Iowa History
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Iowa History

Names and Faces of the American Legion in Iowa

The American Legion Hall in Chariton, Iowa with The American Legion emblem.

Every year, we see American Legion members at ceremonies and marching in parades all across the country — the Fourth of July, Memorial Day and Veterans Day, to name a few.

But do you know how and why the group was created?

Its story goes back to 1919, after the Great War ended, when American Expeditionary Forces leaders stationed in France asked 20 of its officers to brainstorm ideas on improving troop morale. That’s when Lt. Col. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., suggested a new organization of veterans be created to serve their fellow compatriots at home and abroad.

His idea gathered steam, and Congress granted The American Legion a national charter in September 1919. Membership grew to more than one million as local posts sprang up across the country offering programs for veterans’ rehabilitation, employment and Americanism.

In Iowa, communities organized posts to serve more than 114,000 Iowa troops and veterans from the Great War. In 1920, State Adjutant John MacVicar reported 542 organized posts in Iowa with 37,299 members, with the largest in Sioux City boasting 1,399 members.

Today, Iowa has 592 American Legion posts with about 47,000 members. Below, we’re highlighting four Iowa veterans and the Legion posts created in their honor.

Carl L. Caviness of Chariton

Born on May 6, 1896, Carl Caviness was the youngest of David and Minerva Caviness’ 10 children. His father was a Civil War veteran and his mother was the niece of John Ballard, the first settler of Lucas County.

Carl Caviness Photo: Special Collections, State Historical Society of Iowa

After finishing 9th grade, Carl enlisted in the Iowa National Guard and served four years on the United States-Mexico border. In December 1917, he shipped out to France to fight in the Great War.

His first assignment was as a battalion runner, delivering messages back and forth from the headquarters to soldiers in the trenches. At his own request, he was transferred for special duty patrolling behind enemy lines with the Second Battalion Scouts, one of the most dangerous assignments on the battlefield.

During one of those patrols, he was killed by a sniper in the frontline trenches near Badonvillier in France. He was 21 years old and the first Lucas County resident to die in combat. He was initially buried in the Pexonne Cemetery in France, and later taken home to Chariton where he was laid to rest with a full military burial.

In 1919, several World War I veterans in the Chariton area organized an American Legion post. They submitted their application and received their charter later that summer, and there was no question as to whom the new post would be named after — Corporal Carl L. Caviness.

Carl L. Caviness American Legion Post #102, Chariton, Iowa

Built in 1925, the Carl L. Caviness American Legion Post 102 reflects late 19th and 20th century revival architecture and was designed by Chariton architect William L. Perkins.

It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2006, and deemed “a good example of the Revival styles popular in the 1920s,” a well-preserved work and an illustration of “the importance of the American Legion in the social life of the community.”

Fred Turner and Cecil Conley of Atlantic

The terrible cost of war came home to Atlantic on March 14, 1918.

The headline topping the Atlantic News-Telegraph that day screamed: ATLANTIC LADS PAY WAR’S TOLL, announcing local sons Fred Turner and Cecil Conley were killed in action on March 9, 1918, in Lorraine, France.

Both soldiers had enlisted in spring 1917 and were assigned to Company M, 168th regiment of the famous Rainbow division. Their regiment sailed for France on Nov. 14, 1917.

Pvt. Fred D. Turner, Co. M, 168th Inf., 42nd Div., Killed in action. Photo: Special Collections, State Historical Society of Iowa

Fred was killed in the front line trenches at Badonvillier, France, while carrying a message from his platoon commander to the rear. At 20, he was buried in Pexonne Cemetery, Grave №4.

Cecil was the first soldier in his company to die in battle. He was hit by shrapnel while waiting to go over the top at trenches in Badonvillier. At 19, he was also buried in Pexonne Cemetery, Grave №5.

Back home in Atlantic, a joint memorial service was held that week in the local Methodist church, and an immense throng of supporters gathered at City Hall later in the week for a second service, according to the Atlantic News-Telegraph.

“The hour set for opening the exercises was 3 o’clock,” the newspaper reported. “An hour before that the people began to gather at the city hall. By 2:30 the auditorium was completely filled as was the adjacent hall and stairway. Hundreds of people, unable to gain admission, stood in the street at the entrance to the hall.”

Pvt. Cecil M. Conley, Co. M, 168th Inf., 42nd Div., Killed in action. Photo: Special Collections, State Historical Society of Iowa

Three years later, their remains were disinterred and returned to Iowa.

Fred and Cecil and other veterans are remembered through the American Legion Memorial Building, also known as Atlantic National Guard Armory, in Atlantic.

Built in 1929, it was designed by Council Bluffs architect George A. Spooner and includes Moderne and Art Deco architecture. It was used for arms storage and as a military facility, meeting hall, and sports facility.

The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2006, and has undergone extensive renovation with an assist from the Atlantic Rock Island Society Enterprise. Today, it gives veterans a place to meet while housing a Military Museum, Military Library and Memorial Hall.

Atlantic Armory, built in 1929, dedicated on November 11, 1929.

Frederick William Sonksen of Stratford

“For his was an honorable death and while the sting of it may hurt those who held him so near and dear, they can well feel proud of a son and a brother who had given his life as a supreme sacrifice for his country.” — Stratford Courier, September 1, 1921

Pvt. William F. Sonksen, Co. L, 316th Inf., 79th Div., Killed in Action Photo: Special Collections, State Historical Society of Iowa

Frederick William “Willie” Sonksen was the second eldest son of Paul and Dora Sonksen of Stratford, born May 4, 1888, and the only son of Stratford to be killed in active combat during World War I.

When he shipped out from Webster City in July 1918, he and his comrades stopped at Camp Gordon in Georgia for a few weeks before they were sent to France. On Oct. 29, 1918, the second night he was on duty on the lines, Germany sent patrols through the Argonne Forest to U.S. lines, where they felled Willie.

He was buried in the Romagne, Argonne, American cemetery. But, in 1921, his remains were disinterred and sent to Stratford where they were re-interred at the South Marion cemetery.

The Sept. 8, 1921, edition of the Stratford Courier describes a “very beautiful service” performed by the Rev. F.W. Wilson and H.I. Pharo of Gilmore City with an overflowing crowd of mourners.

The funeral cortege to the South Marion cemetery numbered 160 cars where “a hero was laid away, amid tears and heartaches and beautiful flowers; a man who lived a just life and who had died in the service of his country.”

In 1921, local veterans organized an American Legion post in Stratford and voted unanimously to name it after Willie. They received their charter in October 1921 and set up shop in two rooms in the Swanson building over the Stratford Mercantile company store.

Citizens sell war bonds on Shakespeare Avenue in Stratford in 1917. The 2nd floor of the Swanson Building, seen in the background (right), became the first headquarters of the Fredrick W. Sonksen American Legion Post #576.

A Stratford Courier story from Nov. 24, 1921, shows the post had 36 members and was gathering equipment for their rooms, including a phonograph they wanted to win in an Edison Popularity contest held at the Sanford Johnson drug store.

The members “would request that the people of this community who are interested in the welfare of the ex-service men would extend their hearty co-operation in this movement,” the Courier reported. “Remember that a vote for the American Legion means a vote for the men who were willing to go when called and do as ordered for the welfare of the world.”

The Legion Family

Today, The American Legion is joined by The American Legion Auxillary (founded in 1919) and The Sons of The American Legion (founded in 1932) to make The Legion Family, which has a combined membership of nearly 4.2 million people.

Together, they work to preserve American traditions and values, improve quality life for children, care for veterans and their families, and teach the fundamentals of good citizenship.

— Jeff Morgan, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs

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