August 2014 brings to mind Barbara Tuchman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Guns of August, which tells in detail the story of the first month of the Great War, World War I, in August 1914. It is now 100 years ago that Europe erupted into the greatest war the world had ever known, a war that was to have such far-reaching consequences.
Those of us of a certain age learned about World War I at school later on, but our first acquaintance with the war was from listening to our fathers and uncles talk about it, as much talk as they ever did. We were sitting on screened porches on summer evenings, rapt as my father explained the results of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, or as he and his contemporaries spoke of the impact of the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania, a British ship from which 128 American passengers lost their lives and which began to draw the United States out of our neutrality.
It was 1917 before we actually entered the war, a full two and a half years after the conflict began. A lot of young American men shipped out to France, something that had never crossed their minds. In smaller numbers, a lot of American women also went to France, many as nurses and a good number as YMCA volunteers. Enormous social changes came about. As the old song says, “How you gonna keep down on the farm once they’ve seen gay Paree?”
The Y’s involvement as wartime volunteers goes back to the American Civil War when the Y sponsored nurses, aides and others, the best known of whom was Walt Whitman, who cared for the wounded and who wrote as soldiers dictated letters home. By the time of World War I the Y was sponsoring not only health-related services but also, and more memorably, rest and recreational volunteers and professionals — 26,000 of them, about 2,600 of whom were women. The Y posters from that era can be found in many local YMCAs and can get rather pricey in antique shops.
What formed in 1941 as the USO, the United Service Organization, represents the joining together of the Y with five other groups (the Salvation Army, the YWCA, the National Catholic Community Service, the National Travelers Aid Association and the National Jewish Welfare Board) with whom the Y had worked during World War I to provide emotional support — “homes away from home” — for exhausted service personnel who were ready for a break from the front lines.
Successive generations of military personnel, including this writer, have appreciated the hospitality of USOs, and many of us continue to make annual contributions for the valuable work the USO still does. It is no small thing that the Y raised more than $235 million in voluntary contributions — equivalent to $4.3 billion today — to finance its war relief efforts.
Not as well-known was the Y’s post-war educational scholarship program, begun as a sign of appreciation to those who served and as an encouragement to further occupational and professional development in promising young adults. The YMCA awarded 80,000 scholarships to returning veterans. What would now be regarded as a small beginning became the prototype of the well-known G.I. Bill of Rights, which has benefited subsequent generations of military personnel, again including this writer.
War, at best, is tragic. However, sometimes the demands of war call forth the best we have to give, and World War I was certainly a time for the YMCA.
» Camarillo Famiy YMCA, 3111 Village at the Park Drive, 805.484.0423
» Lompoc Family YMCA, 201 W. College Ave., 805.736.3483
» Montecito Family YMCA, 591 Santa Rosa Lane, 805.969.3288
» Santa Barbara Family YMCA, 36 Hitchcock Way, 805.687.7727
» Stuart C. Gildred Family YMCA, 900 N. Refugio Road, Santa Ynez, 805.686.2037
» Ventura Family YMCA, 3760 Telegraph Road, 805.642.2131
— Thomas H. Schmid is a program specialist for Active Older Adults at the Santa Barbara Family YMCA.