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American Legion remains active in community following 100th anniversary

By Ginny Kropf, correspondent Posted 1 January 2020 at 11:38 am

Members at Medina post reflect on their military service

Photos by Ginny Kropf: Fred Heschke of Medina was in the Navy from 1961 to 1967, serving with an anti-submarine squadron off the coast of San Diego. His service included helping at officers’ training school and being an aviation ordinance man on an A4 Skyhawk.

MEDINA – The year 2019 was a very significant one for American Legions nationwide, as it marked the organization’s 100th anniversary.

Frank Berger of Medina, a dedicated veteran, shared an article in the September 2018 issue of American Legion Magazine, in which the history of the American Legion is documented. It tells about 20 non-career officers who were personally selected by Lt. Col. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., son of future president Theodore Roosevelt, and ordered by American Expeditionary Forces Commanding General John Pershing to report to a YMCA office in Paris on Feb. 15, 1919.

Their purpose was to address the declining morale among cold, wet, miserable troops awaiting passage home from World War I, the war that was supposed to end all wars.

Interestingly, nine of those 20 officers who formed the American Legion had trained at the Plattsburgh Training Camps in upstate New York.

The American Legion was chartered by Congress in 1919 as a patriotic veterans’ organization. Its first national commander was Franklin D’Olier, who never trained at Plattsburgh, but did grant leave to employees of his mercantile business so they could attend.

A drive to recruit members ensued and by July 1, 1919, less than a thousand posts were formed. By Aug. 1, the number had more than doubled, and by Sept. 1, it had quadrupled. On Oct. 1, the number of Legion posts had grown to 5,670.

Frank Berger

Membership in the American Legion quickly grew to more than one million. Although membership has declined in recent years, numbers listed on an American Legion website indicate there are still nearly 2 million members in more than 12,000 posts throughout the United States, making it the largest wartime veterans service organization.

Berger provided additional information which indicated there are 3.35 million members nationwide, including the Legion, Legion Auxiliary and Sons of the American Legion.

Orleans County has four American Legion posts – the Sheret Post 35 in Albion (one of the earliest to be formed) with 81 current members; the Jewell-Buckman Post 529 in Holley with 143 members; and the Houseman-Tanner Post 1603 in Lyndonville with 41 members.

In Medina, American Legion Post 204 listed 79 members when it received its charter on Aug. 8, 1919, and was originally named the James P. Clark Post. There were 266 members when the name was changed to the Butts-Clark Post July 19, 1954, to honor 2nd lt. John E. Butts of Medina, who was killed during the Normandy Campaign in World War II.

The Butts-Clark post observed several historic events during its centennial year.

The first, on Memorial Day, was participating in the dedication of a World War I-era cannon at State Street Park after the cannon had undergone a complete restoration. This followed with a birthday cake at the Post on North Main Street, where many members had gathered.

Frank Berger is shown in his Navy uniform in the 1950s.

On Sept. 30, the Post was honored to welcome the family of Lt. James P. Clark, in observance of the 100th anniversary of Clark’s death while fighting in France during World War I.

Clark is one of two Medina veterans for whom the Medina American Legion Post was named. Both lost their lives fighting for their country.

Clark was a Medina resident who trained with Company F at the Medina Armory, along with his brothers Leslie and Seth. All three were at the Hindenburg Line in France on Sept. 27, 1918, where James was shot Sept. 29 and died.

Butts was one of five brothers to serve in World War II. He received the Medal of Honor posthumously for his actions above and beyond the call of duty during the Normandy Campaign.

Today the Butts-Clark American Legion Post has 170 members and continues to be active in community events.

Among the causes and organizations the Butts-Clark Post supports and/or participates in include sponsoring a pizza party in November at the VA Medical Center in Batavia (this was previously a picnic in June but was changed at their request); contributing with the 8th District American Legion to the Christmas fund at the Batavia VAMC; recognizing a Legionnaire of the Year; providing bingo games, snacks and canteen books at the VAMC; and sponsoring summer baseball for Cubs and Powder Puff leagues in the summer.

Tony Vicknair of Medina served with the Army in Vietnam.

Also, they sponsor an 11th grade student to American Legion Boys State and a student to American Legion Oratorical Contest; fire rifles at ceremonies at all veterans’ memorials, plus the county memorial on Veteran’s Day; place flags on veterans’ graves in May; fire rifles during observances at cemeteries, memorials in the area and participate in the Memorial Day parade; present American Legion Award certificates to two eighth-grade students; and provide a rifle squad and color guard for an average of 45 military funerals in the Medina area.

And, lastly, they send delegates to monthly county Legion members, the Eighth District American Legion six times a year and the State Department of New York American Legion Convention in July; ring bells at Christmas time for the Salvation Army; participate in Orleans County Joint Veterans Council meetings once a month; join with other county veterans’ organizations for a 9-11 ceremony in Albion; deliver up to 56 Christmas packages to shut-in veterans and those in nursing homes in December (this year the number was 75); provide an honor guard for Wreaths Across America ceremony in Boxwood Cemetery each December; participate in a Four Chaplains Service in February in Holley; and observe Flag Day June 14 with flag burning ceremonies with the Boy and Cub Scouts.

