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  • Peter Zizek

Willimantic 4th of July Parades

Long before the days of the Willimantic Boom Box Parade, the city held an annual military parade organized by the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post to celebrate Independence Day. The Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States traces its roots back to 1899, when the Veterans of the Spanish-American War (1898) and the Philippine Insurrection (l899~l902) founded local organizations to secure rights and benefits for veterans of the fighting forces. A number of amalgamations followed, and by I913, the current VFW was in existence.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars in Willimantic, Gold Star Post No. 1724, was very active in local civic events. For several years, the Post organized not only a July 4th parade but a day filled with activities. In 1932, the Post honored the 200th birthday of George Washington. More than a thousand people gathered at Soldiers Memorial Park in the evening for a concert and display of fireworks. The 1933 celebration began on the evening of July 3 with a bonfire attended by more than 8,000 people. The VFW had a full day of activities planned for the 4th itself. In 1935, the VFW had a “Pageant of Nations” and bonfire on July 3 and the usual full day of events on the 4th. In 1937, the VFW hosted its tenth July 4th celebration and planned it as a two full-day event. A parade, concert, bonfire and amateur vaudeville contest were the among the activities on the 4th. On Monday the 5th, there were two softball games, drill team competitions, drum and bugle corps contests, a flyover by the Aviation Corps of the National Guard and “an elaborate fireworks display”. Part of the VFW’s 1938 celebration was its hosting of the VFW state parade and convention.

The July 4th celebration held in 1940 was particularly poignant, as the country seemed to be on the verge of another World War. German forces were overrunning Europe, and the Pacific East was coming under the control of Japanese forces. The 1940 celebrations were based at Wood's Field on Jackson Street, where daylong activities culminated in a bonfire and fireworks display. The military parade included VFW members dressed in American army uniforms dating from the Revolutionary War, the War of l8l2 and the Spanish American War. The marchers assembled at Lincoln Square, and were led by the VFW boys bugle and drum corps at Lincoln Square. The Garde St. Mary followed them and the military assembly marched up Main Street to Bank Street, turned right onto Bank Street and right again onto Valley Street,and down to Jackson Street where they marched to Wood's Field. When the parade reached Woods Field, a crowd of more than 6,000 was awaiting them. The various organizations conducted military drills, and then in turn they lowered their colors. The large crowd then assembled around the central stage where Dr.(Major) William Keating, recently discharged from service at the U.S. Veterans Hospital at Newington, took the oath of office as the commander of the Gold Star Post No. 1724.The audience then settled down to watch an amateur vaudeville contest, which was won by Rjcharcl Vie, who performed several popular vocal selections. The Gude twins were awarded the runners-up prize. Then followed a concert by the Thread City Band. Unfortunately, the heavens opened just as the concert came to an end, and to everyone‘s disappointment the bonfire and firework display had to be postponed until the following evening. The bonfire and an “elaborate pyrotechnic exhibition “eventually went ahead, and the police, Windham Hospital and the Willimantic Fire Department reported that there had been no serious injuries or fires in the city, as had been the case in previous years because of the careless setting off of fireworks.

The Willimantic VFW hit the headlines in early 1942, when it agreed to turn back to the government a 75 mm French cannon, and a heavy mobile trench cannon, which had been obtained from the War Department after World War l. Both guns were constructed of steel and weighed in at over two tons each. They had been in storage since the state VFW parade in 1938, when the heavy guns had been towed along Main Street by


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