Do you have memories of marching in the Chattanooga Armed Forces Day Parade? Did you know that for decades the City of Chattanooga and Hamilton County offices along with all schools closed at noon on Armed Forces Day?
Chattanooga celebrates its heritage as the home of the longest-continuously staged Armed Forces Day Parade celebration in the nation, beginning in 1949 with leadership provided by Co-Military Chairs, TSgt. Charles H. Coolidge, MOH, and Sgt. Alvin C. York, MOH. The theme chosen that year was ‘Teamed for Defense’ and it’s hard to imagine a better team to get Chattanooga citizens cheering than World War I’s most decorated soldier, Tennessee’s York, and Chattanooga’s own WWII hero, Coolidge.
The initial Armed Forces Day Parade committee organized the first parade in response to a 1949 announcement from then-Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson who designated an official Armed Forces Day as a celebration of all the military branches instead of the separate celebrations for each individual branch. In support, President Truman wrote that recognizing all members of the military was “vital to the security of the nation and to the establishment of a desirable peace,” noting that being prepared to defend our liberties is the job of “every member of the armed forces of this nation”.
The first Armed Forces Day was celebrated across the nation. In Washington, D. C., more than 10,000 members of the military marched, alongside cadets and veterans, past the President’s reviewing stand. New York City residents witnessed one of the greatest military airshows as more than 250 planes “of all types” flew across the city. And, in Chattanooga, many of the “battlewagons” and “military vehicles” salvaged from World War II carried members of the military and veterans as the city demonstrated its appreciation for those who had stood and were standing on the lines of defense.
The Armed Forces Day Parade tradition began with an outpouring of respect for TSgt Coolidge and Sgt. York joined in a historic moment by fellow Medal of Honor recipients Paul Huff and Raymond Cooley and has continued through the decades. As the city prepares for the 2021 parade on Friday, 07 May, the members of the Armed Forces Day Parade Committee, chaired by Hamilton County Veteran Services Officer Charles Alsobrook, is excited to once again host a full parade after last year’s limited production due to Covid-restrictions.
In 1961, Chattanooga had embarked on a campaign to become the City of Flags. Prior to the parade, representatives of the Boy Scouts, Girls Scouts, businesses, civic groups, garden clubs, and patriotic organizations including the VFWs, American Legions, Daughters of the American Revolution, and others had joined together to sell 3’ x 5’ U. S. flags [at cost]. Communities were pitted against communities to be recognized as a ‘100% Flags’ neighborhood. On the day of the Armed Forces Day Parade, with Dr. Frank R. Barnett, Rhodes Scholar and Director of Institute of American Strategy, serving as the Keynote Speaker for the luncheon at the Patten Hotel, Chattanooga lauded an attendance of more than 50,000 attendees with thousands of flags displayed.
To add to the excitement of the 1961 parade, students at nineteen area schools created floats portraying the lives of great American citizens. Dr. James W. Livingood compiled a list and the heads of schools met to “draw” the name of their school’s ‘Great American’. Brainerd High’s float honored William Penn while OLPH celebrated the life of Benjamin Franklin with Lookout Valley Junior High reminding attendees of Susan B. Anthony’s role in women’s suffrage. Interestingly, the Erlanger School of Nursing’s float featured Clara Barton while the University of Chattanooga honored Admiral Richard E. Byrd.
In 1976, as the United States celebrated its Bicentennial, Mayor Pat Rose named Charles H. Coolidge as the Civilian Chair of the ‘Honor America’ Chattanooga Armed Forces Day Parade, with a luncheon to be coordinated by American Legion Post 14. Joining Coolidge on the committee were Judge Don Moore, Fire and Police Commissioner Gene Roberts, General Madison McBrayer, Cartter Patton, Mrs. Herschel Franks, Dorothy Brammer, and John Popham. Anticipating between “50,000 and 70,000 spectators from the Tri-State area”, Mr. Coolidge noted “This is the occasion when Chattanoogans pay tribute to the boys down the street, to our neighbor’s child . . . that dons the uniform. We pay tribute to the heart and soul of those in uniform. We let these young people know they are not forgotten.”
The tradition will continue next Friday as Chattanooga remembers those who serve.
Linda Moss Mines is the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Historian, Secretary of the Chattanooga Area Veterans Council and Regent, Chief John Ross Chapter, NSDAR.