arms" at the tomb. The nation's tribute to its war dead is symbolized by the laying of a presidential wreath. The bugler plays "taps." The rest of the ceremony takes place in the amphitheater.

Veterans' Day ceremonies at Arlington and elsewhere are coordinated by the President's Veterans' Day National Committee. Chaired by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, the committee represents national veterans organizations. Governors of states and U.S. territories appoint Veterans' Day chairpersons who, in cooperation with the National Committee and the Department of Defense, arrange and promote local ceremonies.