In 1947, as life in the United States settled into the new normal following World War II, President Truman formally established the Department of Defense to oversee all branches of the military.
At that time, each branch held its own appreciation day. Instead, in 1949 Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson unified these events into Armed Forces Day, to be celebrated on the third Saturday each May. The first such day celebration came on May 20, 1950. Cities throughout the nation participated – and still do – with parades and other celebrations.
This year, it will be celebrated May 18. Count the California cities of Torrance and Oceanside among those still going strong with their events.
Torrance, in fact, hosts the longest-running parade of any city in the nation and is one of the few cities actually sanctioned by the Defense Department to host such an event. The then-Mayor Albert Isen introduced the first parade in 1960 “… increase public respect and understanding for military service and promote civic-military relationships.”
This year’s event will be its 60th and expects to draw at least 60,000 people, according to John Newman of the police department’s Traffic and Special Events Division.
“In good years, we’ve had 100,000,” he said.
The three-day celebration begins with military equipment viewing and a concert on Friday night, a 5k run and the parade on Saturday, and more military exhibits on Sunday.
They will see members of the military and some of its aircraft and armaments make the mile-long trek down Torrance Boulevard among the many parade entrants. All four branches will be represented. Military activity overseas, along with budget cuts, can dictate the amount of military equipment available, but there is always some on display.
“War or no war, we’re still here to celebrate our military,” Newman said.
The city each year recognizes one branch as its honored service. This year it will be the Navy, with Rear Adm. Bette Bolivar riding as the parade’s grand marshal. The parade is just one part of the festival of appreciation, which includes more military equipment on display, and free concerts.
Eighty miles to the south, the city of Oceanside hosts its 18th “Operation Appreciation” celebration.
Oceanside’s nearest and dearest neighbor is Camp Pendleton. Kristi Hawthorne, Oceanside Chamber of Commerce’s Director of Events and Military Outreach, said the city began its celebration as a way to thank the U.S. Marines and Navy personnel who were among the first deployed to the Middle East following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“They were sent off to Afghanistan and Iraq in a big way,” she said. “We take great pride in our 76-year relationship with Camp Pendleton.”
So the city and chamber created “Operation Appreciation,” and for the first 15 or so years staged the event on the beach. Construction projects forced them to move to downtown, where they’ve transformed it into a street fair-type event the past few years.
“The only thing we don’t have is the Pacific Ocean as a backdrop,” she said.
And how do they show their appreciation? All military personnel and their families pay nothing. More than 40 sponsors provide food and entertainment, including bounce houses for the military children. Bands provide music throughout the day, and children from the North Terrace Elementary School – students from military families – traditionally sing patriotic songs.
In northern California, the foothills community of Georgetown offers The Georgetown Military Resources Fair on May 18, though the event really wasn’t created with Armed Forces Day in mind, said organizer Ken Welch.
Created by veterans for veterans, the event is designed to help them navigate the world of veterans benefits. It will include consultations with certified veterans service officers and presentations by representatives of various agencies. The event runs from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. at the C.W. Wilkinson – VFW Memorial Park in Georgetown.