Most of the time you will find 88-year-old James “Jim” Whitfield doing what he does best, and that’s serving as the Western Area Coordinator of the Missouri Military Funeral Honors Program.
Under the auspices of the Missouri adjutant general, the program provides graveside military honors for honorably discharged veterans when requested by a family through a funeral director.
However, there are times when the Independence resident isn’t in his office at the Army National Guard Armory in Kansas City. On some occasions, this World War II Navy veteran is either in Washington, D.C., or in Kansas City at the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial as a member of The U.S. World War I Centennial Commission.
Created by Public Law 112-272, the mission of the commission is “to provide opportunities to the people of the United States to learn about the history of World War I, the United States’ involvement in that war, and the war’s effects on the remainder of the 20th century, and to commemorate and honor the participation of the United States and its citizens in the war effort.”
“It’s an honor; but at the same time, it’s an added responsibility ... and a new challenge in my life,” say Jim, who is representing the national American Legion on the 12-member panel.
Since joining Matthews-Crawford Post 131 in Warrensburg, Mo., in 1946, he has served the Legion on the local, state and national levels, and says he’s up to the challenge of fulfilling his responsibilities.
“I plan to attend all the meetings,” says Jim, who has already attended three in-person meetings. The first was in Kansas City in August 2013; the second and third one were in Washington in November 2013 and in February of this year. He also has participated in numerous teleconferences. The commission’s next in-person meeting is scheduled at the Liberty Memorial Museum on July 25.
Jim remembers the phone call he received last March from the Legion’s national commander, asking him to serve on the commission as its official representative.
Being asked to serve on the national panel was “a shock,” he says, recalling he kept asking himself, “Why me, when there are a lot of Legionnaires qualified for this job.”
The commission’s five point mission is to:
• Plan, develop and execute programs, projects and activities to commemorate the centennial of World War I,
• Encourage private organizations and state and local governments to organize and participate in activities commemorating the centennial,
• Facilitate and coordinate activities throughout the United States relating to the centennial,
• Serve as a clearinghouse for the collection and dissemination of information about events and plans for the centennial,
• Develop recommendations for Congress and the president for commemorating the centennial.
The First World War was set in motion June 28, 1914, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austria-Hungry throne, and his wife, Sofia, were assassinated. The United States, though, did not enter the conflict until April 6, 1917. And it’s the latter date (April 6), Jim notes, that will launch the centennial celebration at the Liberty Memorial.
What the commission will recommend to Congress and to the president is anyone’s guess now. But in the process of planning, the panel “will make every effort possible to have the president of the United States speak at the Memorial on April 6,” Jim says. “We hope the president will (deliver) a foreign policy statement.”
“Hopefully,” he says, “we will be planning a (Guns of August) Conference ... to highlight circumstances and policies that were taken that actually led the United States into war, and lessons learned from it.” That conference will be July 25 at the Liberty Memorial.
Another conference focusing on the sinking of the British ship Lusitania will be presented in May 2015 in the nation’s capital, centering, in part, on U.S. foreign policy before and after the war, popular attitudes toward the combatants and other issues.
Another big centennial event will be the celebration of Victory in Europe Day. It will be observed Nov. 11, 2018 – 100 years from the signing of the Treaty of Versailles that ended hostilities.
The celebration also is going to be heavy on education, he says, explaining that after 100 years, there is no one around (who fought in the war).
“We (recently) lost our last World War I veteran (Frank Buckles), who was born around Bethany (Mo.) near where General (John J.) Pershing was born,” Jim notes. Buckles died in 2011 at age 110.
The educational programs, he says, will focus on the following themes:
• Education of the American people about origins of World War I, reasons for subsequent expansion and protraction and the decision of the U.S. to enter the war,
• Commemoration of the American soldier in World War I, and the American role in bringing the war to an end,
• Education about the consequences of the war, including the near-term consequences that led to World War II, the ongoing geopolitical effects that shape continuing conflicts in the world today and movements toward democratic self-governance and self-determination.
Jim believes commemorating the war is “extremely important” for the history of the United States, and for the people to understand that World War I was a forerunner to World War II.
“Its a challenge and we feel confident that citizens will respond to the events that we have and can be a part of the centennial, because there were a lot sacrifices. ... So it’s very important that we commemorate World War I,” he says, adding: “I feel extremely proud to have the honor and responsibility of planning the centennial celebration.”
Retired community news reporter Frank Haight Jr. writes this column for The Examiner. You can leave a message for him at 816-350-6363.