A century ago, hundreds of veterans returning to the Olympia area from World War I felt a need for a group to represent their concerns and interests. A major response to this need was the 1919 founding of the Ira L. Cater Post 318 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), currently the nation’s oldest and largest major war veterans organization. This group continues to serve veterans and their families to the present day.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars organization originated in 1899 when a few small groups of veterans recently returned from the Spanish-American War joined together. Over the years, the organization has grown exponentially and now includes 6,200 posts located around the globe with a total of 1.6 million VFW and Auxiliary members.
On November 5, 1919, Olympia veterans gathered to begin organizing their local VFW group and to nominate officers for the new Post. On November 8, the day that the Post considers its birthday, Olympia veterans met at the Elks hall (which used to stand at 315 Capitol Way) where they installed officers.
The first 55 members were initiated at a meeting on November 28 and more joined over time. Almost all of the first members were World War I veterans, though some Spanish-American War veterans also joined. Members of Olympia’s Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) post were made honorary members of the new VFW group. An auxiliary for the wives, sisters, mothers and daughters of veterans started in 1925.
The veterans chose to name the new Olympia VFW post after Corporal Ira Lee Cater. Ira, the son of a streetcar driver, left Olympia High School before his senior year to enlist in the army. He served in Company A of the 28th Infantry in Europe. The young man died of injuries in the Battle of Chateau Thierry on October 16, 1918. His siblings and mother Cordelia Cater were actively involved in the post and auxiliary.
From the start, the Ira L. Cater Post 318 advocated for veterans and their families. In 1920, the Post, in cooperation with Olympia’s Post of the American Legion, operated an employment bureau for veterans. It was a much needed service since a post-war recession hit veterans particularly hard.
Post 318’s veteran support showed in many different projects and programs over the years. During the Great Depression, the Post helped hire unemployed veterans to decorate downtown Olympia for the holidays. The Auxiliary also carried out numerous activities, including running a sewing club for decades and holding dances and card parties for patients at what is now Madigan Army Medical Center. During World War II, the Post promoted Liberty bonds and assisted new soldiers. They sponsored a room at Olympia’s USO Club and gave an attendance award to the Rainier Depot Training area. After the war, the Post helped veterans mustering out to navigate the new GI bill. They also celebrated the end of the war with a rodeo at the Maple Park Riding Arena (near the Olympia Regional Airport) in 1946.
The Post decorated downtown Olympia for the holidays from the 1930s into the 1960s, and held Fourth of July fireworks shows in Stevens Field (next to Lincoln Elementary School) in the 1950s. From the 1940s to the 1970s, the group ran a canteen on the first floor of the Old Capitol Building.
Over time, the VFW moved their Olympia headquarters several times. They first operated out of the Elks lodge building, where they had held their earliest meetings. The Post found a new home at the Labor Temple (119 North Capitol Way) from 1927 to 1948. They met briefly in the Eagles Club (805 4th Avenue East) before going to a temporary building on Martin Way. Then the post moved into a new hall at 2838 Martin Way in 1955. The group built their current hall in 1971 at 2902 Martin Way East.
All American citizens honorably discharged from the Armed Forces of the United States that have served in a war, campaign or expedition on foreign soil or in hostile waters are eligible for membership in the VFW. Spouses, widows or widowers, parents, grandparents, siblings, children, or grandchildren of people eligible for VFW membership may join the VFW Auxiliary.
Ira L. Cater Post 318 remains active today, holding fundraisers throughout the year, including the annual buddy poppy sale and auxiliary rummage sale. They also have a space for veterans to hang out together in the canteen. The Post participates in Memorial Day and Veterans Day celebrations. As a national group, the VFW lobbies the US Congress on the behalf of veterans.
For more information see the group’s website. The Olympia VFW Post continues a long legacy of serving those who have served and their families. They seek to fulfill the motto of the Veterans of Foreign Wars: “No one does more for veterans.”