In September 1918, Harry Hamilton Renick was fighting in the French Argonne Forest as part of an allied World War I offensive that resulted in one of the bloodiest battles in U.S. military history, second in fatalities only to the D-Day invasion at Normandy during World War II.
Renick, killed by machine gun fire on the fourth day of battle, was among the dead. Though his comrades witnessed his death, his body was never found.
Less than a year later in 1919, members of the American Expeditionary Force founded the American Legion in Paris with the mission of attending to the medical, employment and educational needs of military veterans and their families.
Today, Renick is considered the first Garden City-area man killed during active duty in the U.S. military. To honor Renick, who was born in Pierceville, the local American Legion post chartered in June 1919 was titled Harry H. Renick Unit No. 9.
Many members of the extended Renick family were present on Saturday at the the local Post No. 9 to honor local veterans and to kick off the American Legion’s centennial celebration, slated to continue well into 2019.
The American Legion will be celebrating its centennial for the next 15 months, according to Jim Arwine, a past commander of the American Legion’s eighth district.
For nearly 100 years, the American Legion has been serving U.S. military veterans all over the world. Saturday's festivities included refreshments, a slide show of military history, a military exhibit orchestrated by the Finney County Historical Society and an address by Garden City Mayor Roy Cessna.
“Garden City is honored to have the American Legion as part of our community,” Cessna said. “The American Legion has grown to become the largest military veterans’ organization in the country. The American Legion has a long history of addressing medical, employment and educational needs of our military veterans and their families.”
Expressing appreciation for support of military veterans, Arwine said it is important that local, state and national officials recognize the need for a strong military, as well as veterans’ service organizations such as the Legion.
In detailing the Legion's beginnings, Arwine also touched on the formation of the post that exists today in Garden City.
“The mission was to address the medical, employment and educational needs of those who served in uniform,” he said. “Veterans back home, fresh from the battlefield, were eager to join this veterans’ organization. About 27 local veterans asked for and received orders to organize an American Legion post.”
Arwine tasked Sandra Renick Stark, a relative of Harry Renick, with the identification of other members of the Renick family dispersed through the crowd. Stark is herself a historian of sorts, having authored a 500-page compendium of Renick history.
Stark noted that Harry Renick was a lawyer in Dighton when he registered for the draft in 1917. A graduate of Washburn Law School, he had his own practice and was running to become the county attorney of Lane County at a time when The Garden City Telegram suggested that he had a good chance of success.
Now, part of Renick’s legacy lives on through the American Legion, and Arwine says the coming of a new century of service means that “veterans are still going to get what they need.”
Arwine said the Legion’s services benefit not only veterans, but also the community as a whole. The Sons of the American Legion offers service opportunities to male descendants of U.S. veterans, and the Legion's auxiliary programs for women offer work in a similar capacity.
For Arwine, one of the most important contributions by the Legion in its first century of service was the drafting of the G.I. Bill, also known as the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944, which was signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt.
The bill provided books, tuition and a monthly stipend for veterans enrolled in high schools, colleges, universities and vocational schools, as well as low-cost mortgages, low-interest business loans and one year of unemployment compensation. By 1956, about 7.8 million veterans utilized the bill’s educational benefits.
Harry W. Colmery, a past Legion national commander from Topeka, drafted the bill. A memorial plaza in his name now stands near the statehouse.
“It’s probably considered the most important piece of legislation for military that’s ever been passed, and it’s been modified several times,” Arwine said, adding that “thousands and thousands and thousands” of veterans went to college in the wake of WWII by using the benefits of the G.I. bill. "The G.I. Bill is probably the biggest accomplishment, as far as an American Legion member helping his own kind, his own people, his own military veterans. That was quite an accomplishment, and that was a Kansan that did that."
A U.S. Army veteran who served for 21 years on active duty, Arwine has been an American Legion member for 14 years, having served as a district commander from 2011 to 2012 and as a master of arms from 2014 to 2015. He now serves as a judge advocate.
He noted that there are 26 American Legion posts in Kansas, a number that has decreased over time as posts dissolve amid aging memberships that have been slow to rejuvenate.
Gary Foos, the American Legion’s area west vice commander, said his biggest job is generating membership for the organization, which currently has about 2 million members worldwide.
He says Kansas’ eighth Legion district encompassing southwest Kansas has the largest membership in the state. However, the state's Legion branch as a whole is still falling short of its 37,000-member goal deadline of July 1.
Foos said the eighth district already has seen the closure of two posts, with more likely to transfer their membership to another post in the future. He called for veterans to get involved in Legion programs and introduce their sons to the Sons of the American Legion to provide operational assistance and raise money.
“It takes participation by the membership to make these programs work and the Legion work,” Foos said. “There are veterans out there. It’s just a matter of finding them and getting them involved.”
Contact Mark Minton at firstname.lastname@example.org.