The Story Behind the Jacket

A Short History of Veterans Day

At the 11th hour, on the 11th day, of the 11th month in 1918 The Great War ended with Germany signing an armistice agreement with the Allies at the Palace of Versailles. Proclaimed by President Wilson as Armistice Day one year later, it was officially made a legal holiday in 1938 set aside to honor veterans of World War I and the end of the “war to end all wars”.

Following World War II the holiday was changed to Veterans Day to honor American veterans of all wars. Today it continues as a celebration to honor America’s veterans for their patriotism, love of country, and willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good.

This Veterans Day we are highlighting the accomplishments of Iowa World War I veteran, James Norman Hall, both during and after the war.

Hall spent his childhood in Colfax, Iowa, with his family in a house that still stands on Howard Street, just east of Colfax’s small business district. He attended Grinnell College, where literature and music were his passions.

In 1914, while vacationing in London and trying to jumpstart his writing career, he rode his bicycle to Scotland to try to meet his favorite author Joseph Conrad. While standing outside Conrad’s door he lost his nerve and headed back to London.

A few days later World War I broke out. Being an adventurous man, Hall posed as a Canadian and joined Lord Kitchener’s Army. He fought with the Allied Forces until he received word that his father was deathly ill. He was discharged and returned to Colfax where during the winter of 1915–1916 he wrote his first book Kitchener’s Mob: The Adventures of an American in the British Army. The book launched his career as a writer, giving him the contacts and recognition he desperately needed. He was a prolific writer, most well-known for his book Mutiny on the Bounty, which he co-authored with his friend Charles Nordhoff.

It wasn’t long after that winter that Hall reenlisted in the armed services, serving for the French and later the American armies. He’s noted as being a hero of the United States Flying Service, taking down at least five German planes during the war. On one of his missions he was shot, wounded and crash landed. The bloodied jacket, a testimonial to his service and dedication, is on display at the State Historical Museum of Iowa.

Hall’s Jacket on display at the State Historical Museum of Iowa.

Hall used his wartime memories, serving under the flag of three different nations in World War I, throughout his career as a writer. He also used his hometown as inspiration for one of his most famous books, Oh, Millersville! The book, published in 1946, was a commentary on his life in small-town Iowa. It symbolized a loving attachment for his childhood home.

The James Norman Hall boyhood home, a private residence, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, more than 100 years after it was built. Check out the Veterans Day Featured Tour on the Iowa Culture mobile app to learn more about sites related to Iowa’s veterans — Freedom Rocks, American Legion, Memorial Halls and more.

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