After more than a century of service, women in the American Legion Auxiliary Unit 14 continue to uplift those who have ties to the military.
The unit turned 100 in January 2021, a milestone marking the group’s robust history and unwavering support of veterans in Vancouver. Although the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the auxiliary’s initial celebration, members were committed to acknowledging the group’s past and are hosting a commemoration today.
“One of our goals is to let the community know we still exist,” member Jo Strickland said. “We are still here.”
Scrapbooks loaded with photos of members, newspaper stories and scribbled agenda minutes were unearthed from a storage closet. At the event, some of Unit 14’s 82 auxiliary members, their state president, Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle and the public may view the content spanning from the organization’s founding in 1921 and beyond and learned about significant events.
Delving into history
During the auxiliary’s existence, its members heard about global battles through those they helped. Unveiling the timely documents reminded members of the group’s achievements.
As the U.S. became involved in World War II, military activity at the Vancouver Barracks heightened as it became a transitional site for troops departing the county. Shipyards formed throughout the Pacific Northwest and brought in more soldiers and laborers.
During this time, women in the auxiliary did what they could to support the cause, whether it was visiting injured soldiers at the Barnes Hospital or sending gifts to families who were in different states. Some served as a source of amusement to help those who were hurting.
“You got volunteered to entertain and — whether we were very entertaining — it took their mind off their problems,” said the chapter’s president Gloria Clemmings.
Compared to today, there isn’t as much work to do as there was during Vancouver’s boom during World War II, she said.
Still, the auxiliary has a grasp on community involvement through various programs, many in partnership with other local veterans associations. The women find themselves crafting bright red paper poppies to raise money for veterans or active-duty service members, as well as helping homeless vets and families in need.
A central theme in the group’s 100-year recognition was looking back to move forward and build recognition in the area — and hopefully building a larger membership in the process.
Digitizing the past to benefit the future
Although the physical copies are nudged together in a system of organized chaos behind a locked door, members celebrated a recent initiative to make them accessible to the public.
The auxiliary’s centennial committee worked with the Clark County History Museum to learn about the organization’s past in preparation of its centennial.
Museum director Bradley Richardson said a volunteer archivist worked for four to six consecutive months scanning three tubs of scrapbooks — a fraction of what the auxiliary possessed at their home base — and processed them through an optical character recognition.
The practice involved much more than throwing pages of notes in a copier, though. Staff filtered through the scanned images and reassessed what the program mischaracterized or omitted. Sometimes they were required to learn an entirely different language: people’s handwriting.
Richardson delved into the details of stories related to a selection of documents chosen by auxiliary members. Rather than regurgitating an outline of what the scrapbooks contained, he attempted to unlock the humanity behind the pasted photos and scribbled notes, Richardson said.
The museum director said he believes the digitization project encourages the community to learn more about local organizations by making past documents more accessible. Unlocking anecdotal and personal stories is more powerful than reading names and numbers associated with moments in history, he continued. It can draw in a new generation.
“There could be an opportunity for individuals from the community that maybe haven’t engaged with the auxiliary (…) to read the stories of the past and see a reflection of their own experience and time right now,” Richardson said.