If there are fewer and fewer World War II veterans, then there are even less who served during World War I. That war was called, "The Great War" and "The War to End All Wars." According to my high school history teacher, Ralph Finchum, World War I was fought "to make the world safe for democracy."
Of course, there have been numerous armed conflicts since the World War I Armistice. And, an end to wars is nowhere in sight.
On April 7, 1919, at the Hotel De Babriel, a huge military meeting took place and one of the members was Sgt. Alvin York. The group's purpose was to lay the foundation of an organization to which all veterans who served during wartime could claim membership. The result was the founding of the American Legion.
Today, its headquarters is in Indianapolis and has in the neighborhood of 3 million members. Various posts throughout the United States organize commemorative and social events; lobby Congress for the support of veterans'' pensions; sponsor boys' and girls' civic education and is strongly involved in the support of veterans' hospitals.
There is an unusual and unique "off-shoot" of the American Legion and its membership is exclusive. In the French language the organization is called La Societe des Quarante Hommes et Huit Chevaux which translates: The Society of 40 men and eight horses, or, the 40/8.
This is how the organization came about and why it is open to only a certain few of World War I veterans.
Some American servicemen in France were transported to the battle front on narrow guage French railroads (chamin de fer) inside boxcars (voitures) that were half the size of American boxcars. Each French boxcar was stenciled with the numeral 40 over an 8 denoting its capacity to hold either 40 men or eight horses...in any combination. This uncomfortable means of transportation was familiar to all of those who traveled from the coast of France to the trenches.
Their common misery later became symbolic of a group of men, who experienced and understood the horrors of war, but chose to be, in retrospect, lighthearted comrades-in-arms. In other words, at American Legion Conventions, members of the "Forty and Eight" were and are, if there are any still living, the "jokesters" throughout the proceedings. They can, and often do, get a little too rowdy, but they mean well.
One of the "Li'l Abner" companies I was in years ago experienced the antics of the "Forty and Eight" first-hand. We were playing in the Pittsburgh Melody Tent in the evening and rehearsing during the day. It was summer; it was hot and we were dog-tired at the end of the day. After the show, we all had a bite to eat, after which, every member of the company by midnight was ready to "hit the hay."
But it was impossible to get to sleep in the Commodore Hotel where an American Legion Convention was under way and where our company was staying. The 40/8 kept the elevators occupied and running all night; they turned fire hoses loose; they dropped water balloons out the windows on every floor; their voices and laughter had the decibels of jackhammers.
To be perfectly honest, I was furious with them. Their antics seemed unnecessarily boisterous, overdone and destructive.
Bleary-eyed at breakfast each morning in the dining room during the convention, I was "put out" to say the least. I had to bite my tongue to keep from saying something I might have regretted. (Actually, I did, but I won't repeat it here.)
Afterward, I thought of all the "poppies growing in Flanders Field," and what hardships these "clowns" had experienced during the war. I backed off and was glad, in the long-run, that they had survived to be the "tail twisters" of the American Legion.
These veterans of "The Great War" had gotten little or no sleep in their cold and wet trenches while putting their lives on the line for us at home.
So, in the final analysis, the 40/8 probably had a great need to LAUGH to keep from CRYING.