It is important that we honor our heroes and their service to our nation, and that we preserve their stories for generations to come. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the entry of the United States into World War I (WWI), which occurred on April 6, 1917, following a declaration of war by President Woodrow Wilson. In all, more than 116,000 Americans would die in the global conflict, more than 3,700 of whom were from Virginia. Because of the horrific loss of life, World War I was initially thought to be “the war to end all wars,” but, sadly, World War II (WWII) would surpass it only 25 years later, claiming some 400,000 lives, more than 11,400 of whom were Virginians. We can never forget those who gave the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our nation.
It is my privilege to serve as chairman of the Virginia World War I and World War II Commemoration Commission, which was created by the General Assembly to mark the 100th anniversary of WWI and the 75th anniversary of WWII. The work of the Commission is guided by two primary goals. The first is to honor our veterans. By remembering our veterans, we not only pay tribute to their service, but we also communicate to today’s service members that they will not be forgotten, either. The second goal is to provide opportunities for people to explore personal connections that highlight multiple perspectives of Virginia’s role in WWI and WWII, and make it easy for visitors to connect to the many museums, memorials, and sites in Virginia related to the wars. The Commission achieves these purposes through a number of programs, including grants to localities, special recognition ceremonies, commemorative events marking key anniversaries, and the Virginia WWI and WWII Profiles of Honor Tour traveling exhibit and scanning program that preserves the documents and images of the time.
The Profiles of Honor Tour is a mobile museum that travels the state to bring an interactive exhibition to museums, libraries, and special events throughout Virginia. The Profiles of Honor Tour was recently in Colonial Heights, where it served as the cornerstone to an event to honor more than two dozen living veterans of WWII. The Profiles of Honor Tour brings to life stories of the state’s integral role in both wars, highlighting more than 40 stories of Virginians who served in the conflicts. These profiles highlight ordinary people living in extraordinary times, and they offer a personal connection to history, including the stories of:
• Virginius Johnston, who was born in Chesterfield and graduated from Virginia Normal and Industrial Institute in Petersburg, now Virginia State University, fought in World War I. Virginius joined the 92nd Division, nicknamed the “Buffalo Soldiers”—a segregated all–African American division. He saw action in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive—part of the Hundred Days Offensive — which brought the Allies to victory and the war to its end.
• Major Lloyd Williams, the first known Virginian to die in World War I. When advised by a French officer to withdraw at the defensive line, he replied, “Retreat? Hell, we just got here!” Major Williams was killed in the action, but his company held its ground, and his now-famous reply was taken up as a Marine slogan.
• First Lady of the United States, Edith Bolling Wilson of Wytheville, who offered home front support by volunteering with the American Red Cross. President Woodrow Wilson and Mrs. Wilson even brought sheep to graze on the White House lawn, freeing gardeners for wartime duties, and then auctioning the wool to raise more than $50,000 for the Red Cross.
The Commission also provides a way for individuals to become part of history by adding their family stories to the Profiles of Honor Tour. Scanners are available at most tour stops, and visitors are invited to bring images, letters, diaries, and documents related to WWI and WWII, which will be digitized and archived by the Library of Virginia for years to come. In only the first two months of the tour, we have already scanned and photographed nearly 2,000 documents and images, which will be made available online in the coming months. The items provide rare glimpses into the lives of Virginians in war, such as the intact WWI mess kit of Carl Conner from Woodstock, whose son brought in the nearly 100-year-old gear that even included a pack of Eagle cigarettes and Wrigley’s gum; or the scrapbook of Olivia Clark from Pulaski, who served with the 3rd Army Air Force, worked directly for General Patton, and was one of the first U.S. military members to set foot in the Dachau Concentration Camp. Each item has a story, and it is our privilege to ensure that those stories live on.
This may be one of the last times that we are able to thank a WWII veteran in person, or save the documents of a WWI veteran before they are lost to time. I would invite you all to be part of the commemoration, whether by sharing your family’s own stories or by participating in special events to mark milestone dates. Learn more about how you can participate at VirginiaWWIandWWII.org. Together, we will honor our heroes and safeguard their legacies for the generations to come.