Updated: Jul 5, 2020
Even Dr. Herman Froeb concedes that the image of the American Legion--"God and country,” fruitcake sales, boys’ baseball, flag-waving hosannas and marches in Veterans Day parades--is not exactly the first thing people think of when they think of “the jewel,” otherwise known as La Jolla. Froeb says most people don’t even know that La Jolla has its very own American Legion Post--No. 275--founded in 1927, the same year Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs. Froeb, 63, is a specialist in internal medicine and lung diseases, working out of Scripps Memorial Hospital. He lives in a stunning home overlooking La Jolla Shores. His friend, Al Blatz, 66, a La Jolla Legion member since 1959, lives nearby, in one of San Diego’s more opulent neighborhoods.
When a visitor expressed surprise that such men--wealthy men--would be in the American Legion, Blatz puckered up his face and announced: “Wealthy boys can be in the service same as anyone else!” Ad Blatz showed some of the same spunk in noting that Chapter No. 275 erected the cross atop Mt. Soledad. He insisted--angrily--that it’s not a religious cross. He said “religious zealots” sometimes mistake it for that--it’s for fallen servicemen, he noted--and that howls of protest are heard when the chapter “pretties up” the cross with Christmas lights.
Blatz is from the Blatz Beer family of Milwaukee. He’s a former president of the La Jolla Town Council, an advisory body to the San Diego City Council. But he says he owes his loyalty to the Legion, which he served as commander from 1961 to 1982. Froeb has been commander since 1985. To belong to the Legion, which was founded by Teddy Roosevelt’s son in Paris in 1919, in response to the difficulty servicemen were having in getting home--"the lost legions"--a member must have fought during wartime.
Froeb said that 10% of La Jolla’s membership is female. The age range is 38 (the sole Vietnam-era veteran) to 92 (World War I). “I was on a destroyer for six years,” Blatz said, with considerable emotion, “and have shrapnel in my skull to show for it.” Blatz and Froeb concede that, like other social and community service organizations--the Masons come to mind--the American Legion has been pummeled by the winds of change. It is harder to recruit than it once was, Froeb said, adding that La Jolla’s chapter seems to shoulder more difficulty than most. “We need new blood,” he said with a sigh, “and we need it bad.”
Froeb said that of the 80 members, only about 20 are active. The chapter limits itself to a handful of functions each year. They include sponsorship of one boy and one girl from area high schools to go to Sacramento and participate in Boys’ State and Girls’ State. Students who excel on a special civics exam are flown to Sacramento (as they are to each state capital across the country) and allowed to participate for five days (at Legion expense) in the process of state government. Froeb decided to join the American Legion a few years ago only because his son was chosen as Boys’ State representative from La Jolla High School.
Girls’ State was only recently added. Froeb said that Boys’ State was formed in the 1930s in response to the pro-Nazi bund movement, which arose in the United States about the time that Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany. Blatz, whose family is of German descent, remembers the night at the height of the bund movement, when a brick shattered the window of the family home. “My father said: ‘We’ll never speak German in this house again,’ and we didn’t,” Blatz recalled. The La Jolla chapter finances Boys’ State and Girls’ State and most of its other projects from the income derived from bake sales--primarily fruitcakes.
Its biggest regret, according to Froeb, is that it has no home. Most Legion chapters own their own halls, full of pool and table tennis tables, portraits of whiskery members and, of course, Old Glory. The La Jolla chapter, whose members are presumably among the wealthiest of the 35 chapters in the county, has never owned a hall or any other building. Blatz said the membership had once raised $10,000 for that purpose--purchase of a hall--but that the building wasn’t bought and before too long “real estate just soared out of sight.” The chapter meets at Elario’s restaurant once a month.
A recent meeting at Elario’s concluded with a slide show of battleships. Froeb worries about dwindling--or dispirited-- membership. He conceded that on a national level image is part of the problem but said the Legion won’t alter its focus just to tailor itself to the fashions of the times. “Most people perceive the American Legion as being right of center,” he said. “God and country is our motto, and around about World War I, that was highly appropriate-- and right--for the times.
We open every meeting with the Pledge of Allegiance and a prayer. We believe in God and country first. “You know, nowadays, we have a lot of agnostics and atheists in America. A lot of people perceive us as anti-communist. Well, communists don’t believe in God.They’re atheists.
We believe they’re out to destroy our country, or at least compromise our form of government to conform with theirs. I guess that puts us right of center in today’s milieu.” ‘Grenada Doesn’t Count’ “Hell, we don’t have many new members ‘cause we haven’t had a war for a while!” Blatz said. “And Grenada doesn’t count.”
Blatz said the Legion suffered during the bitterness of Vietnam but that the Legion’s position--our country right or wrong--never wavers. “We’re right down the line with the country,” he said. “If the president says go and fight, we’re for it. We’re for whatever the president says.” Froeb said “the goodness” of the Legion is often overlooked or unappreciated.
He said the American Legion was responsible for scoring benefits for wounded veterans after World War I; pushed for the GI Bill of Rights after World War II; lobbied for educational benefits for veterans after the Korean War, and recently sought medical aid and benefits for Vietnam veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange. He worries that the fears are true, that the Legion is a conclave long past its prime, with a noble past but an uncertain future, not only in “the jewel” but across the country. “You have to wonder,” he said with a pensive gaze at the waves of La Jolla Shores. “How many young guys still care about God and country?”
By Micheal Granberry
TIMES STAFF WRITER