CLEARWATER — The square table, covered in a white tablecloth and set for one, is lighted all night long in the dark foyer of the American Legion on Turner Street. An empty chair awaits the diner.
“That chair is our prisoners of war reserve seat,” said Post 7 Commander Robert Farrell. “If a prisoner of war ever comes back, he has a reserved seat here in this post. It’s in our front hallway and it’s lit. Even in our dark hours, it’s lighted to show the way home.”
From the Spanish American War to the Great War to World War II, American Legion Turner-Brandon Post 7 has served as a community and social anchor for Clearwater’s returning war veterans and their families. Congress chartered the national organization on Sept. 16, 1919; Post 7 was chartered a few months later on Nov. 11, 1919 — Armistice Day.
“Our preamble reads, ‘To perpetuate the American spirit and the American way of Life and to remember our fallen and to assist soldiers and returning veterans.’ That was the whole thing. It still is, we still serve our veterans and communities,” Farrell said.
American Legion Post 7 — the oldest military post in Clearwater — celebrates its centennial the week of Veterans Day with a series of events, including a Friday night dance and special dinner. The post’s name is taken from history itself: Leroy “Ian” Brandon was born on June 10, 1897, in Clearwater to parents Leroy John Brandon and Mary Isabell Reynolds. As the Germans tried to break through the French lines to move on Paris on June 6, 1918, the U.S. 5th Marine Regiment was ordered to stop them. Ian and others in his company crossed a wheat field toward the Germans, who swept the field with machine gun fire from the protection of Belleau Wood.
Brandon’s body was never recovered; he is memorialized on the Tablets of the Missing at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery at the edge of those woods.
Edward Campbell Turner, a U.S. Navy Seaman Second Class, died at sea while serving aboard the USS Rhode Island, according to the Post 7 history. The Rhode Island ran anti-submarine patrols and escorted troop ships in the Great War.
In the hundred years since these sons of Clearwater gave their lives, the post has held Saturday night dances, celebrated the holidays, hosted weddings, anniversary parties, and of course, celebrated July 4 and other patriotic days.
Until 1940 — when it was reconstructed as the large building and hall it is now — the post was a large, two-story house with an American Flag snapping atop a tall pole out front. Imagine standing among 1930s and 1940 Fords and Chevrolet coupes and sedans parked along Turner Street outside the post on a Saturday during World War II.
“We had United Service Organization dances here, we held War Bond drives, and many other functions to support the war effort here,” Farrell said. “We had American soldiers from the Pacific and Europe come here on leave to do Bond drives to raise money for the war. We had USO dances and many, many other events.”
The post building is laced with history. The Wall of Honor inside the post’s large ballroom displays stars engraved with the names of deceased members; a small bottle of sand from Utah Beach sits on a shelf honoring those who were cut down on June 6, 1944; and a collection of historic weaponry that includes an 1862 U.S. Navy sword produced by the Ames Manufacturing of Chicopee, Massachusetts. There’s a short sword that bears the U.S. Army logo (1823); a swastika flag taken from Gestapo headquarters in Frankfurt; a pair of long, World War I infantry boots, and other mementos of war.
“All of these were donated over the past century from members who brought them back from wars,” Farrell said.
There are 2 million members attending 12,000 American Legion posts in the United States, and Post 7 reflects the Legion tradition of supporting veterans. Since just after World War I, the post took on the job of registering the location of veteran graves in Pinellas County.
Post members also place flags on the graves of veterans at Bay Pines National Cemetery in St. Petersburg, at Sylvan Abbey Memorial Park in Clearwater, and other veteran burial sites. They also teach local students proper flag etiquette, the Pledge of Allegiance (Farrell said the local school kids can recite it on a dime) and other patriotic traditions.
The Women's Auxiliary of American Legion Post 7 was formed on July 14, 1924, and its Sons of the Legion was formed on August 1, 1983.
On a recent Thursday morning auxiliary members were busy preparing for bingo that evening.
The auxiliary is closely connected to Bay Pines Veterans Hospital and other organizations that serve veterans, said Tammy Deluca, first vice president of the Post 7 auxiliary.
“We take in a lot of donations by putting up donation boxes, we sell T-shirts, and raise money in other ways,” Deluca said. “We just put together a cookbook of our members’ favorite recipes, and it’s being printed right now. It will go on sale in time for the post’s centennial.”
“We help them if they can’t make rent, we feed them, and do an awful lot for them,” said Lou Lauster, auxiliary sergeant at arms. “There was a call for new socks for veterans at Bay Pines Veterans Hospital; we do things like that for them.”
This year’s Veterans Day Centennial on Monday, Nov. 11, coincides with Post 7’s 100th anniversary, so the post will combine the two milestones.
In addition to speeches, lunch, and color guard and flag ceremonies on Veterans Day Monday, the Gulf High Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) will do honors at 11 a.m. and will include an honor guard of all post officers and dignitaries.
On Friday, Nov. 15, a spaghetti feast with honored guests will see a special program marking the post’s anniversary, Farrell said.
“The Reserved Officers Training Corps (ROTC) Honor Team, the Blue Star Mothers and the American Gold Star Mothers of Tampa Bay, as well as state and district Legion officers will be a focus of the evening,” he said.
“We will have three, uniformed honor guard members outside the front door as people arrive,” Farrell said as he gave a tour of the large post at 1760 Turner St., not far from the intersection of Keene Road and Gulf to Bay Boulevard. The three honor guard members outside will each fire three times for nine volleys, which will signal a bugler inside the post to play “Day is Done,” commonly known as Taps.
“We will then perform a flag-folding ceremony in white gloves and dress uniform and present a flag to each of the Blue and Gold Star Mothers.”
While serving in South Vietnam, Farrell was a crewmember on a C-47 Spooky, a Douglas DC-3 outfitted with high-speed, 7.62-mm machine guns. Ground troops would call in the U.S. Air Force plane to clear enemy soldiers from tree lines and other defensive positions. He does not bring it up unless asked, but he survived when his plane was hit by ground fire and went down. Another crew member did not survive.
He instead points to others in the post for their courage.
“We are home to Legion state officers, eight Blue Star mothers with sons in combat; eight Gold Star mothers who have lost sons in combat, and Frank Reiser, who won a Bronze Star after coming ashore in Normandy on D-Day,” Farrell said.
U.S. Army Master Sgt. Ralph Sanchez, one of the original Green Berets at Fort Bragg, S.C., also is a member. He is perhaps one of the most-decorated soldiers in Pinellas County, with the Distinguished Service Medal, the equivalence of four Purple Hearts, the Silver Star, and other medals.
There is another reason to celebrate this year.
Dwindling membership at American Legion posts everywhere once indicated an uncertain future for the veteran organization. If you were in the military between wars, you could not join the Legion.
“The reason for the dwindling membership was we had a heck of a lot of guys from World War II in the Legion and they are all passing away,” Farrell said.
A federal law signed on July 30 now opens membership for 6 million more veterans.
“Anybody with an honorable discharge after 1941 can now join the Legion,” he said. “We want all local veterans to come and celebrate with us and see what we’re about.”