Hemet Legionnaires where are you?
■ Rusty Strait / Senior Reporter
Sorry to say, I have belonged to the American Legion, off and on, since the end of World War II. My current membership has been with state post 1000 located in San Francisco. I had no idea there was a Legion Post in Hemet. Boy, was I wrong. I’m happy to say that I have transferred my membership to the community where I live, and I hope some of the more recent veterans will do likewise.
This past Thursday I accepted an invitation to a spaghetti dinner at Post 53 on Ramona Street in downtown Hemet. I got more than a dinner. I discovered a whole new world dedicated to local veterans and their families. I met Larry Blair, Third Vice-Commander, Public Relations Officer and newsletter editor of Hemet Post 53. Larry answered all my questions straight on without hesitation.
Question 1: How old is this Post?
“Post 53 was formed in 1919 by a small group of World War I veterans who got together and met in coffee shops, parks, homes or anyplace they could sit down and talk about their experiences and plan for the future.
“In 1947 at March Field, there were two sections that contained buildings that were considered obsolete. One was the USO Club, pretty much created by actor/comedian Bob Hope. [He]… did much to heighten the spirits of American Troops around the world both during and after the war until his death in 2003 at [age] 100. The other was a building that housed German prisoners of War. With all prisoners returned to their homes in Germany, the Air Force offered the guys the empty building for $1 under the condition that they remove it. By that time, Post 53 had a membership of 25 and [was] ready to seek a permanent site for their organization.”
Question 2: In what manner did the Post come to be located in Hemet?
“One of the members was a truck driver. He drove a semi. So they tore the building apart on both sides and rode it out to Hemet on a flatbed where they rebuilt it at 124 North Ramona St. where it continues to be headquarters for Post 53. Quite a feat.”
Question 3: Who decided to take space to include a museum and how did that get started?
“Our museum started out with nothing more than donations of uniforms, medals and other memorabilia of fathers and grandfathers. Kids began the donations, and over the years, the veterans themselves have contributed. One of our former service managers turned it into a museum and office for awhile where he helped veterans to obtain their government benefits.”
Question 4: What all is involved at Post 53?
“We have a variety of services and events. Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, ROTC – this year we put together enough money from donations to send five of our young kids to the Annual Boys state encampment in Sacramento. It was a great outing for these young people who were able to be involved in what we call ‘mock government’ where they are able to assume imaginary elected offices and conduct business in the same manner as their real counterparts. When they came back, they gave a very interesting dissertation of all they learned and how it brought them to see how our government works in real time.
“The training that young folks get from our various programs is based on military training that their veteran fathers and mothers go through. It teaches responsibility and an appreciation for the free country in which they live. I’ve watched over the years how these kids come back from having later enlisted in the military and how most of them are better citizens for the experience.”
Question 5: What are some of the other advantages of being a member of Post 53?
“We have our monthly breakfast and a monthly spaghetti dinner. Our recent dinner had a larger turnout than the previous one, but still only 30 percent of the hall was filled. We have hopes for a better turnout in the months to come. Other programs, like TOPS, are gaining in popularity. TOPS is a program for anyone who wants to lose or gain weight. It teaches how and what to eat and helps to control weight.
Question 6: I understand you have a program for the sons of veterans; explain that.
“Sons of the Legion is a great opportunity for young men and older sons of veterans to be a part of the Legion and to do things with their veteran fathers as well as those who are survivors of those who gave all for their country. You would be amazed how proud the sons of veterans are to be so associated with an organization that has always been first and foremost in serving veterans. We have 10 ideals within the program which is offered to any son of school-age and up.”
Question 7: I understand you have a very popular bingo organization.
“You bet. Every Tuesday we open the doors at three in the afternoon. Many of our bingo players come early to get their coveted seats and to eat and be ready for bingo, which starts at 6:00 and ends usually around 9:00 in the evening. Some of them have been playing bingo at the Legion Post for more than 35 years.”
Question 8: Are the bingo nights limited to members?
“Oh no. We welcome members of the community to come out and play bingo. We have a snack bar open from 3:00 in the afternoon. We close it down at 6:00 because it can be a distraction to the players and, trust me, the true bingo player gets pretty annoyed at any kind of distraction. Our bingo packages average between $15–$20. A ten-game pack is $15. There are also add-ons for the true bingo player.
“As to food, we offer a foot long hot dog with chips and a choice between beans or potato salad for three dollars. Coffee or tea is free. We also offer a polish dog. Pepperoni or sausage pizza is $2 a slice. Soft drinks or ice cream runs $1.”
That sounds like a pretty good outing for the family at a reasonable cost.
Question 9: All of this sounds great but it would seem you should have more members.
“That’s our major problem. Most of our membership is from World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam. This area has the highest number of veterans from both Gulf Wars, Iraq and Afghanistan, yet I believe only three members come from those conflicts.”
Question 10: Didn’t you at one time have a contingent of bikers? What happened to them?
“They just happened to be a group of guys, mostly from Vietnam, who rode motorcycles and enjoyed going on rides together. At one time, there were 60 of them. Then, one of our members had an issue with the Provost of the American Legion. I’m sure you remember the big fracas several years ago when some motorcycle clubs got into a battle with each other at Laughlin out by the Colorado River. Our folks were there but not a part of that hassle. However, there was so much bad publicity and our State Headquarters felt that we did not want our guys to become known as an outlaw gang, so they decided we had to get rid of some patches or other paraphernalia they could sport. Some of our Vietnam vets took issue with the state. They’d served two or three tours in Nam and didn’t like being told what to do. So the leader quit the Post and took 25 members with him. I never disagreed with their decision, but when the command gives you an order, you follow the order.”
It seems to me that veterans from the Middle East wars are a different breed. They are not as clubbish as their forerunners. That is a shame. The American Legion has always been first and foremost in helping our veterans, whether it be with pensions or disability pay and services of just a place for guys with so much in common to bring their families and to enjoy the facilities that are primarily there for their benefit. Hemet Veterans, you need to come out and support the organization that has been there for you before any other. Comradeship did not end with your discharge.
One of the problems seems to be that Post 53 does not have a liquor license. They would like to have three evenings a week when the bar is open to members. They’re working on that. Maybe that will bring in some of the guys who hang out at local watering holes.
Now that I’m a local member, I’ll be going over more often. C’mon on out guys and join me. My son already wants to join Sons of the Legion. I’m proud of that.