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Armed Forces Day - Honoring Those Who Serve

Updated on May 25, 2014

Honoring Our Service Men and Women

Armed Forces Day is an annual event observed in the United States on the third Saturday of May each year.

Armed Forces Day is a day on which Americans pay tribute to the men and women serving in the nation’s military forces.

Those serving in the military include those on active duty in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard as well as current members of the reserve units of our military forces and members of the National Guard.

While not a national holiday, the day has been observed every year on the on the third Saturday in May since is first observance in 1950. Like many other holidays observed nationally, the President issues a proclamation each year proclaiming the third Saturday in May to be Armed Forces Day.

Flags of U.S. Armed Forces

Flags of Branches of the U.S. Military flying in Tucson, AZ
Flags of Branches of the U.S. Military flying in Tucson, AZ | Source

The focus of Armed Forces Day is to honor and express appreciation to those currently serving in the military forces of the United States.

We honor our veterans - all those who have previously served in both peace and war, with Veteran’s Day which occurs on November 11th each year.

In May we also have Memorial Day in which we honor past members of the armed forces who have given their lives in the defense of our nation.

U.S. Army Flag
U.S. Army Flag | Source

Origins of Armed Forces Day

One of the original purposes of the first Armed Forces Day, celebrated on May 20, 1950, was to celebrate the consolidation of our nation’s military forces under a single federal agency known as the Department of Defense.

Prior to the creation of the Department of Defense in 1949, the head of which is a member of the President’s Cabinet, the U.S. had a War Department which was responsible for the Army and a Navy Department for the Navy and Marines. The head of each of these departments was a member of the President’s Cabinet.

The separation of the Air Force from the Army and organizing it as a separate military branch in 1947 resulted in a third Cabinet level department - the Department of the Air Force.

New Technology Forced United States to Change its Defense Strategy

Our experience in the the two World Wars of the Twentieth Century and the nation’s changing defense needs convinced policy makers that a more coordinated approach to national defense was needed.

Previously, the United States was separated from both Europe and Asia by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans which, prior to the development on long range bombers and missiles, made an attack from those areas difficult.

That, plus the fact that the neighboring nations to our north and south were neither militarily powerful nor hostile meant that the defense needs of the United States could be taken care of by a strong navy and small army.

With the creation of the Department of Defense in 1949 resulted in the Departments of the Army, Navy and Air Force being merged into the Department of Defense.

While the three departments (Army, Navy, Air Force) continued to exist as separate entities, each was now a part of the new Department of Defense and no longer separate Cabinet level departments.

The creation of Armed Forces Day was an attempt to get the three branches of the military (Army, Navy and Air Force) to focus first on the broader mission of defending the nation rather than exclusively on their narrower combat specialties. It was also intended to encourage more inter service cooperation and less inter service rivalries.

Historical Structure of the American Military

Prior to the creation of the Department of Defense, the United States had two cabinet departments for defense. These were the War Department which was headed by the Secretary of War whose job was to supervise the Army and the Department of the Navy headed by the Secretary of the Navy who supervised the Navy.

Originally the War Department housed both the Army and Navy but a separate Department of the Navy was created in 1798.

Because the United States is bordered by oceans, the country needed a navy for both defense against foreign attack as well as some protection for our merchant fleet. Thus, during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the Navy played a major role in defense.

The U.S. Army Has Always Been Small in Peacetime

As for the Army, it has traditionally been small and largely decentralized. Historically, America has had a tendency to quickly demobilize immediately following a war.

The founders of our nation remembered the stationing of troops by the British in our cities and homes in the years leading up to the Revolution and did not like it.

There was also the example of George Washington who, after defeating the British during the Revolutionary War, and against the urgings of some of his officers choose to voluntarily travel to Congress and not only surrender his command but also recommend that the army be demobilized. Throughout history most commanders in his position have chosen to take control and run the nation.

Instead of a large professional army, the United States has historically relied on a small national army augmented by part-time citizen soldiers who are members of their state’s militia (now known as National Guard).

The practice of states having their own militia for defense goes back to colonial times when the colonies, starting with the Massachusetts Bay Colony, began establishing and fielding their own militias for both local defense as well as allowing them to be attached to the British Army in North America during the seventeenth and eighteenth century Colonial Wars.

This tradition of dual federal and state military forces continues to this day with the present Army, Air Force and, in a few states, Navy, National Guard units, that are under the control of the state governments, playing a major role in the nation’s defense.

In times of national emergency the Constitution (Article II, Section 2) allows the President to nationalize and take command of a state’s national guard and this has been done, with the exception of the Vietnam War, in every war from the Revolution to the present.

