What Is Armed Forces Day?

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Just before Memorial Day arrives to honor those who gave their lives in battle, Armed Forces Day sets out to achieve a similar goal. Every year, on the third Saturday of May, Armed Forces Day honors current members of the U.S. military. This year’s celebration is the 69th to date, following the first official Armed Forces Day in 1950.

Before 1950, each branch of the military — the Army, the Marine Corps, the Air Force, and the Navy — had individual single-day celebrations devoted to it. However, in August 1949, with guidance from then-President Harry S. Truman, Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson announced the combination of these celebrations into one day known as Armed Forces Day. Johnson fused these celebrations due to the then-recent consolidation of these branches into the Department of Defense. Thus, in 1950, the holiday made its official debut on May 20th.

Armed Forces Day’s inaugural 1950 celebration occurred not even half a decade after World War II concluded. To celebrate it, more than 10,000 active military members and veterans marched in Washington, D.C. Additionally, some 30,000 civilians joined a military parade staged in New York City, a celebration that included 250 military aircraft flying over the metropolis. Even outside the U.S., troops stationed abroad celebrated — in the German capital of Berlin, which was a crucial city in World War II, thousands of troops marched in front of German civilians at Templehof Airfield.

Responding to how well civilians received the holiday, the military gradually expanded Armed Forces Day to include naval, aerial, and land-based military exercises. For the modern iteration of the holiday, the four branches of the military also show their weaponry and state-of-the-art combat equipment to eager civilians at military bases across the country. Military bases are usually open on Armed Forces Day, because despite the holiday’s focus on U.S. forces, the day is not a federal holiday, unlike Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day.

Outside the ceremonies of Armed Forces Day, communities across the country plan events to celebrate those currently and previously serving in the military. In Oregon’s capital city of Salem, for example, Armed Forces Day this year inspired celebrations a full four days ahead of the holiday. In these celebrations, Salem honored World War II veterans and their families. The ceremony was quite ornate, with live orchestral music, military flyovers, participation from the Oregon National Guard, and a setting fit for any statewide celebration — the state capital building.

Likewise, in Springfield, Ohio, Clark County hosted an Armed Forces Day luncheon nearly two weeks before the holiday took place. There, leading active military members from the state spoke of the need for young people to joined the armed forces. Across the country in Colorado Springs, four days ahead of Armed Forces Day, the Air Force Academy Band played a free concert that all civilians were able to attend. Of note is that half the people living in Colorado Springs are said to have military connections, so celebrations there perhaps inherently highlighted the need for this longstanding holiday.

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