Phoenix's American Legion Post 41: Bonded By Barrio And Service
Phoenix veterans who fought in World War II organized what would come to be known as the first Latino American Legion Post in the country.
A blue awning invites visitors into the boxy white building on 2nd Avenue. A mural of “Hispanic Heroes” welcomes you to American Legion Post 41.
“Right here everybody's got nothing but love and respect for each other,” said bartender Lisa Montiel as she gets off her shift.
Inside on a recent Thursday you’ll find the basics for a good night — cheap beer, old friends and a pool tournament.
“I lost my second game, but we’re doing OK,” said Richard Lomeli, laughing. He’s a regular at the post.
“It’s the place to come,” Lomeli said. "We’re all veteranos here and everybody is sharing their experiences.”
He started after serving in the Marine Corp during the Vietnam War.
“When we first came home, they didn’t welcome us home at all,” Lomeli said.
“They used to spit on us and everything else when we got out,” Lomeli’s friend and Navy veteran John Vargas remembered.
Vargas grew up in the south Phoenix neighborhood near the post. Now he drives from Sun City to be here.
“It’s like my second home,” Vargas said.
'What Made Us Unequal Again?'
This feeling of camaraderie and solidarity is what the Post’s founders wanted to create when they returned from World War II.
Christine Marin is a historian and ASU Professor Emeritus and has studied Post 41’s history. She says the war unified Americans from all walks of life.
“Even though we encountered these kinds of divisions, in the fox holes, the veterans say, we were equal,” Marin said.
But Phoenix veterans came home to a segregated city.
People with dark skin didn’t have the same access to housing, public pools or movie theaters.
“After the war, what made us unequal again?” Marin imagines what they might have thought. “Why are we now facing the kinds of things that we faced before.”
This divide catalyzed Latino veterans to form the city’s second American Legion Post in 1945.
Almost immediately members started advocating for the desegregation of Tempe Beach Park and Phoenix housing.
They won those battles.
The post recruited aggressively.
Henry Daley remembers when he returned from the Korean War in the mid 1950s.
“Two days later a gentleman here that really got this place going," Daley said. "He came over to my house, gave me a card and told me I was in the American Legion."
He’s been a member ever since. Daley would meet the woman who later became his wife for dances on the weekends.
“You always ran into somebody you knew,” Daley said.
There are fewer dances now, but the post remains active in other ways. There’s a menudo breakfast every Sunday and fundraising for veterans and youth scholarships. Halloween saw the Post transformed into a haunted house for the kids.
The post counts about 1,000 members between the legionnaires, sons of the American Legion and and auxiliary.
It’s something Post 41’s honor guard is well aware of.
On a recent fall day they’re providing final honors at two funerals. Their bugler is accompanied by a mariachi band at the Westhaven Cemetery.
Robert Hernandez said even though it’s a somber event, there’s an element of reunion.
“It used to be weddings, baptismals, birthdays and now it’s funerals,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez greeted a half dozen post members before the service even starts, including Rudy Lopez, the cousin of the veteran being honored today.
“I’ve been a member since I came home from 'Nam,” Lopez said.
His dad went to the Post too. It’s a family thing.
“Que paso? Talking about family, here’s family too,” Lopez said as he saw another familiar face.
These unconventional brothers catch up for a few minutes and then it’s time for the service to start.
The honor guard stands near the hearse as the flag-draped casket is unloaded.
“Detail, atten-hut,” Honor Guard Capt. Henry “Buster” Villalobos and chaplain Oscar Santa-Cruz salute as their friend is carried to his final resting place.
“We come to honor the memory of one who offered his life in the service of his country,” Santa-Cruz begins the service.
Santa-Cruz and Villalobos lifted the flag from the casket and fold it into a triangle.
Hernandez and two others members of the guard turn to face the casket raise their rifles into the air and fire.
“It’s to acknowledge the fact that they served and they put themselves in harms way — and this is their last farewell,” Hernandez said. “A lot of us grew up together so we’re here as a bond of not only veterans, but as a barrio.”