Early on, William E. Galbraith's interest in The American Legion didn't include much more than a place to play pinochle. That changed in 1950 when his wife, Gwen, became president of American Legion Auxiliary Unit 159 in Beemer, Neb. – the same post to which William belonged.
Gwen attended Nebraska's Auxiliary convention and, upon returning home, told Galbraith that if he'd get more involved in the Legion, he'd find it to be a very important organization doing very important things. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Galbraith took his wife's advice and became post commander in 1953. A decade later, Galbraith began a quick ascension up the organizational ranks. He served as Department of Nebraska commander from 1962-1963, Nebraska's National Executive Committeeman from 1964-1965, a national vice commander from 1965-1966 and, finally, national commander from 1967-1968. He passed away March 4 at age 86.
"He was a dedicated Legionnaire who always put the Legion up front and above everything else," said Past National Commander Michael J. Kogutek, who knew Galbraith for more than five decades. "He was truly interested in The American Legion and in our veterans.
"And on a personal note, he was a man of integrity. He always spoke from the heart and was very sincere. I'm going to miss him, and I know the organization is going to miss him."
Past National Commander Clarence Bacon knew Galbraith since the early 1960s. After serving as commander, Galbraith and his wife would often visit their daughter in Maryland, Bacon's home state. The two, along with their wives, would have dinner from time to time. Galbraith also came to Maryland immediately after his tenure was over to deliver Veterans Day speeches to Legion posts and at a school.
"On a personal level he was a real gentleman," Bacon said. "He was always very concerned and caring toward veterans, and he was willing to do all kinds of jobs to help them at both the state and national level."
Galbraith tried to enter the military at 17, but his father wouldn't sign the necessary paperwork. He joined when he turned 18 and served as a Navy Armed Guard radar man. While stationed mostly in the United States, he did make one trip across the Atlantic to La Havre, France, aboard a merchant ship that had been converted to a troop carrier.
After his service, Galbraith attended the University of Nebraska on the GI Bill, graduating in just three years with a B.S. in agricultural extension. He went on to teach school for several years before becoming the owner-operator of a 320-acre cattle and pork farm in Nebraska.
He joined Post 159 in 1950 and was voted post commander three years later. During his tenure, he led a program that established a $26,000 Legion-owned medical clinic; the town had been without a doctor for 12 years.
Nine years later, Galbraith was elected department commander, during which he offered the department's full support to the state's education efforts. Nebraska's governor named Galbraith co-chairman of a three-year series of state regional conferences on education. Galbraith also served on the state's 15-man Centennial Celebration Commission – an experience that later served Galbraith when he was helping plan the Legion's 50th anniversary in 1969. For his work in planning Nebraska's centennial, Galbraith was named honorary parade chairman for the event.
"I was very impressed with his background," said Department of New York Adjutant Dick Pedro, who first met Galbraith when the future national commander was campaigning through New York. "He had quite a professional background. And he came up very fast within the ranks of The American Legion."
After serving on the NEC and as a national vice commander, Galbraith was elected national commander on Aug. 31, 1967, at age 41. He was the first national commander from Nebraska.
During his tenure leading the Legion, Galbraith had a chance to visit South Vietnam. Upon his return, he wrote how those wanting to abandon the war efforts there hadn't had a chance to visit the country. "On all sides I was surprised to see a nation with an enormous future," he wrote in The American Legion Magazine. "(It's) a rich land, ripe for development, inhabited by a people with the native talent to develop it." He emphasized that when talking about U.S. involvement in Vietnam, the future needed to be considered – not just the present.
As 1968 was an election year, Galbraith also warned against using Vietnam for political gains – especially when it came to discussing negotiations to end the war. "The negotiations are no game for amateurs," he wrote, "nor should any true American having no responsibility in them, invite himself in the swim to muddy the waters."
Galbraith launched the Stitch-In-Time program, with the goal of sending 100 sewing machines – along with textiles – to South Vietnam to provide occupational training and employment for war widows, orphans and other war refugees.
Looking toward the future, Galbraith created The American Legion Task Force for the Future. The mission of the task force, Galbraith said, was to examine the posture of the United States in areas of education, health and welfare, the condition of the economy and the conservation of natural resources. At the same time, the task force was to examine the programs and goals of the Legion to determine their conformance with current patterns of American life, and to come up with new ways the Legion could make significant contributions to the nation. The end result of the task force was to provide the Legion with a strategy for the future.
Galbraith appeared before the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs in March of 1968, calling for increases in compensation payments for 100-percent service-connected disabled veterans and for the monthly dependency indemnity compensation for widows, and for the then-Veterans Administration to take over the administration and maintenance of national cemeteries.
Membership in the organization climbed by more than 36,000 during Galbraith's tenure, which also included the launching of S.S. American Legion, a $17 million container liner. Galbraith's wife christened the ship under her husband's eye on Feb. 27, 1968.
And as one of his final acts as national commander, Galbraith presented Secretary of the Army Stanley Resor with $50,000 on Aug. 16, 1968. The money was a down payment on The American Legion's Gift to the Nation – a permanent lighting system for the Tomb of the Unknown at Arlington National Cemetery. A trust also was set up to cover the cost of perpetual maintenance to the system.
In addition to his Legion work, Galbraith was a member of other veterans service and civic organizations, and was given several appointments through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, including deputy administrator for state and county operations for Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Services.
"He really worked long and hard for The American Legion and for the farmers back in his home state," Bacon said. "If you're looking for an individual who was dedicated for his entire life to veterans, that man was Bill Galbraith."
Galbraith is survived by his wife, daughter Claudia, and son Billy. Condolences should be sent to Billy Galbraith and family, 4905 Long Branch Lane, Edmond, OK 73034.