While the national veterans organization, the American Legion, celebrates its 100th birthday this year, Bonne Terre’s Post 83 can celebrate not only the national centennial, but its own post centennial.
Post Commander Jerry Rokan said while member numbers have dwindled over the years — it chartered with 37 members and now has 23 — it’s still pretty active, putting out flags every Veterans Day on graves, and still making their post available for anyone’s special event.
“We’ve done quite a bit to remodel this place,” Rokan said. “But it takes quite a bit to keep it up. We’ve all kicked in from our own pockets over the years to keep it going, and we’re doing more to it as we can.”
It’s the spirit of camaraderie and cooperation that’s kept the post going strong for the last 100 years, seeing Bonne Terre through the boom and bust of the lead mines, its changing economic and social landscape, its transformation from a company town to a small city that’s seen quite a bit of development in the last few decades.
Bonne Terre was a very different place in 1919. St. Joe Lead Company’s army of miners were daily scooping the metallic element out of the ground by the ton. Whole neighborhoods of mining-company houses were peopled with all manner of families, some of them with foreign, unheard-of names that activated at the sound of the St. Joe whistle. Trains rumbled through town on multiple lines. Automobiles were gaining in popularity, but four-hoofed conveyance was still common. U.S. 67 wouldn’t exist for another half-century.
In 1919, Bonne Terre, as in many towns around the globe, there was a segment of young men who were tired. Exhausted. These veterans of the Great War — no “I”, yet, since World War II hadn’t happened — had seen some of warfare’s newest and worst atrocities. Mustard gas. Months of stalemate in cold, muddy trenches. The introduction of automatic machine guns, bombing by plane and hand grenades.
In Paris, March 1919, four months after Armistice Day signaling the end of the war, a group of men met to discuss the fate of America’s veterans. Many soldiers were still in Europe, waiting to go home … dreading going home, wondering how they would explain what they’d seen, who would understand their, by turns, fantastic and terrible experiences thousands of miles from farm and home. Many returned mentally and physically damaged — shellshock, head trauma, depression, missing limbs, organ damage, chronic disease, suffering from debilitating effects of chemical warfare.
The officers and enlisted men at the March caucus in Paris, which included Theodore Roosevelt Jr., decided to create a national organization called American Legion with “posts” throughout the U.S. Two months later, when the first American Legion caucus was held in St. Louis, Bonne Terre’s soldiers from the Great War were among the first to sign onto the veteran-supportive, community-oriented organization sanctioned by U.S. Congress.
The list of Bonne Terre’s charter members includes names still familiar to the area — Carrico, Bequette, Boyer, Vogt, Pratte. At its inception, the Post 83 was named after Norman R. Jackson, who had enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in April 1917 and was gassed almost a year later in Verdun, on Flanders Fields. He died two days later in a hospital on April 15, 1918. His final resting place is Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and Memorial in Lorraine, France.
According to a 1969 Daily Journal article, in 1919, Jackson Post 83 met for a short time in the Lead Belt Bank building, and, at times, in a barber shop. In 1922, they bought the old Lyceum building for meetings, then sold it to St. Joe in 1935. The members began gathering on the second floor of the East End Drug Store, which stood on the present site of the Bonne Terre Post Office parking lot, and also got together at a place called Roberts Rendezvous.
Years passed, and eventually, so did the armistice. World War II brought in a new wave of men who would fight battles, witness man’s worst atrocities, and come back shaken, if not broken. Some died of bullets made of lead mined from the ground underneath Bonne Terre. Survivors would seek the post-war company and solace of fellow soldiers as they acclimated to civilian life and banded together for civic projects. At some point toward the end of the war, Post 83 members decided to acquire land and create a building all their own.
According to Rokan, they endeavored to build much of the present building at 17 N. Dover St. in one whirlwind weekend, he’s guessed about 1947 or 1948.
“They mixed all the concrete by hand for the walls,” Rokan said. “They started on a Friday morning, finished on a Sunday morning in time for sunrise services, and just worked all through the weekend in eight- or 10-hour shifts.”
