At promptly 11:11 a.m. Wednesday, Bayfield veterans and community members raised an American flag to honor Veterans Day – and the 100th anniversary of Bayfield’s American Legion post.
It was one of several Veterans Day events adapted for safety during the coronavirus pandemic. But in addition to commemorating military service, about 50 community members gathered at the Pine River Cemetery Veterans Memorial to celebrate a historic anniversary of their own.
“With everything else shut down lately, we kind of broke the rules and did our little thing today,” said Tony Schrier, commander of the American Legion Bill Whitney Post 143.
Veterans Day events were different this year because of the pandemic. In Durango, about 30 vehicles with veterans from La Plata County and the Ute Mountain Ute Indian Tribe drove down Main Avenue in a drive-by parade, and just before noon, the Colorado Air National Guard flew four F-16s over downtown.
In Bayfield, the ceremony combined face coverings and social distancing with refreshments and readings commemorating military service.
“My speech was only maybe a minute or two, but I always get choked up when we talk about what a veteran really is – what he or she does,” Schrier said.
His main goal in helping to organize the event was to help the community understand its history of military service. That history spans at least 40 U.S. military conflicts, and the veterans in the Pine River Valley community have served in several of the nation’s most notable wars.
Post 143 was founded in June 1919 by John Moss, who was a World War I survivor. Its first year of operation was 1920, Schrier said.
Moss and his “good ole buddy,” Bill Whitney, joined the military with an agreement to care for each other’s families if something happened. In December 1919, Whitney died because of the Spanish flu. After the war, Moss came back and honored his commitment and raised Whitney’s children. Eventually, he married Whitney’s widow.
“They lived happily ever after,” Schrier said. “That’s how the post got started in those days.”
Schrier, a history major in college and former president of the Pine River Valley Heritage Society, has carefully gathered documents to verify the community’s oral histories.
One key historical element of the community’s military history is its connection to the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Three Bayfield High School graduates were on the USS Arizona battleship when it sank after being hit by a Japanese torpedo. They’re still entombed on the ship, Schrier said.
Considering that the valley’s population was about 700 to 750 people in those days, it would be rare that three graduates died in the same attack, he said.
About 88 Pine River Valley residents served in World War II and about 17 never came back – a high fatality rate for the small communities, Schrier said.
“Their bodies are scattered all over the Pacific theater as well as Europe,” he said.
The history of military service becomes less detailed after WWII. Schrier did not know how many veterans live in the area or in which military conflicts they served.
“To the best of our knowledge, we don’t have any more casualties after (WWII),” he said.
He does know of several Vietnam War veterans, like himself. When he was in the Army, he spent 13 months in Vietnam and about two years stationed in Germany during the war.
“I had an opportunity to see the world,” Schrier said. “To me, being a citizen and serving was something I decided to do. It’s not something I felt an obligation to do.”
That military service also comes with a deep camaraderie for many people – those who serve watch out for each other, Schrier said, and the sense of community is even more poignant on Veterans Day and in veteran communities.
Post 143 helps keep that community going. Its members help out veterans in the Pine River Valley if they need financial, labor or other assistance.
“Anybody who needs help can know that there is a resource out there that can help you out,” Schrier said.