The world according to Joe Matthews

American Legion Past National Commander Joe Matthews joined the U.S. Navy in 1932, when 12 million Americans were unemployed, the “Bonus Army” of World War I veterans marched against Washington, and gas was 10 cents a gallon. He served on board the battleship West Virginia and the minesweeper Oglala; both ships were destined to be sunk at Pearl Harbor. Matthews joined The American Legion in 1945 and was narrowly defeated in his bid for national commander in 1962. A decade later, he won the election and commanded the Legion during the last year U.S. troops fought in Vietnam. He’s met six presidents – Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan and Carter – and had lunch with one of them. Recently, Matthews spoke with The American Legion Magazine about his life and his deep commitment to the Legion.Q: What were your early days in The American Legion like, when its ranks still included many World War I veterans?A: They were very interesting characters, and they argued with each other an awful lot. It was real odd to me; I wasn’t used to that. Of course, I looked at them with a certain amount of awe, and they would tell stories you wouldn’t really believe. But they had actually done these things.They had a pilot who I knew very well. In fact, I appointed him as chairman of a commission: Roscoe Turner.I used to love to listen to him sit and talk. They used to fly by the seat of their pants to get the national commanders around the country. Later, the national commanders weren’t allowed to fly in single-engine planes, and they had some other restrictions about flying. Harry Colmery, who wrote the GI Bill, was seriously considered for the presidency of the United States. He was one of the nicest guys you’d ever meet. And you would be talking to him, and he’d be standing there with his cane and his eyes would be almost closed. And you’d think, “My Lord, he’s going to sleep on me!” But that mind was always working. He was a fine man, and one of the finest Legionnaires who ever drew a breath.He told roomfuls of us about how he wrote the GI Bill. He never really talked about the difficulty of it, but he did talk about the necessity of it. The men from World War I came back to a country that was definitely not ready to receive them. A lot of them were selling apples and stuff on street corners, and getting by on peanuts, so to speak. Q: How did you wind up joining the U.S. Navy in 1932?A: I graduated from high school in 1930 and went to college for one year. My mother told me, “Joe, we can’t send you back to college. We don’t have the money.” So I spent about a year hitch-hiking around the United States, trying to find a job. I was down in the Rio Grande Valley, selling silk hosiery. And women weren’t even wearing hose, let alone silk ones. I wasn’t making a living at it, so I finally decided to go back home in Pennsylvania.I set out to hitchhike home for Christmas, and I had a quarter – a quarter. When I got to Grove City, Pa., I still had that quarter. I kept that quarter because I figured if I had that, I wasn’t broke. And I could always find a hamburger for a nickel or maybe a dime. But I worked my way through, earning my breakfast, earning my lunch, asking people if there was any kind of work I could do for them.I went on home, and two guys I graduated from high school with came over to the house and said they were going to hitchhike down to Pittsburgh and join the Navy. I said I didn’t want to join the Navy, but that I’d go down there with them. But I passed the written and physical exams, so I joined the Navy in 1932 and got out in 1936.It was a lot stricter than it is now. Much, much stricter. You didn’t sass back to a petty officer, even. I slept in a hammock for two years on the USS West Virginia and spent most of my first tour scrubbing the deck. Most of the men were glad to be in the Navy. Most of them faced the same thing I had – they couldn’t find work. It wasn’t that they had a love for the sea. I learned to enjoy it. I had three squares a day and I had a job to do. In fact, I debated about whether to ship over after my four years were up.Q: You rejoined the Navy during World War II and served with the Seabees. What was that like?A: I was married, I had two kids, and I had a decent job. But I decided that I owed it to my country to go into the Navy. What I didn’t know was that I wouldn’t see my family again for 28 months. Now, that’s pretty hard to swallow. When I was on the atoll Eniwetok, I used to go down to the water’s edge at night and look back towards home and think about how far away it was. They gave me a rating as a quartermaster, which paid $72 a month. The Seabees had no more use for a quartermaster than the man in the moon. So they eventually cross-rated me to boatswain’s mate and I made chief. Q: How about sharing some of your experiences as national commander for The American Legion in 1972 and1973?A: I went to every place I was invited. In fact, I went to Russia because Nixon asked me. Don Johnson called me – he was head of the Veterans Administration at the time – and said I needed to be in Washington, D.C. So I flew out there, and he met me in a little private dining room at the Army-Navy Club. And he said, “When you’re national commander, Nixon wants you to go to Russia and Poland. He’s already made preliminary contacts with the Kremlin.” He said everything was cleared, as far as the State Department was concerned.So we went to Russia. But there was a little fly in the ointment – almost. We told them that I had to have a record of where I was going to be, and who I was talking to in Russia. I wasn’t going over there without knowing who I was going to meet and when I was going to meet (them). We took off on the 10th of December, 1972.Alec Meresev was the head of this (Russian) veterans group I was meeting; he was the spokesman. He was a pilot shot down over the Black Forest, and when he landed, it crushed both his feet. And he crawled out of that Black Forest in the snow. It took him several days.We had our interpreter with us and they had their interpreter. The first sentence this