The new building was given the name Jackson-Thomure Post 83, the added name honoring Harold Thomure, a Bonne Terre man who died in a Japanese POW camp in 1942.
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Thomure, born in 1915, had enlisted in the Marine Corps with his younger brother, Paul, in 1940. While Paul was sent to Iceland, Harold went on duty in the Pacific. He was stationed at Mariveles, Bataan, north of Manila in the Philippines, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
Thomure was captured by the Japanese. His parents spent frantic months wondering about his whereabouts when he was listed in May 1942 as missing in action from Corregidor Island. Months later, when the Red Cross notified his parents that Thomure was found alive and in a Japanese prison where they could send letters, they were relieved. Things went dark again, though, and in June 1943, Augustus Thomure received a telegram from Lieutenant General T. Holcomb of the U.S. Marine Corps, that his son was dead. No information was available about burial.
Post 83, to this day, still honors the memories of the men after whom it is named. Rokan has scrapbooks filled with clippings that include background information on Thomure and Jackson. Last year, Post 83 honored Jackson’s 1918 death date with a ceremony at the junction of Highway 47 and Vo-Tech Road, where for decades, the Legion’s Bonne Terre presence has been spelled out in large white letters surrounding the American Legion emblem. It’s a familiar sight to all who have traveled through that busy intersection for the majority of the past 100 years.
“…This is more of a homecoming for Mr. Jackson,” Rokan was quoted as saying before the ceremony. “You know, we’re a small post. We don’t have a lot of membership and we don’t have a lot of money to put out on things, but we want to do something in memory of Norman. We’re going to put a stone out in memory of Cpl. Jackson by his name at the memorial."
As longtime post commander, Rokan has happened across a lot of memorabilia from Jackson-Thomure’s post history. On one of the wall’s corkboards at 17 N. Dover St., he’s tacked an old, Post 83 raffle ticket from 1948, offering a 25-cent chance to win a brand-new car. Two displays on the wall, detailing accolades to the American Legion Auxiliary — one from when the auxiliary was chartered and one from 1947 — had been rescued from a dumpster in Festus before being given to Rokan. When the city replaced the crumbling sidewalks surrounding the Bonne Terre Memorial Library, workers gave Rokan the small, metal, American Legion emblem that had been set in the old pavement decades before.
“Wasn’t that nice of them?” said Rokan, setting the concrete-surrounded emblem back on the mantle of the fireplace in the reception hall, which is under major construction. “I thought that was nice of them to think of us. They didn’t have to do it, but they did.”
Rokan said he hopes they can get new members from the recent wave of veterans who have seen duty in the Middle East. He said he wants the fellowship to last well into the future, and thinks the Legion can offer the same benefits to the present generation of veteran that millions of veterans have been enjoying for the past century.
“It’s a brotherhood. You try to help one another out,” he said. “There are people who are involved in organizations, and there are people who aren’t. It takes a different kind of person to do things. I’ve been commander here for about 20 years, and I’m getting old. And I’m getting tired … you know?”
Rokan said he’s been making calls when he runs across contact information for potential members.
“Well, I had a guy tell me one time, he says, after I asked him to join the post, he says, ‘What’s there?’” Rokan said. “I said, well, it’s a veterans organization. We’re probably not the most active post in the state, but we try with what we have. When it comes time to honor our fallen veterans, we do that.”
Rokan said honoring the memories of veterans is something he thinks about a lot more, as he’s gotten older.
“I think about that when I go to cemeteries. I put flags on a man’s grave out there (at Bonne Terre Cemetery) every year … And he used to do what I do now. And I think about that every time I put a flag on his grave. He did that for years, what I do for him. Harry Timko. Harry used to put the flags out every year.
“I think to myself: I hope, whenever I’m gone, someone will carry on the tradition of honoring our fallen soldiers and, you know, put a flag on my grave. I hope that happens.”