Veterans march through the now-demolished Victory Arch in Madison Square Park on September 10, 1919, via 16th Infantry Regiment Association
Unfortunately, it can be easy to forget that it’s Veterans Day since most offices and schools remain open and New York City’s veterans represent only about 2.6 percent of the total population. But it’s quite an important day, and the city’s Veterans Day Parade, known as “America’s Parade,” is the perfect way to honor our servicemen and women; it’s the country’s largest event marking the holiday. Like most events in New York City, the parade has a history all its own, so 6sqft decided to explore that a bit further as our way of saying thank you to the brave veterans who have fought for our freedom.
Before we delve into the history of the parade, let’s have a quick refresher on the history of Veterans Day itself. You probably remember from history class the phrase, “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.” That was the hour when a WWI cease fire went into effect between the Allied nations and Germany in 1918, ending the “war to end all wars” on what came to be known as Armistice Day. Though the war officially ended when the Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919, November 11th is when the bloodshed really stopped. So, in November of 1919, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed this date the first commemoration of the end of the war. It wasn’t until 1938, however, that Veterans Day became a legal federal holiday.
The first parade in New York City to honor veterans marked the end of WWI. On September 10, 1919, the city held a march known as the Victory Parade to welcome home General John J. Pershing, the commander in chief of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), along with 25,000 soldiers who served in the AEF. The members of the 1st Division, wearing trench helmets and full combat gear, marched down Fifth Avenue from 107th Street to Washington Square. The New York Times reported at the time: “It was the town’s first opportunity to greet the men of the 1st Division, and to let them know it remembered their glorious part in the American Army’s smashing drives at Toul, at Cantigny, at Soissons, at St. Mihiel, and at the Meuse and the Argonne.”
The Home with Honor Parade, via NCRP
From then on, the American Legion continued to produce the parade annually, following the same route. In 1968, however, soldiers returning home from the Vietnam War realized they weren’t welcomed by their fellow veterans–mostly from WWII and the Korean War–or by the American public. In fact, the Home with Honor Parade that marched through Times Square in 1973 to welcome home Vietnam vets was barely acknowledged by any media in the country.
A Vietnam vet named Vince McGowan decided in 1986 to form his own organization where all veterans who served honorably would be accepted. He teamed up with a World War II vet and a Grenada vet and named the organization the United War Veterans Council. Just a year after the UWVC was formed, the American Legion announced that it would stop producing the New York City Veterans Day Parade. Many believe it had to do with controversy surrounding the participation of gay veterans. So, the UWVC stepped in and took over the parade. It started small at first, but after several years and a $1 million gift from Donald Trump, the crowds began to multiply, especially in 1995, which marked the 50th anniversary of WWII. McGowan, then the UWVC President, told Business Insider that following 9/11 the parade took on a new meaning. Not only has the past decade seen a parade take place during a time of war, but so many of the veterans marching are being welcomed home for the first time.
This year’s parade expects more than 20,000 participants and over 600,000 spectators. Veterans from every conflict since WWII will be represented, as will military dogs. Robert Morgenthau, legendary Manhattan DA and World War II Navy veteran, will serve as the grand marshal. Each year, a parade theme is chosen; this year’s commemorates the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and the 25th anniversary of Desert Shield. A new addition comes courtesy of Google. Using virtual reality technology, the company will film the event so that veterans unable to attend due to distance or disability can feel as through they’re actually walking in the parade.
The parade begins today, November 11th, around 11:25am at Fifth Avenue and 26th Street. It then marches up and finishes at 52nd Street. At 11:00am, “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month,” a wreath-laying ceremony to honor those veterans who lost their lives will take place at the Eternal Light Monument in Madison Square Park.
For more details, visit the official website of America’s Parade.
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