'For God and country...'
Everyone is familiar with the American Legion, some of whose members march every Memorial Day, every Fourth of July and every Armistice Day, dressed in their blue uniforms and carrying their flags, every bit as proudly as they once did on dress parade although, maybe, a little less energetically. But as a super patriotic organization it does far more than march on holidays and sell poppies at election day.
The Millican McKenzie Post #273 American Legion was organized on Nov. 26, 1943 and thus is the oldest of the several veterans organizations now active in Burlington. Its members met at first in Loren Blenkhorn's Trading Post which once stood at the junction of Center and Cambridge Streets. When that old building, once Nettie Foster's barn, was no longer available, they were allowed to hold their meetings in the lower hall of the old Town Hall.
It wasn't until 1952, the year Daniel Hurley was post commander, that the local Legion acquired the land on Winn Street which bordered and was part of the Town Dump at that time. That parcel comprised about seven acres and bordered Winn Street from Locust Street to the old county road by Denny Cleighs. There they started to build in 1956.
The first building chairman was William Barnes and to him belongs much of the credit for the success of that building program. The foundation was started that year but until a loan of $15,000 was negotiated in 1957, that was all the Legion had for a headquarters.
The 30-by-60 foot cement block structure was started on Labor Day and completed and dedicated Nov. 11, 1957, an appropriate date from any veteran's point of view. Ten years later an addition and renovation was undertaken by floating a mortgage of $157,000. That mortgage was paid off in five years.
Since World War II was still in progress when the Post was organized, of the 22 charter members only young Lawrence Carey was a veteran of that war. He had been at Pearl Harbor when it had been bombed by the Japanese two years before, had been severely wounded and had been invalided home. Most of the others had moved into town since World War I and were veterans of that war. Six of those charter members were to become commanders of the new Post - Benjamin Bird, Charles Reed, Thomas Mohan, and William Harvey, the first four in that order, and later Charles McGinnis and William Sheerin.
The American Legion was first organized in France by members of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in March of 1919. That September it was granted a charter by act of Congress. Had that charter remained unchanged, the organization would gradually have died out as did the old GAR, but in 1942 it was amended to include World War II veterans, in 1950 to include veterans of the Korean War and again in 1966 to include veterans of the Vietnam conflict.
Ever since its organization the Legion has stressed essentially a four-point program under the headings Rehabilitation, Child Welfare, National Security and Americanism.
On the national level that American Legion has been instrumental and largely responsible for much veteran legislation, for instance the first Veterans' Bureau, now the Veterans Administration, which handles hospital care, insurance, pensions, etc. In 1944 it sponsored and lobbied for the G.I. Bill of Rights, under which veterans were able to go to school, learn a trade or buy a house. It is active in helping the needy children of veterans and sponsors boys clubs, junior baseball teams and Boy Scout troops as a way to keep youngsters happy, healthy and active.
On the local level the Millican McKenzie Post, named in honor of the two Burlington boys who lost their lives in France during World War I, has done its best to carry out the Legion's programs from the visiting of hospitals, to the sponsoring of young people for Boys State and Girls State. Each year the Legion and its Auxiliary, the distaff(?) relatives of veterans, collect and wrap countless presents at Christmas time to be taken over to the Veterans Hospital in Bedford where the patients there are not only given presents and as much good cheer as possible but are also given the opportunity to select presents to send home to members of their families.
Since 1953 each summer the local Post has sent one or more high school boys to Boys State held for a week or 10 days at Amherst. The Auxiliary follows suit by sending a girl to Girls State at Framingham.
At each college the young men and women so selected are given classes in history and government each morning so that they may understand and appreciate the country in which they live just a little better, and allowed to participate in the sport of their choice in the afternoon.
The Post has sponsored a baseball team for the last seven years and this year the team made the semi-finals. It once sponsored a Boy Scout troop but the interest in that area has subsided. It urged the high school to enter its good students in the national oratorical contest which now offers a top prize of $16,000 plus numerous lesser prizes but has had no entries in the past 10 years. And the local Post has participated for the last six years in a Walkathon to help underprivileged youngsters called Horizons for Youth.
All this beside giving recognition to worthy high school graduates each year, beginning years ago with only a $25 War Bond but culminating recently with five scholarships each worth $500.
Even so, the American Legion is criticized in some quarters because of its intense lobbying efforts on behalf of all veterans. And the Legion hasn't been too popular during several periods of unsettled and emotional times such as the early '60s.
Two Burlington men have been elected to positions of authority beyond the local Post. William Sloan, commander here in 1951, went on to become Middlesex County commander in 1957. Joseph O'Hearne, commander here in 1959, was senior vice commander of Middlesex County and was next year's commander; serving the 68 posts in the county. O'Hearne's son, Brian, by the way, was the State Commander of the Massachusetts Detachment Sons of the American Legion, the first State Commander of that organization from Middlesex County.
In 1938 the National Commander of the American Legion was a native of Woburn and thus was well known to many Burlington people. He was a member of the George A. Campbell Post #101 and his name was Daniel J. Doherty. That Woburn felt extremely proud of him was proven when that Post made him the first life member ever and gave him a solid gold membership card suitably engraved with the Legion insignia. (It may be of interest to note that the George A. Campbell Post early elected both Cardinal Mercier and King Albert of Belgium honorary members. Both acknowledged the honor.)
The Millican McKenzie Post today has a membership of approximately 530, its women's Auxiliary, which has been awarded certificates every year since 1958 "in recognition of volunteer service to veterans" in hospitals and elsewhere, has a roster of 83, and the Sons of the Legion have 87 enrolled. The commander that year was Larry Wilson, a Vietnam veteran and his senior vice was Norman Comeau.
When Ben Bird was honored at a ceremonial in 1963 shortly before his death, the first commander of the Burlington Post said:
"If I could leave any thought with you here tonight, I would impress upon you the great value of being helpful to your fellowman, without thought of reward, without though of inconvenience to yourself and without thought of race, color or religion."
Keeping those thoughts in mind the Legion will endure for a long time.
Daily Times Chronicle, Tuesday, October 4, 1983
Burlington Past & Present, by John 'Ed' Fogelberg
(Article # 222)