WEST WILDWOOD, NJ – Eleftheria 6633 is the only predominantly-Greek VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) post in the United States. George Baxavaneos, who served as Post Commander for 22 years, discussed the Post’s founding with TNH, as well as some of the richly-documented history of its members, as captured in the 2013 compendium Honor and Remembrance: a Lifetime of Service to Our Country and Community.
Baxavaneos, along with Isaac Anderson and Emanuel Leventelis, chronicle the Post’s founding: “At the conclusion of WWII, Philadelphia area Hellenic-American returning veterans recognized that they were the fortunate ones who had survived the war, while others would never return. These veterans wanted to ensure that hey men and women who had served would not go unnoticed or be forgotten. [They] decided to form a veteran’s organization as a remembrance to those who did not return.”
Evangelos Mandras held the first meeting of these Greek-American veterans, at the Parish House of the St. George Church in Philadelphia, on November 4, 1945.
The veterans then had three choices: 1) would they be an independent veterans organization; 2) would they join the American Legion (AL); or 3) would they join the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW)?
There was not much debate whether to join one of the established organizations – that’s what the vast majority preferred. But the question was, which of the two, AL or VFW?
After some deliberation, including excellent presentations from members of both organizations, the group decided to go with VFW for the following reason: it had more stringent entrance requirements such as, the members had to have served outside the United States at some point. Accordingly, the members reasoned, they might get more doors opened for them in terms of housing or employment if they were VFW members.
BAXAVANEOS IN KOREA
The military biography of George Baxavaneos, which appears with many others in Honor & Remembrance, also serves as an important lesson in modern American history. Baxavaneos is a veteran of the Korean War but, as he notes, he didn’t even join the army until he was 22 in the summer of 1956, when he was drafted, and didn’t get to Korea until 1956. So, wasn’t the Korean War over by then? Not exactly. There was only an agreed-upon armistice. A truce. A cease-fire. The war did not officially end. In fact, technically, it still has not ended – it is still going on! Of course, physical hostilities have ceased, but emblematic of its continuance is the continued presence of tens of thousands of U.S. troops still stationed there – as Baxavaneos was in 1956.
Half of his unit would be sent to Germany, Baxavaneos explained, and half to Korea. Usually, the first half, alphabetically, would head to Germany. Relieved for the better assignment, Baxavaneos was disappointed to learn that virtually at the last minute, someone switched the groups – and so the “B”s along with the other early alphabet letters would head to Korea after all. “To this day,” Baxavaenos writes, “I still believe that there was a person or persons in the group that had been assigned to Korea with enough connections to have the orders changed.”
South Korea back then was not the prosperous nation it is today. It was all rice patties, Baxavaneos describes. A country mired in a poverty far more intense than what he saw growing up on the streets of North Philadelphia. As Baxavaneos’ battalion’s train pulled into its first stop, a crowd had gathered to see the incoming soldiers. The men stuck their arms out of the stopped train’s windows to shake some hands, only to have their watches and other jewelry stolen right off of their hands and wrists! That was the first and last time they did that.
The cease-fire, of course, did not give anyone peace of mind, least of all Baxavaneos and the other troops stationed there. Alerts would sound often, and no one knew whether they were real emergencies, or simulations. “Fortunately for us, they were all tests,” Baxavaenos later learned.
GREEK LIGHTS UP KOREA
On top of the potential danger, the battalion lacked some of the basic comforts of home, including electricity. But when the commanding officer reviewed Baxavaneos’ file and noticed that he had taken an electrical course in high school, he ordered him to wire the premises. “I had never before attempted anything of this magnitude,” but Baxavaneos got the job done. After about a month, he had wired 16 buildings, which included the ability to watch movies. “I was proud of the fact that I, a little Greek from Philadelphia, had brought light into our part of Korea.”