Flag of U.S. Coast Guard
Flag of U.S. Coast Guard | Source
Flag of U.S. Air Force
Flag of U.S. Air Force | Source

Changes in Organization of Military Began after World War I

Following World War I, the War Department and the Army urged Congress to fund and maintain a large army. However, Congress and most of the American people favored bringing the troops home and releasing them back to civilian life.

As a compromise, Congress passed the National Defense Act of 1920 which basically kept the active duty regular army small but supplemented it with an enlisted reserve and officer reserve.

The act also reorganized the state militia’s into what is now the National Guard. Units remained with their states and under the peacetime command of their governors. However, there was both more Federal government oversight of the National Guard as well as some funding by the Federal government.

The Navy remained both a separate department as well as remaining the main line of defense for the nation.

Flag of U.S. Marine Corps
Flag of U.S. Marine Corps | Source

The Marine Corps and Coast Guard are also Part of the U.S. Military Establishment

The origins of both the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy date back to the American Revolution and both are included in the Constitution as responsibilities of the Federal Government.

The Marine Corps also traces its origins back to the American Revolution. Like the Army and Navy, the Marine Corps traces its origin back and act of the Second Continental Congress in 1775. However, following the Revolution, the Marine Corps was disbanded for reasons of economy.

The Corps was re-established by Congress in 1798. Like its predecessor during the Revolution, the re-established corps was considered a part of the Navy. While a recognized as a distinct military branch, administratively the Marine Corps is and always has been a part of the Navy.

The fifth branch of the U.S. military is the Coast Guard. While organized along military lines and recognized as a branch of the military, the Coast Guard, which was created in 1790 was under the jurisdiction of the Treasury Department.

The reason for establishing the Coast Guard was to stop smugglers attempting to evade the tariff which was a tax the Treasury was responsible for collecting. Over the years the mission of the Coast Guard expanded and in 1967 it was transferred to the newly formed Department of Transportation.

However, during wartime, the Coast Guard is assigned combat duties and placed under the direction of the Navy.

Armed Forces Day Replaces the Separate Army, Navy and Air Force Days

Prior to the first observance of Armed Forces day on May 20, 1950, each of the five federal military branches observed their own day to celebrate.

Interestingly, despite origins going back to the Revolutionary War, the ideas behind having an Army Day and a Navy Day both came about after World War I.

As for the Air Force, it did not become a separate branch of the military until 1947 so there was no Air Force to honor with a special day until 1947. Since the other branches had a day to celebrate themselves, the Air Force Created and observed their day until it was replaced by the new Armed Forces Day a couple of years later.

While the Army, Navy and Air Force all ceased having their separate holidays after the start of Armed Forces day, the Marines and Coast Guard have continued to celebrate their days (which are proclaimed by Presidential Proclamation each year) along with Armed Forces Day.

Origins of Navy Day

During World War I Mrs. William H. Hamilton, a wealthy New York socialite, led a group of women who established and ran a club for enlisted men in the Navy and Marine Corps on leave. The club, known as the Navy Club, was located at 509 Fifth Ave. in space the women had rented.

Following the war a decision was made to keep the club in operation and expand it. The ladies group, joined by some local businessmen, raised funds needed to purchase two houses on East 41st Street in Manhattan. With the new location came a new name - The Manhattan Navy Club.

In 1921 the Manhattan Navy Club recruited and installed a new president by the name of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Roosevelt had been Assistant Secretary of the Navy from 1913 to 1920 in the Wilson Administration. Having just run, and lost, the 1920 Presidential election in which he ran as Vice President with James Cox at the top of the ticket, he was ready for something new.

Under Roosevelt the club was incorporated and re-named the National Navy Club of New York, Inc. It expanded its mission by opening clubs in chapters set up in other cities around the nation.

Polio forced Roosevelt to resign shortly after getting things started, but Mrs. Hamilton continued to push and came up with the idea of a national Navy Day. The idea was to have a day dedicated to educating the American people about the Navy and its importance.

October 27th was selected as the date for Navy Day. October 27th was not only the birth date of the Navy in 1777 but it was also the birthday of Franklin Roosevelt’s distant cousin, Theodore Roosevelt who, among other things, had been a supporter of a strong Navy and had also served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy from April of 1897 to May of 1898 (when resigned to fight in the Spanish-American War which ended with the United States controlling Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Philippine Islands and Guam).

The first Navy Day was celebrated October 27,1922 and every year after until 1949 when it was celebrated for the last time before being replaced by Armed Forces Day in 1950.

While no longer publicly celebrated, Navy Day continues to be celebrated within the Navy itself.

U.S. Navy Flag
U.S. Navy Flag | Source

Origins of Army Day

while Navy Day came about as the result of a desire to celebrate the Navy, the impetus behind Army Day was different.

History and geography also played a role in the creation of the Army and Navy Day holidays.

