By H. Scott Hoffmann firstname.lastname@example.org
Previously printed by the News & Record January 25, 2014
LEXINGTON — Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3074 has seen its share of sad days. Days when its members stood by solemnly as grim witnesses to funerals — so many that post commander Buddy Byrd can’t keep count.
“Hundreds, maybe a thousand,” says Byrd, a Korean War veteran and two-time post commander. “The government kept sending boys overseas and they would keep coming back in boxes.”
Yet it’s hard to imagine a sadder time than what Post 3074 faces today.
After 72 years of serving its veterans and community, Post 3074 is closing its doors.
It’s selling the very building where veterans shared stories, drinks, laughs and tears. The place where bingo calls and the raucous sound of square dances filled its meeting rooms on Friday nights.
Those times are gone.
Friday nights, like nearly every night now at Post 3074, are silent.
• • •
For more than 70 years, VFW posts across the country have served as a second home to combat veterans.
But not as much anymore.
Declining membership — the result of old age and a chronic shortage of younger veterans to fill the shoes of its dying members — has forced leaders to sell its building.
It’s a story playing out at many VFW posts across America.
After Post 3074 was formed in 1941, it became one of North Carolina’s largest and most active VFW posts with more than 1,500 members.
Clifford Lopp was one of those early members. An Air Force bombardier who served in 35 missions during World War II, Lopp returned home to Lexington in 1945 and promptly joined the VFW post.
“It was a hell of a post.” Lopp says.
There were bingo games, square dances, billiards, ping-pong, an active ladies auxiliary — the list could go on.
The post’s members-only canteen was so popular “you almost had to fight to get in it was so full,” World War II veteran Jack Frank recalls.
Still, there was more to this post than just grizzled veterans rehashing old war stories. There were parades to march in and an active ladies auxiliary to see that the post’s many good deeds got done.
Lopp saw to much of the work. He led the post’s honor guard unit for decades, where they played “Taps” at the end of funerals.
“We were there for a purpose — to give our men a good burial,” Lopp says. “They were our good friends … and some of them were mighty, mighty young.”
• • •
When you step inside Post 3074, history comes to life through walls covered with vintage photos, maps, artifacts and memorabilia recording the organization’s 72 years of operation.
Among the most treasured artifacts is a framed combat rifle carried by member Curtis “Speedy” Spach, now 94 years old but able to recall his combat days in rich and compelling detail.
Spach was a cocky youngster with a reputation for wrecking cars — 14 by the time he turned 22 — until a fateful December night in 1941 when Spach and his father sat on the edge of their seats, listening intently to a radio station break the news of a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
“I wanted to be the first man to go,” Spach recalls.
Spach rose early the next morning and made his way to an enlistment center where the long line stretched so far back he nearly left. A neighbor spotted Spach and allowed him to cut in line.
Spach felt certain he would be headed for combat only to discover that he was three pounds underweight after stepping onto the recruiter’s scale.
“The recruiter told me to go home and eat lots of bananas and come back. So I went home and stuffed silver dollars in all my pockets, even in my socks, and when I went back and stepped on those scales I had gained three pounds,” Spach says.
Eight months later, Spach found himself in the middle of a unit which was part of the first wave of Marines to invade Guadalcanal.
“Those Japanese had us surrounded and they were all trying to kill us,” Spach remembers. “But I wasn’t afraid of the Devil back then.”
With supplies running short and his fellow Marines being cut down by the hour, Spach decided it was time to find help by swimming up the Matanikua River under the darkness of night. His fellow Marines tried to discourage him.
“Well, if those crocodiles don’t get me, the Japs will,” Spach replied.
Spach stripped off his clothes and left.
He survived along with 25 other Marines in his unit.
When Spach returned to America after World War II, one of the first things he did was join the Lexington VFW.
“It’s the only veteran’s unit as far as I am concerned,” Spach says. “When you are in a VFW meeting, everyone you look at is a combat veteran. They’ve been through what you’ve been through. They relate to each other.”
Stories and the bonds of friendship kept Spach and others coming back to Post 3074.
But as the years and decades passed, many aging veterans from World War II and the Korean War simply found themselves too old to remain active anymore.
For Lopp, the day finally came when “I could no longer walk.”
So he stepped away from the unit’s honor guard.
