A century ago, the flag waved over the battlefields of France above the Colorado Springs volunteers who went to war with Battery C of the Colorado National Guard.
It was found in the basement of the American Legion hall downtown, a dust-covered relic of the forgotten history of the city’s World War I heroes. On Saturday, it returned to glory as a piece of the past that reminds today’s local veterans of the debt they owe the doughboys who kicked off a national movement to honor and support those who went to war.
Fittingly, it happens in observance of a Veterans Day that marks the 100th anniversary of the armistice that stopped the fighting in World War I, on the 11th hour (French time) of the 11th day of the 11th month, 1918.
“This goes back to the true forefathers of the military establishment we have here today,” said Army veteran Keith LaMee, who stumbled on the silk flag, as big as a sheet of plywood, as he went through the stored mementos of American Legion Post 5 at 15 E. Platte Ave.
LaMee has been a one-man Army in his work to preserve memories of the Pikes Peak region’s heroes. He pushed to have the Veterans Affairs clinic on Fillmore Street named after Colorado Springs World War II Medal of Honor recipient Floyd Lindstrom and was the driving force behind a monument to the local men who have earned the nation’s highest military honor that now stands in Memorial Park.
The flag is something different and more obscure.
It was presented by a local Elks Club to Battery C at a time when Colorado Springs was bounded on the east by a dirt road that’s now Union Boulevard.
There were no military bases here, but there were plenty of patriots.
They formed Battery C amid conditions that might sound familiar in 2018. Tensions were rising along the U.S.-Mexico border in 1916 as Colorado Springs, then a whistle-stop town of 30,000, formed the National Security Committee.
The committee had lawyers and shop clerks, an ancient version of the Chamber of Commerce Military Affairs Committee. Alarmed by raids into New Mexico by the bandit revolutionary Pancho Villa — 18 civilians died during a Villa attack on the border town of Columbus — they decided to do something.
So the clerks and professionals got together with Fountain cowboys and Cripple Creek miners to form Battery C, which trained in town then headed to defend the border.
“Victor W. Hungerford and Daniel W. Knowlton, prominent lawyers of Colorado Springs, were elected captain and first lieutenant respectively,” the history of the unit says.
The border mission brought no honors for the battery, which found itself defending the desert with no enemies in sight, But just as the unit came home, America entered World War I, and the Colorado Springs troops became some of the first soldiers called to the colors.
Overseas, the Colorado Springs unit was equipped with modern French artillery and became one of America’s most decorated artillery units.
In nearly every battle fought by American troops, Battery C’s cannons cleared an explosive path.
They came home to glory, with a parade down Tejon Street, the silk flag leading the way.
What makes the tale of that flag important, though, came after the parade. After past wars, veterans were scattered to the winds. They largely came home, shed their uniforms and did their best to forget.
The boys of Battery C were different.
“It’s not the war itself, it is how they stayed brothers after the war,” LaMee said. “They didn’t leave a man behind.”
Most of the veterans groups now active in Colorado Springs, one of the nation’s most populous veteran communities, have their roots in the deeds of the men from Battery C.
The nascent Veterans of Foreign Wars, formed by the small cadre of veterans who fought in the Spanish American War, was reinvigorated by the millions that came home from World War I.
And the doughboys founded their group, the American Legion.
Army veteran Dean Noechel, senior vice commander of the Legion’s Colorado Department, said the generation that fought in the trenches came home as the first veteran advocates in America.
“They brought us the VA and the GI bill,” Noechel said. “The World War I guys had a lot of vision, and they took care of each other.”
Hungerford, leader of Battery C, was a leader in the veterans movement, too.
In early 1919, now promoted to major, Hungerford led a delegation to the founding convention of the American Legion in Paris.
“When the first organization meeting took place in Paris in March 15-17, 1919, about 1,000 officers and enlisted men attended,” the Legion’s official history says. “The meeting, known as the Paris Caucus, adopted a temporary constitution and the name The American Legion.”
Most of Battery C troops joined the Legion, and they designed their hall on Platte Avenue, since remodeled, to look like a wartime hut the troops inhabited overseas.
The Legionnaires also voted, vaulting Hungerford to a post on the Colorado Springs City Council and later electing him mayor.
Hungerford was among the leaders who helped craft Colorado Springs into the military powerhouse it is today, with five military bases, 40,000 active-duty troops and more than 80,000 veterans calling the Pikes Peak region home.
“They managed to get Camp Carson here and the Air Force bases, and later the Air Force Academy,” LaMee said.
That silk flag that flew over battlefields in France had a postwar role to play, too.
In World War I, the flag served as a way to rally troops. In the days before radios and GPS tracking, flags led the way.
Hungerford brought the battle-scarred Battery C colors back to Colorado Springs and donated them to the city.
After World War I, Colorado Springs became a mecca of sorts for veterans, drawing hundreds who had contracted tuberculosis in the trenches to come to the city’s many health retreats.
The flag was later given to the new Legion post downtown, with instructions that it be flown at burial services for the unit’s veterans.
It flew beside Hungerford’s grave in 1949.
LaMee said the flag was rolled up on a shelf in the basement of the Legion hall. It’s still bright colors were wrapped with three ribbons. When the flag was unfurled, brass plaques on its pole showed its significance.
“It is made out of silk and the fringe is extremely thin,” LaMee said. “It’s not what you see in today’s Army units.”
With 48 stars, it’s a reminder of a bygone era, and the doughboys who changed a city and a nation.
“What stands out is their attitude,” said Marshall Bostworth, who heads El Paso County’s Veteran’s Service Office. “They went to war for their country, came home to raise their families and laid the groundwork for the next generation.”
Noechel said the boys of Battery C turned Colorado Springs into one of the nation’s best communities for veterans long before the city became a hub for national defense.
“We owe them everything,” Noechel said. “It was their vision to protect our country and protect our veterans.”
Battery C’s battle flag has seen better days.
“Because it was not stored properly there are a couple of holes,” LaMee said. “Some of the silk has deteriorated.”
Because it is too frail to fly, the Legion has preserved it in an airtight mounting. Now behind glass, LaMee said the flag will be on display to honor those World War I heroes for decades to come.
LaMee said framing the flag and mounting it on a wall for the world to see rights a historic wrong.
“It pains me to know their sacrifices had largely been forgotten,” he said.
Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240 Twitter: @xroederx