Armed Forces Day: Everything You Should Know

Armed Forces Day honors all currently serving members of the active-duty U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Space Force. It also recognizes and commemorates the service of those who serve in the Army Reserve, Navy Reserve, Marine Corps Reserve, Air Force Reserve and members of the Army and Air National Guards. Veterans of all services who have served honorably are also honored on Armed Forces Day.

Despite the fact that the United States commemorates Veterans Day, which was originally organized to mark the end of World War I, all U.S. military veterans who have served honorably are recognized on Armed Forces Day. Armed Forces Day and Veterans Day are not to be confused with Memorial Day which recognizes those who have died in military service to the United States.

The History of Armed Forces Day
Armed Forces Day was created on August 31, 1949. Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson created it to replace separate Army, Navy and Air Force commemoration days. Armed Forces Day was established after all of the military branches were placed under the control of the newly formed U.S. Department of Defense. President Harry S. Truman signed the National Security Act into law in 1947 also creating the National Security Council, the Central Intelligence Agency and the newly formed U.S. Air Force.

In a speech announcing the formation of the day, President Truman “…praised the work of the military services at home and across the seas” and said, “…it is vital to the security of the nation and to the establishment of a desirable peace.” In an excerpt from the Presidential Proclamation of Feb. 27, 1950, Mr. Truman stated:
“Armed Forces Day, Saturday, May 20, 1950, marks the first combined demonstration by America’s defense team of its progress, under the National Security Act, towards the goal of readiness for any eventuality. It is the first parade of preparedness by the unified forces of our land, sea, and air defense.”

modern day air force parade

One could argue that given the rising post World War II tensions, that the first Armed Forces Day was really a show of force, to let the world see with their own eyes what the United States had in the way of military firepower. It was a way to show that the United States not only liberated the world in World War II, but now had a standing professional military to keep watch.

The first Armed Forces Day was celebrated May 20, 1950. The celebration was held during the third week of May to replace the Army Day Parade held in Washington, D.C. during the first week of April.

The theme of the first Armed Forces Day was “Teamed for Defense.” It was chosen as a means of expressing the unification of all the military forces under a single department of the government. Although this was the theme for the day, there were several other purposes for holding Armed Forces Day.

military parade with tanks and a flag

It was a type of educational program for civilians, one in which there would be an increased awareness of the Armed Forces. It was designed to expand public understanding of what type of job is performed and the role of the military in civilian life. It was a day for the military to show state-of- the-art equipment to the civilian population they were protecting. And it was a day to honor and acknowledge the people of the Armed Forces of the United States.

The first Armed Forces Day was celebrated by parades, open houses, receptions, and air shows. In Washington D.C., 10,000 troops of all branches of the military, cadets, and veterans marched past the president and his party.

In Berlin, 1,000 U.S. troops paraded for the German citizens at Templehof Airfield. In New York City, an estimated 33,000 participants initiated Armed Forces Day under an air cover of 250 military planes of all types.

In the harbors across the country were the famed mothballed “battlewagons” of World War II, the Missouri, the New Jersey, the North Carolina, and the Iowa, all open for public inspection. Precision flying teams dominated the skies as tracking radar were exhibited on the ground. All across the country, the American people joined together to honor the Armed Forces.

horse mounted veterans in a parade

On March 18, 1961, President John F. Kennedy, a Purple Heart recipient, and a U.S. Navy and World War II veteran, declared the third Saturday of May to be a federal holiday and thus began the tradition of recognizing Armed Forces Day on the third Saturday of May.

Armed Forces Day and National Military Appreciation Month
In 1999, Vietnam war veteran and U.S Naval Academy graduate Sen. John McCain drafted legislation to make the month of May National Military Appreciation Month. McCain, a former prisoner of war, believed knowledge of the American military was fading within American society and he felt it was important to recognize the sacrifices of those who serve and their families.

May is packed full of special days which recognize different facets of the military community. May 1, for example, is Loyalty Day, a lesser-known day created for Americans to reaffirm their commitment to the United States. It was also created to counter Communist Worker’s Day celebrations.

VE Day (commemorating victory in Europe in WWII), Military Spouse Appreciation Day and of course, Armed Forces Day are all a part of National Military Appreciation Month. And Armed Forces Week begins the second Saturday of May and ends on the third Sunday of May. The month ends with the solemn remembrance of those who have died in service to the country when Memorial Day is recognized.

Marines in Class A Dress Uniforms marching in a line

Ways to Celebrate Armed Forces Day
There are numerous ways to celebrate Armed Forces Day. The simplest way is to fly the U.S. flag. Attending an Armed Forces Day parade is another solid choice. Lastly, find a local military unit in your community and reach out and deliver some treats to them. There are plenty of Reserve and National Guard units located in many communities. Donating to military charities is also a great way to recognize our military service members. The key is to remember that many military personnel are humble, but they would be grateful for any show of appreciation.

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