Until the advent of long range bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles the United States was protected from foreign invasion by the fact that it had oceans on either side separating us from Europe and Asia. Prior to World War II, the Navy was the mainstay of America's defense from foreign attack with the Army mostly concerned with Indian wars on the frontier.

Army Day traces its origins to an event, known as Defense Test Day, which was first held on September 12, 1924.

Defense Test Day

According to newspaper articles promoting Defense Test Day, the event was to be a test of national preparedness for war or other disaster.

One of the events was a live national radio broadcast featuring Army General John J. Pershing, who had commanded the American forces in France during World War I.

Pershing's broadcast appears to have been one of the first, if not the first, attempt at a live national radio broadcast.

Using the long distance telephone lines owned by AT&T (which had a near complete government monopoly on long distance service in those days) the General would be connected to radio stations across the nation. Widespread access to commercial radio and telephone service was relatively new and this use of the system by the government appears to have been a first.

n addition to the live broadcast speech by General Pershing, mass rallies in cities and towns across the nation were scheduled for the afternoon of September 12th. Businesses were asked to close that afternoon so that their workers could attend the rallies. The rallies were billed as having patriotic themes and a time for all to show their patriotism.

While the drafting of men into the military (mainly into the Army as the Navy and Marines were usually able to fill their ranks with volunteers) had ceased shortly after the end of World War I.

Following World War I the Federal Government had undertaken a major reorganization of the Army. The militia remained under state control but was reorganized as the National Guard with some ongoing Federal direction and funding. Each branch of the service was given a reserve component as as a back-up for their active duty component. In the event of another major war, the U.S. would have not only its active duty military forces but also a better organized National Guard and a trained Federal force of reservists.

Returning World War I veterans were encouraged to join the National Guard or Reserves. Many officers did join but most enlisted men were eager to leave the military and get back to civilian life.

Defense Test Day appears to have been an attempt to increase military spirit and patriotism among the population. However, the effort was not successful and the American public's lukewarm response to the September 1924 event and the one that followed it resulted in Congress declaring an end to the observance of Defense Test Day.

Army Day Replaces Defense Test Day

With the abandonment of Defense Test Day, the veterans organization known as The Order of the World War under the leadership of a Colonel Thatcher Luquer called for the celebration of an Army Day.

Army Day was first celebrated on May 1,1928. May first was chosen because Luquer hoped to provide a counter celebration to the Communists and Socialists who observed May 1st as International Workers Day.

However, the following year, 1929, the date of Army Day was changed to April 6th which was the day that the U.S. had entered World War I. Army Day was then celebrated every year thereafter until it was replaced by Armed Forces Day in 1950.

Observance of Armed Forces Day, Veterans Day and Memorial Day all Vary Over Time

Like Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day, the focus and celebration of Armed Forces Day varies. In times of war or crisis we celebrate the day more broadly and openly than in times when the nation is not threatened by enemies.

While we are currently winding down from our long engagement with the War on Terror, people are more aware of those in the military and the service and sacrifices they endure in protecting us. Thus, Armed Forces Day is more widely celebrated and observed than in times of peace when public observances tend to be limited to areas with large military bases as neighbors.

The same is true of Memorial Day, which is often observed more as the start of summer vacation time than honoring our war dead, or Veterans Day which is often looked upon as a day off in November rather than a day to honor veterans.

But then, this is only natural. Today people in military uniforms are not an uncommon site in public places (especially places like airports)

© 2014 Chuck Nugent


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    • Chuck profile imageAUTHOR

      Chuck Nugent 

      4 years ago from Tucson, Arizona

      flyfishmaine - I am glad you enjoyed this Hub. I, too, enjoy learning new things and researching and writing Hubs provide me with the opportunity to both learn new things as well as share what I have learned.

    • Chuck profile imageAUTHOR

      Chuck Nugent 

      4 years ago from Tucson, Arizona

      MG Singh - thank you for commenting on this Hub.

    • Chuck profile imageAUTHOR

      Chuck Nugent 

      4 years ago from Tucson, Arizona

      Phyllis Doyle - I am glad you enjoyed this Hub. You're right, every day is an opportunity to honor and thank our military men and women for their sacrifices for our defense.

    • flyfishmaine profile image

      Richard Scott 

      4 years ago from Presque Isle, Maine

      I always enjoy learning new things and this is full of information that is new to me. Thanks and well done.

    • MG Singh profile image

      MG Singh 

      4 years ago from Singapore

      This is a day to be remembered by all

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      4 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Thank you for writing this hub, Chuck. It is a great reminder to all why it is so important to honour our military personnel. I enjoyed reading about the history of the separate military days and how they all came together. I believe that every day is an opportunity to honour our military men and women.


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