Legion rises and falls as veterans age

Jason Hawk | Civitas Media Amherst veterans prepare to offer a Memorial Day rifle volley. The American Legion, which coordinates such honors, is struggling across the United States to retain members.

The old guard of the Greatest Generation is nearly gone.

Those giants who turned the tides of World War II, who once stood larger than life among us, are fading. The men who enlisted at age 18 in 1941 — those who survive — are now 93 years old.

Of the 16 million Americans who served in Europe and the Pacific, scarcely 855,000 remain. Fewer than 42,000 are left here in Ohio.

Each day, an average of 492 die.

As they go, so do the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars.

“The older veterans are the faithful,” said John Cannon, commander of American Legion Post 656 in Oberlin. “Today we’re finding it hard. A lot of the younger veterans do not want to participate in any of these organizations.”

National figures certainly reflect Cannon’s troubles.

Legion membership in 2015 has dropped by 37,000 nationwide. The organization’s rosters show 1.9 million in the U.S. and 99,000 in Ohio.

Each year, about 300,000 new members are recruited but half drop out in the first 12 months.

VFW National is having an even harder time, logging sinking membership for 23 straight years. Its ranks stand at just 1.3 million today.

Astounded by the numbers and saddened by the constant burials brought by the march of time, we decided to measure the health of local Legion posts in Amherst, Oberlin, and Wellington and found wildly varying situations.

Take Wellington — after suffering years of declining rolls, American Legion Post 8 is again rebounding, according to Gil Cole, who has been in charge of membership 19 years.

There are few more than a dozen World War II veterans remaining at Post 8 and now those who served in Korea and Vietnam are waning, he said.

The post has a fascinating history. It was one of Ohio’s 12 original posts when the Legion launched in 1919 but dwindled and then disbanded a half-century later.

Thirty-two years ago, Wellington veterans petitioned the state to reactivate the Post 8 charter and started holding meetings in an old downtown shoe store.

Today there are 384 members, a new hall has been built and paid off, and the Legion is well known for granting cash support to everyone from village police to the school system, Girl Scouts, and the Wounded Warrior Project.

By comparison, the Legion post in neighboring Spencer has not fared as well.

Down to 28 members, it resorted earlier this spring to a merger with Wellington, Cole explained.

Eighteen miles to the north, American Legion Post 118 in Amherst has one of the strongest presences of any area veterans groups.

Past commander Tom Hauck said 80 to 100 attend most of its social and ceremonial functions.

There has been an explosion of interest among the Sons of the American Legion, comprised of males whose parents and grandparents served in the military, and the Legion Riders, motorcycle enthusiasts spanning 1,000 chapters.

In all, the Amherst chapter boasts 650 members, up from about 600 a decade ago, showing slight fluctuations but steady growth.

And its Amherst Veterans Military Honor Guard is also one of the most robust groups in the region to provide graveside honors to veterans who pass on, performing rites throughout the year.

The Post 118 Legion hall has been paid off for years and the organization is sitting on $400,000 in savings, also contributing routinely to government, civic, and charitable groups.

Oberlin is where the Legion is struggling the most by far.

Membership has dropped by about a third in the past decade to 31, most of whom live out of town and are members in name and dues only. There are eight to 10 core members meeting monthly at the Oberlin Public Library, Cannon said.

Without a social hall and the attendant alcohol sales or gaming, Post 656 primarily activates for Memorial Day and Veterans Day ceremonies and flag-raisings. Otherwise, Cannon said he and other core members provide listening ears and benefits assistance whenever possible.

“We don’t want to just be a social club,” he said. “We’re here to help with the benefits veterans are entitled to. We want veterans to know we’ll be there for them.”

Cole echoed the need for veterans to stick together for political clout, saying too often the Legion is thought of as a drinking club.

“We band together for our Congress to maintain our benefits. They keep taking away from us every year,” he said. “We can’t let that happen.”

Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.