Gene Hart of Albion was a canine handler during his stint in the Army during the Vietnam era. He sits here with his dog during a gathering at the Butts-Clark American Legion Post.

Members of the Butts-Clark Post meet the first Tuesday of every month at a local restaurant and every other Tuesday at the post to have coffee and donuts.

Its members have varied military backgrounds.

Berger served in the Navy during the Korean War aboard the battleship Missouri and the heavy cruiser Macon in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean Sea.

Gene Hart of Albion was a truck driver at Fort Dix, until being sent overseas. He became a canine handler in the Army, serving from February 1967 to November 1968 in Vietnam. A member of the 24th Infantry, Hart said he patrolled the ammo dumps and missile sites with guard dogs.

“The German Shepherd dogs were all trained, and they trained us,” he said. “We could work 24 hours without sleep, but the dogs could only work four.”

Tony Vicknair of Medina was an Army veteran who served a year in Vietnam. He tells of driving a jeep north, almost to the Cambodian border, using infrared lighting and binoculars to scan for the Viet Cong. He saw the C-130, Puff the Magic Dragon, with gatling guns under its tail. As the plane banked, all he could see was tracers.

Randolph Wells of Medina served from 1973 to 1990 in various duties, including a supply warehouse clerk in Okinawa and working at a MARS radio station in Vietnam.

Randolph Wells of Medina served from August 1973 to 1990. He was sent to Okinawa where he was a supply warehouse clerk and served in emergency and reconnaissance. He also spent three months in Alaska putting up radio stations and emergency first aid tents. He was then sent to Honolulu, where he did the same thing, followed by Camp Pendleton and Vietnam, where he worked in a MARS radio station. He was part of the group which brought refugees back from Vietnam.

He loaded rockets on planes and served aboard the flattop aircraft carrier Oriskany. He spent nearly eight months aboard ship before his tour ended in 1967.

Peter Huth of Medina was an Army veteran from 1963 to 1966, serving in Germany with the Mounted Police.

Peter Huth is shown in his Mounted Police uniform.

“When I got drafted, everyone was sent to Vietnam, but I went to Frankfort, Germany,” Huth said. “We were the lucky ones. The day I was supposed to leave was the day President Kennedy was assassinated.”

Dave Morien of Medina was 25 years old when he went in the Marines, where he served from 1966 to 1968. He spent time in Quantico, Va., working as an office clerk for a major.

Glenn Whitmore of Gasport had an illustrious career with the Navy, serving from 1962 to 1966 as an aircraft handler on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier, USS Forrestel in the Atlantic in Europe. He moved planes as they landed and took them off and put them on the catapults.

He helped prepare the ship for Vietnam after it had been in drydock.

Glenn Whitmore of Gasport, commander of the Butts-Clark American Legion Post is shown on the deck of the USS Forrestel when he was invited to take a final cruise on the ship before it was decommissioned.

“I was very fortunate,” Whitmore said. “After I got off the ship, they had the biggest disaster since World War II. The ship blew up when a Zuni missile accidentally came from the bow of the ship and went down the stern to the aircraft armed and ready to take off. Senator John McCain was on the flight deck in one of those planes. He was lucky. He then transferred to the USS Oriskany. If I had been there, I’d be dead. One of my comrades was killed. I’m not sorry I went in the Navy. I did what I had to do.”

Whitmore was later honored when he was invited to go to the White House in October 2018, and laid a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery.

“My heart was beating like a drum,” he said.

In 1992, Whitmore was one of 75 sailors who served on the Forrestel who were invited to go on a week-long cruise prior to its decommissioning. They sailed from Jacksonville to Pensacola, Fla. and Whitmore said it was a highlight of his life.

The ship was then taken to Brownsville, Texas, where it was dissembled and Whitmore received a piece of a bulkhead as a souvenir.

Jim Freas

Jim Freas of Medina was born in Philadelphia and joined the Marines in 1956, at age 18, right out of high school. After basic training at Camp Lejeune, he was sent to Henderson Hall in Arlington, Va. and then Okinawa with the Special Services Division. Next he went to Parris Island, S.C. and then Phoenix, Ariz., where he was a supply sergeant for recruiters.

In 1968, he was sent to Vietnam where he ran supplies between DaNang and Quang Tri.

Dave Higgins

What he remembers most is the night the commander of his guard got a call to bring a doctor to sick bay. There, on the floor lay a nine-foot, 400-pound tiger.

“The Green Berets on patrol said the tiger was following them and if it had attacked, it would have given away their position.”

Dave Higgins was drafted in 1968 and was an artillery truck driver. He did advance training at Fort Sills, Okla., and then went to Vietnam, where he said he was the “lamb.”

“I was the target in a convoy, driving ammunition and supplies,” Higgins said. “It was my job to draw fire from the enemy so they would show themselves and our helicopters could fire on them.”

When he returned from Vietnam, he went back to Fort Sills, where he was a training officer, teaching soldiers how to operate Howitzers.

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