This Day in History: The first (and last) celebrations of Army Day

On this day in 1949, Americans mark the last national observance of Army Day. Did you know that we used to celebrate Army Day on April 6 of each year? April 6 is the anniversary of the day that we entered World War I.

How many opportunities we took to reinforce patriotism in those days.

Army Day’s roots can be found in a little-known holiday, Defense Test Day. On that day, communities were to practice preparedness for an invasion of the United States. Civilians turned out to enlist in the Army for a single day. Parades and exercises were conducted. Some cities staged mock air raids. Radio stations—then still localized, not national—practiced linking their broadcasts.

Defense Test Day was observed twice, on September 12, 1924, and July 4, 1925, before Congress disallowed it.

Needless to say, some people were pretty unhappy. The Military Order of the World War, a fraternal military organization, soon answered the canceled holiday with one of its own. Army Day was celebrated for the first time on May 1, 1928. (The date coincided with the Communist Party’s Workers’ Day, and it was hoped that Army Day would stifle enthusiasm for the Communist tradition.) The early May date didn’t stick, though. In 1929, Army Day was moved to April 6.

It was the 12th anniversary of the day that the United States entered World War I.

Army Day was officially established in 1936, when Congress and President Franklin D. Roosevelt acted together to recognize the day.

Perhaps Army Day meant more to Roosevelt after Pearl Harbor? His 1936 proclamation had been a straightforward order to “military units throughout the united states to assist civic bodies in appropriate celebration.” But his 1942 order was more thoughtful.

“Our Army is a mighty arm of the tree of liberty,” Roosevelt told the country. “It is a living part of the American tradition, a tradition that goes back to Israel Putnam, who left his plow in a New England furrow to take up a gun and fight at Bunker Hill. In this tradition American men of many ages have always left the pacific round of their usual occupations to fight in causes that were worth their lives—from Lexington to the Argonne. . . . [W]henever a tyrant from across the seas has threatened our liberties, our citizens have been ready to forge and use the weapons necessary for their defense.”

The last national observance of Army Day was on April 6, 1949. The following year, we began celebrating Armed Forces Day instead. The move coincided with the unification of the Armed Forces under a single department—the Department of Defense.

“Each of the military leagues and orders was asked to drop sponsorship of its specific service day in order to celebrate the newly announced Armed Forces Day,” the DOD website reports. “The Army, Navy and Air Force leagues adopted the newly formed day. The Marine Corps League declined to drop support for Marine Corps Day but supports Armed Forces Day, too.”

Perhaps some Marines out there are chuckling at that last sentence?

A special thanks to all our men and women in uniform.

Primary Sources:

  • Armed Forces Day History (Department of Defense website)
  • Army Day Proclamation; Roosevelt Urges Appropriate Celebration Tomorrow (N.Y. Times; April 5, 1936) (reprinting Roosevelt’s proclamation) (archived HERE)
  • Cary O’Dell, National Defense Test (September 12, 1924) (posted on the Library of Congress website, HERE)
  • City Exceeds Its Quota of 14,000 Volunteers for Defense Day: Thousands Cheer Parading Patriots (L.A. Times; Sept. 13, 1924) (p.22)
  • City Stages Today Biggest War Test: Soldiers, Sailors and Civilians to Take Part in Manoeuvres Throughout Metropolitan Area (N.Y. Times; July 4, 1925) (archive HERE)
  • History of Army Day (Department of Defense website)
  • James R. Heintze, The Fourth of July Encyclopedia (2015)
  • The President Proclaims April 6 as Army Day. Proclamation No. 2542 (March 20, 1942) (printed in the Public Papers of the Presidents HERE)