It is reasonable to say that Pensacola has been a “military town” since it was founded. Since Florida became a territory of the U.S. over 190 years ago, large segments of Northwest Florida’s history, economy, and population have been linked to the U.S. military, and, increasingly, retired military.
For every Ted Williams (who trained at NAS during World War II) and Hunter S. Thompson (stationed at Eglin Air Force Base in the late 1950s, where he wrote for the base newspaper), there are thousands of men and women who trained and/or served in the Panhandle who never made headlines. Many of those service members return to the Panhandle upon retiring, and make up one of the largest veteran’s populations in the U.S.
Veterans Day is celebrated annually on November 11. The holiday was first observed in 1919 to mark the one-year anniversary of Armistice Day, the beginning of the end of World War I. Armistice Day became a legal holiday in the U.S. in 1938; the name was changed to Veterans Day in 1954 to honor all American veterans in light of the new generations of veterans that served in World War II and the Korean War.
With the establishment of Armistice Day, a national movement to support American veterans took off. Before that, veterans gathered in small local groups to serve as support systems for one another before the establishment of any federal veterans services.
One such group formed in Pensacola in 1916. A group of Spanish American War veterans met as the Colonel W.F. Williams Camp 9, named after a commander in a Pensacola training camp. By 1960, only four of the original 200 members were still living and carrying on with the group’s monthly meetings. Those men served under officers who had fought in the Civil War, the last veteran of which died in 1956.
The first national veteran’s organization to establish a chapter in Pensacola was the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW). The VFW had its roots in the Spanish American War also, with early incarnations of the organization dating to 1899. The VFW was named such in 1914 and was incorporated by Congress in 1936. Pensacola’s first VFW post was founded in 1921, and along with subsequent chapters supported not only veterans, but numerous community activities as well.
The American Legion was established nationally in 1919. The group serves as an advocate for veteran’s services and benefits, and its efforts led to the formation of the Veteran’s Bureau in 1921, which later became the Veteran’s Administration.
American Legion Post 33, named for Frank Marston, the first Pensacolian killed in World War I, was established in 1924 and still operates today in its original building on Barrancas Avenue. In the 1930s, a group of World War I veterans established a local branch of the 40 and 8 Chevaux Society, a division of the American Legion. The “40 and 8” refers to the cargo capacity stamp on French railroad cars that transported American soldiers during World War I. By 1968, the group had dwindled to four survivors, signaling the fading away of that generation of veterans.
On Garden Street, the World War I memorial, which was relocated to Veteran’s Memorial Park in the 1980s, was erected. The memorial was located near the main USO Building on South Spring Street, and the VFW building on the 200 block of Garden Street, constructed in 1959. The World War I memorial was also close to the former Veterans Day parade routes along Palafox and Garden streets. The parade routes, along with the World War I memorial, have been shifted south to Main Street.
Jessica is a Pensacola resident with a Master’s degree in Public History. When she’s not digging up history facts, you can find her doing production support at a local architecture firm.