As other veterans followed suit, Post 3074 gradually began to show its age.
Membership started dropping and the bar emptied out.
Post 3074 was soon losing money — $20,000 to $30,000 a year — that subsidized its canteen, bingo and square dances.
They eventually were cut.
Declining numbers eventually hit the post’s honor guard, causing the unit’s members to drop from 21 to just a handful of volunteers.
The honor guard was disbanded in 2013. The unit’s rifles, uniforms and flags were no longer needed.
Soon, Post 3074’s home will be, too.
• • •
What happened to this once proud and vibrant post is a problem affecting VFW posts across the country.
“In my 13 years, we’ve closed or consolidated 80 posts,” says Bruce Edwards, the quartermaster for Veterans of Foreign Wars in North Carolina. “Our state membership has dropped from 33,000 to 28,000. It’s happening across the board, all across the U.S.”
It’s a desperate battle for survival, affecting not just the VFW but other veterans groups like the American Legion as well as the Moose, Elk and Mason lodges.
“Younger veterans don’t seem to need the face-to-face interaction that veterans from the Korean and Vietnam wars needed,” Edwards says. “They’re younger. They have families, jobs … They tend to rely on social media or Internet for interaction.
“We’re fighting it but it’s tough.”
• • •
One of the ways state and national VFW leaders combat the problem is by merging posts.
Like the 2012 merger in Greensboro between the larger and historically white George E. Preddy Jr. Post 2087 and the smaller and historically black 1st Sgt. Willie Wilson VFW post.
“Both posts were dying down a bit. It pulled everyone together and gave our members more support,” says Nathaniel Degraffinreaidt, the commander of the merged posts.
Merging posts can be a good thing because it keeps the members of a weaker post from disappearing completely.
“You’re almost always going to have one successful post in the larger cities,” Edwards says. “But it’s tougher in smaller communities.”
VFW posts in Randleman and Arcadia (in northern Davidson County) were merged recently into the Archdale VFW post, with letters sent advising members from both posts to transfer their memberships.
James Reaves received one of those letters. The 74-year-old Vietnam War veteran was a member of a VFW post in Winston-Salem until it closed.
So he joined the Arcadia post.
Then it closed.
On one of the coldest winter nights in decades, Reaves recently drove to Lexington hoping he might find a new home at Post 3074 only to discover a large “For Sale” sign driven deep into the red clay of the post’s front yard.
Reaves blames Vietnam for his string of misfortune with so many VFW posts closing.
“We came back from that war and people called us baby killers,” Reaves says. “You can’t blame those vets for not trying harder.”
As Vietnam veterans tried to shrink into anonymity, it ultimately cost places like Post 3074 valuable members who should have served a vital link in its hierarchy of leadership, Reaves points out.
“We should be here taking over now from those World War II and Korean veterans. If the Vietnam vets would have turned out, this place would have been full right now.”
But Post 3074 has been the farthest thing from full.
• • •
As he stands at the podium, Byrd sees the numbers problem staring him squarely in the eye.
Meetings that once drew a 100 or 150 members now routinely see 20.
So last summer, Byrd sat down with his daughter and sent postcards to the remaining members, notifying them of an upcoming meeting where they would determine the post’s future. Of 361 members, only 47 attended — 37 voting to sell the post.
“We don’t really have any other choice,” Byrd explains. “We just can’t sustain it anymore.”
Ceremonial rifles used by the post’s honor guard in funeral services have been shipped to the government.
Most of the post’s rich history, documented in vintage photographs, weapons, posters, maps and uniforms are being donated to the Davidson County Historical Museum, which is currently working on an exhibit that will open Memorial Day.
Byrd supports the museum’s interest. But, like many of its members, he’s sad to see this day arrive.
Post 3074 plans to hold bi-weekly meetings at its current home until a buyer is found. After that, they’ll gather at local restaurants.
The atmosphere of those meetings probably won’t be the same without the rich collection of historical artifacts and memorabilia now hanging inside the Lexington post.
“It’s going to be new for us. A lot of us old folks are not sure how it will work,” Byrd says.
Some members like Ned Beck support the decision. “
“It’s a big, expensive building and it’s falling apart,” Beck says. “It doesn’t have any sentimental value for me.”
Other members like Lopp see it differently.
“I hate to see it go. It ‘s like seeing my old home place being sold.”