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A 'Diamond Jubilee' for VFW Post 3289

As the World War II and Korean War era veterans pass on, it is the Vietnam era veterans who are most numerous in the VFW ranks. Two New York Mills VFW Post members, Mike Kawlewski, left; and Jerry Anderson, right; are pictured with visiting state VFW dignitary Steven Van Bergen who presented the Post with a 75th anniversary "Diamond Jubilee" award.1 / 2
Following the presentation of the "Diamond Jubilee" honor, a group of NY Mills VFW Post 3289 members gathered for this photo. From left, Mike Kawlewski, Jerry Anderson, Junior Huwe, Kris Underdahl, Steve Van Bergen, Dale Bachim and Terry Frost.2 / 2

The "American Century" and the history of the New York Mills Veterans of Foreign Wars Post are closely paralleled.

For 75 of the 112 years of the nation's oldest veterans organization, NY Mills Post 3289 has served its members and the community.

The post's "Diamond Jubilee" was observed on May Day, 2010, with a presentation from state VFW dignitary Steven Van Bergen, Spring Lake Park, Minn., who urged Post 3289 members to carry on with the national motto of the 1.5 million member organization: "To honor the dead by helping the living."

The NY Mills Post has exemplified that slogan in numerous ways annually, including donations of as much as $50,000 annually to NY Mills and the greater East Otter Tail community, according to Post 3289 past Commander Jerry Anderson.

Beyond financial contributions, volunteer hours toward community betterment are almost impossible to measure locally. But statewide, it is estimated that VFW and Auxiliary members volunteer 700,000 hours, according to Van Bergen, who is a past state commander and current national VFW council member.

"We haven't always told our story as well as we could. So many people have the impression that a VFW club is just a place you go to drink," said Van Bergen.

The familiar VFW poppy campaign, for example, raises millions of dollars annually for needy veterans and their families, noted Van Bergen.

A timeline of America's conflicts, and the NY Mills VFW Post's connection to those armed engagements, is a summary history of the "American Century":

Spanish American War

Essentially the first international incident where the U.S. flexed its muscle on a global scale, the 1898 conflict propelled Teddy Roosevelt to national fame--just as the century turned. Later as president, Roosevelt positioned America as a rising power on the world stage.

It was three New York Mills area veterans of the Spanish American conflict who were on the roster of 32 when Post 3289 formed on April 28. 1935. Those old soldiers were Peter Blomberg, Thomas Stewart and J.O. Bennett. As an organization, the VFW's roots date to the end of the Spanish American War-making it the nation's oldest veterans organization.

In NY Mills, the oldest veterans group is actually the American Legion Stinar-Sturdevant-Stoltz Post 16, founded in and named after three area boys killed in World War I.

World War I

It was the "Great War" where the U.S. really made its mark on the world, arriving in France and turning the tide against Germany. One NY Mills area soldier, Charles D. Center, was killed in combat in the First World War; and Post 3289 is named in his honor. There were 29 World War I veterans who comprised the list of charter members of the NY Mills VFW Post in 1935. In 1985, when the community celebrated its centennial, there was still one charter member alive: First World War veteran Edward J. Hintsala, 89 years old at the time.

World War II

Numbering 300 or more 40 years ago, the number of World War II veterans in NY Mills Post 3289 has dwindled to fewer than a dozen. Only two remain somewhat active, Ruben Simpson and Russ Jacobson, who still holds an office and also remains active in the NY Mills American Legion.

When the World War II guys returned, membership in veteran organizations exploded. In a simpler time, with no television and other recreational activities, VFW and Legion clubs were neighborhood gathering spots. The clubs were often the only community center in town, so Christmas parties, Easter Egg rolls and other family activities at the clubs helped bind the town together.

Korean War

For Albert "Junior" Huwe, enlisting in the Armed Forces and later joining the VFW in his hometown of NY Mills was simply a matter of following the footsteps of his brothers and relatives. Though Huwe served in Germany shortly after the Korean War, in 1954-55, his story is similar to that of many younger brothers or cousins who followed their older relatives into the service after World War II.

"I was the youngest in the family, but all five of my brothers and a brother-in-law all served during World War II and shortly after," said Huwe. "They all made it back-but they left some pieces over there. My brother-in-law, Marvin Anhorn, landed on Omaha Beach (on D-Day) and it wasn't much fun."

Huwe served as Post 3289 Commander for five years, from 2000-05, but like most of those 1950's and KoreanWar-era veterans, the leadership is turning over.

"An organization should pass down; it should live on it's own," said Huwe, adding that he won't be seeking further officer positions. "Those in leadership don't own it, they are just responsible to keep it going to the next group."

Vietnam War

A 1968 graduate of New York Mills High School, Jerry Anderson is a lifetime member of the Post 3289. He served as commander of the post for four years, and is running for commander again.

Even though Vietnam veterans, because of the controversial history of the war, were slow to join veterans organizations, they now dominate the national organization, according to Van Bergen.

"What we hear from Vietnam veterans as to why they aren't involved in veterans organizations is 'I've never been asked to join,'" said Van Bergen.

Anderson has been a member of the NY Mills Post for nearly 30 years.

Vietnam vet Mike Kawlewski, who enlisted with his parents' approval at age 17, has been a member of Post 3289 for more than 30 years.

For 'Nam vets in Post 3289 and in the area, the effort to bring the traveling Vietnam wall memorial to New York Mills was a "crowning moment," said Anderson. The Wall attracted more than 3,000 to the NY Mills Post last fall.

"Not only for the New York Mills community, but for the whole area," said Anderson. "We had school children here from Perham, Wadena and Mills. It really united the veterans posts in the area, too...I can't thank people enough for all the help and sacrifice to bring the Wall memorial here."

He noted that KLN-Barrel O' Fun, for example, provided six golf carts for aging and disabled vets to use during the Wall exhibit.

Middle East conflicts

The VFW expects that Gulf war veterans will join in increasing numbers, when their kids get older and they have more time.

"Most of the veterans of the first Gulf war are now turning 40," said Van Bergen.

It remains to be seen whether or not the veterans of the Middle East conflicts will replenish the ranks of the veterans organizations.

New York Mills VFW membership stable

Membership in the New York Mills VFW Post is presently at about 239.

"For a small town VFW Post, that is tremendous," said Van Bergen.

Still, it is well below the 350-member roster recorded at the time of the New York Mills centennial in 1984.

Financially, Posts with club facilities and liquor licenses have been challenged in recent years. Stiff drinking and driving penalties, as well as the smoking ban, have cut into revenues at veterans clubs. Statewide, clubs have experienced a 28 to 32 percent reduction in business since the smoking ban, said Van Bergen. A side effect of the ban is a reduction in revenue from lawful gambling.

Regardless of the challenges, the NY Mills Post will continue to serve. Its color guard is in high demand, performing military funeral duty from Menahga to Henning, and communities all around.

"I'd put our color guard up against any Post in the state," said Anderson, proudly.