Since the Revolutionary War, more than 41 million Americans have served in the U.S. Armed Forces. However, it’s only been in the last 100 years that the United States has officially honored military veterans.
It wasn’t until Nov. 11, 1919, the one-year anniversary of end of World War I, that Armistice Day was established to pay tribute to those who fought in the Great War. Seven years later, a congressional resolution made the day an annual observance and in 1938 it became a national holiday.
President Dwight Eisenhower changed the name of the holiday from Armistice Day to Veterans Day in 1954 after lobbying efforts by various veterans’ support organizations that wanted to ensure that the country paid tribute to all of those who served.
“It is fitting that we set aside a special day each year to honor our veterans and give nationwide expression of our esteem for them,” Eisenhower would later say in a proclamation. “Let us celebrate that day with appropriate ceremonies not only in tribute to our veterans but also in rededication to the cause of peace with honor throughout the world.”
Former USS Midway crewmembers reflected on the significance and importance of Veterans Day.
“Recognizing veterans is a way of thanking them for their sacrifices, and they deserve our thanks,” said retired Capt. Larry Ernst, Midway’s last commanding officer. “If we do not remember, recognize and honor our veterans, then we may not have a next generation of veterans. If we do not have a next generation of young folks willing to sacrifice for our nation’s defense, then we may cease to be a nation.”
As a young lieutenant, retired Vice Adm. Paul Ilg flew A-4 Skyhawks from Midway’s flight deck with Attack Squadron 22 (VA-22) during combat deployments to Vietnam in the 1960s. He knows how important veterans have been in defending the freedoms all Americans cherish.
“Our veterans and those now serving are responsible for us to continue to have free choice,” said Paul, who was shot down over Laos in 1965 and spent two days evading the enemy before being rescued. “Freedom is not free and they have paid for our freedoms, some with their lives. We should continue to show appreciation and recognize our veterans.”
From 1982 to 1986, Dan Woodward served as an aviation ordnance senior chief with Attack Squadron 56 (VA-56) on board Midway. Having spent more than 26 years in the Navy, he has strong feelings about the significance of those who have served in the military.
“A veteran is someone who, at one point in his or her life, wrote a blank check made payable to the people of the United States for an amount up to and including his or her life,” said Dan, a former Midway safety supervisor. “That is honor and commitment to one’s country and fellow countrymen. There are too many people that no longer understand that fact.”
As a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, retired Capt. Jack Ensch knows firsthand what it was like to lose his freedom. A radar intercept officer flying F-4 Phantoms with Fighter Squadron 161 (VF-161) assigned to Midway, Ensch spent more than seven months in two North Vietnamese military prison camps after being shot down in 1972.
“Without the service of veterans throughout our nation’s history, we wouldn’t still have all the freedoms enumerated by our founding fathers in the Constitution,” said Jack, a Midway volunteer docent. “All veterans willingly put their lives on the line to protect and defend our country. Veterans are true patriots. They don’t serve any particular political party or individual group. They serve all Americans regardless of race, color, creed or political affiliation.”
“While we go about our daily lives it is important to realize that every freedom we enjoy today was paid for by the members of our military, in times of conflict as well as peace,” said Doug Bohs, who was a fire control technician with Fighter Squadron 21 (VF-21) on Midway in the 1960s. “Their service and sacrifice have touched the lives of all Americans as well as millions of people all over the globe.”
Since 1776, the United States has relied on the selfless service of those who have and continue to wear the uniform of the nation, and over the course of the last 246 years, nearly one and half million military members never made it home.
“Many paid the ultimate sacrifice and many others sustained life-altering wounds while serving their fellow citizens in preserving our way of life,” said Jack. “It’s not asking too much to set aside one day of the year to pause and reflect upon the many contributions and sacrifices all veterans have made to keep our country strong and free.”