guy spat out was, “What are you doing in Vietnam?” I flared up for a minute, then I realized, hell, this is no time to get into a yelling match. And I said, “Comrade, we’re over here as simple soldiers who were both in a war. Now, some people in our countries are trying to establish a better relationship, and if you and I stand here today, tomorrow and the next day, and hurl accusations at each other, we’re not going to gain a damned thing.”He thought for a minute, and he said, “Comrade, you are right.” And he never said another word (about Vietnam).Never was I disgracefully received by any of them, except one guy who’d had too much to drink. He started popping off about the United States. The next thing you know, he had to go to the bathroom, and then he forgot his way back.Going over (to Leningrad) on the train was one of the most interesting trips I’d ever made. We’d pass little villages and I thought, “My God! I’m in Russia.” So we got into Leningrad and they’re so close to Finland that they were much more Westernized. You could get a decent meal and so forth. In Moscow, the food was lousy. The only good thing I found out about Moscow was that they heated their towels.Q: What effect do you think that meeting had?A: The first time I made a full-blown speech about that, I was out in Los Angeles. They had a banquet with the California governor there, the mayor of Los Angeles, a lot of the bigwigs out there. And I gave a speech on this (trip to the Soviet Union). At the end of it, I told them I didn’t know whether we did good or did harm. Time will tell. But I said “I’m going to get the Legion to invite a group from Russia to come over and see how we do things.” And they did, a couple of years later.By the way, a serviceman over there, a fighter in the war, didn’t have to be in the army or the navy or the air force. If he did duty as a civilian, he was considered a serviceman.Q: In 1972, we were still in Vietnam. Many Americans were protesting the war and treating veterans quite poorly. What was it like to be national commander at that time? How did the Legion respond?A: The Legion was very upset. It was about that time that our president gave amnesty to all those guys who went to Canada. It was horrible, as far as I was concerned. It made it harder, but we were able to keep our membership up back then. It was an unhappy time. I was speaking in Rhode Island at a banquet, and the local newspaper sent a man down to interview me, and he didn’t know a damned thing about The American Legion. He came across to me like he was sorry as hell to have to be doing this. So I said, “Have you got half an hour to spare?” And he said, “Yeah.” “Would you listen to me tell you about The American Legion for 30 minutes?”“Yeah, I’ll listen.”I told him about The American Legion, what it’d done, what it was built on, what it believed in, what it advocated, what it did for the veterans, what it did for the country. I got the nicest write-up in that paper the next day. I was shocked to death. But it was a rough time, and we had some guys who would get out of line occasionally, maybe at a parade or something like that. The Legion’s made a few mistakes and it’ll make some in the future. But basically, we’re one of the strongest organizations in the United States, and that’s why I’ve stayed active in it.Some people don’t seem to realize, there’s no nation on the face of this earth that has brought (more) decent idealism to their place in world affairs than the United States. We’ve made mistakes, and we’ve had people who did horrible things, but I don’t know how anybody can condemn the United States.Q: Baseball is one of The American Legion’s strongest youth programs. Do you have any stories about Legion Baseball?A: This was about’ 49 or ’50. We had good American Legion junior baseball down in Fort Worth. So another guy and I decided that we were going to get a car and raffle it off to raise money for junior baseball. So we got a Ford car and, during the seventh-inning stretch of a game, we gave it away. I was master of ceremonies, and I reached into the barrel to pull the (winning) ticket out, and it was for a guy by the name of “Matthews.” I had nothing else I could do but repeat the name. And you know, half those people out there probably figured it was a relative of mine. But the old boy who won it was a butcher, and his car was sitting out in his back yard, up on cement blocks because he’d sold the wheels off of it. A guy won a car who really, really needed it.Q: If young veterans returning from Iraq or Afghanistan came up to you and asked why they should join The American Legion, what would you say?A: I’d tell them that The American Legion got most of the laws (passed) that protect them today. You know, veterans of World War I were shabbily treated. It wasn’t from ill will; it was because we just didn’t understand what was going to happen, and how poorly they were going to be paid for their service.My wife and I were down on a Caribbean cruise a while ago. And we met a couple there, and got to talking. The man said he’d gone to college on the GI Bill. I asked him if he knew who got him the GI Bill.“Yes, the Congress of the United States got it for us.”I said, “The American Legion got it for you.”“Huh?”So I told him about The American Legion, because Harry Colmery wrote that bill. I’ve probably got as much respect for him as anybody I ever met.Q: Is it true that you once had lunch with President Truman?A: I was in Kansas at the department convention. Truman was one of the speakers, and I was one of the speakers. Truman spoke first, and when he finished, the department commander got up and thanked him. And a man talked him into staying while I spoke. So I had my speech, and then they called Truman back up to thank him for being there, and thank him for the good speech, and he took the microphone and said, “Joe Matthews made the best speech here this morning.”Then, about half an hour later, a man came down from (Truman’s) suite and asked us if we’d like to have lunch with him – Don Johnson and I, both of us candidates for national commander in the future. Of course, we said yes.