World War I dramatically changed the nature of the National Guard--hereafter federal needs and a wartime mission would take precedence over state desires. On the other hand the revised National Defense Act provided guardsmen with pay for drills plus full uniforms and equipment. The changes proved beneficial even though limited federal appropriations slowed the pace of reorganizing some units.
The Adjutant General's first notice from the Militia Bureau in 1919 called for one infantry regiment, a battalion of field artillery, and seven other companies. By 1922 requirements changed. Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia now shared responsibility for the 29th Division. The Commonwealth's 91st Infantry Brigade had its headquarters company in Berryvijle and two regiments of infantry. Communities west of Richmond furnished the 116th; the 183rd (later renumbered 1st) came from the capital and areas east. The 111th Field Artillery served as one of the division's two 75-mm gun regiments. Other elements of the Blue and Gray included the 29th Tank Company in Danville, the 29th Signal Company, and elements of the 104th Medical Regiment. The tankers were issued surplus French-built Renault tanks which they only began replacing in 1937. The old mission of defending Hampton Roads fell to the separate 246th Coast Artillery. By 1924 these forces accounted for just under four thousand officers and men in uniform. Responsibility for the 54th Field Artillery Brigade headquarters element moved to Virginia in 1932. Four years later the state formed complete battalions in the 104th Medical and Quartermaster Regiments. The last round of changes came on the eve of mobilization. The tankers transferred to the separate 191st Tank Battalion on 1 September 1940. The brigade and the 1st Infantry received new numbers on New Year's Day 1941 to conform to Regular Army policies, becoming respectively the 88th and 176th.
Guard life in the years between the two world wars revolved around training. Armory drills, one evening a week, still served as an important part of any town's social life, but the two week summer camp formed the highlight of the training year, especially after the United States Navy returned the State Rifle Range to Virginia in 1920. Some divisional units often attended annual training in Maryland; the 246th Coast Artillery practiced at Fort Monroe. By 1927 all authorized units of the Virginia National Guard were into the routine of attending summer camp.
While training for the nation's defense became increasingly important, units in the '20s and '30s still remained "on call" for service to the Commonwealth. From fighting forest fires to protecting private property following a tornado, or even suppressing a threatened clash between oystermen and the Commissioner of Fisheries, the Virginia guardsman did his task quickly and efficiently. On several occasions during the 1920s commands also responded to tense situations caused by racial or industrial unrest when requested by local officials. The Guard earned praise during these confrontations for avoiding violence and acting as intermediaries to settle disputes.
The single largest mobilization of state forces in the interwar years occurred on 26 November 1930, when the Governor called out the 116th Infantry to keep order during a major strike by mill workers in Danville. The regiment, lacking sufficient trucks, was transported by train to Schoolfield, a suburb of Danville, where it was quartered in a dormitory. The 116th at this time consisted of 1,074 men of all ranks, with 887 responding to the call-up. Governor John Pollard instructed Colonel Hierome Opie, the commander of the 116th Infantry, to quell disorder, riots and any unlawful assembly." The local sheriff and elected officials allowed Col. Opie to act as he thought best in bringing the situation under control. The guardsmen immediately established foot and motorized patrols plus guard check points around the city. By 2 December the situation was quiet enough to allow a first contingent of men to be returned to their home stations. The number of soldiers still on duty fell gradually for another month. Under the Military Code of Virginia those men still on strike duty had to be relieved at the end of a sixty day period. Therefore, on 23 January 1931, 283 officers and men from the 246th Coast Artillery, under the command of Colonel Alonzo Wood, took over the mission and carried it out until 9 February when the strike ended. The last of the guardsmen headed home on the 10th. During the seventy-five days of duty in the Danville area the troops were credited with actions involving the dispersing of unlawful assemblies, clearing road obstructions, investigating rock throwing as well as the bombing of houses and personal assaults." The civilian authorities remarked that the troops performed extremely well, given the conditions and hostility encountered. Only a couple of minor injuries were suffered by guardsmen and there was just one fatality, an automobile accident that killed Lieutenant Robert Johnson from Bedford.
As the economic depression worsened in the early 1930s, all state agencies, including the National Guard, tried to help the homeless. During the winter months of 1930-31 and 1931-32, the Adjutant General authorized the loan of cots and blankets to the Salvation Army for use by unemployed workers and their families in different parts of the Commonwealth.
Natural disasters were also responsible for guardsmen being called into state service during the 1930s. The 111th Field Artillery was especially busy with such requests, due primarily to the fact that they had just recently traded their horses for trucks. The 111th rendered aid in the aftermath of hurricanes on 22-23 August 1932 (Virginia Beach and Elizabeth City) and 17-18 September 1936 (Norfolk, Portsmouth, Hampton and Virginia Beach). During the latter crisis radio operators from the 29th Signal Company, 54th Field Artillery Brigade, 111th Field Artillery and 1st Infantry kept Col. William Sands of the 111th, the commander in the field, in contact with state headquarters even though all telephone lines to Richmond had been downed by the storm.
While being a guardsman always means training for service to both the state and nation, often at great personal sacrifice, the duty has its rewards. Many of the men serving in the Virginia National Guard during the period between the world wars were veterans of the Great War and received medals from European governments. In 1932, the Commonwealth itself introduced medals to which recognized individuals for exemplary service and longevity. They created the Distinguished Service Medal and the Service Medal, commonly referred to as "Six Year" medal which was authorized the addition of a dogwood blossom for each subsequent award.
Morale was also sustained during the 1930s by participation in a variety of ceremonies and commemorations. In 1931, from 16 to 19 October, the country marked the 150th anniversary of the British surrender at Yorktown. Dignitaries, Regular Army units and guardsmen from all parts of the nation participated. The Old Dominion sent the largest contingent, more than 500 men from those units having distinctive dress uniforms-the Richmond Light Infantry Blues, Richmond Grays, Monticello Guards, Richmond Howitzers and the Band of the 246th Coast Artillery. They marched by the reviewing stand and received the salute of President Herbert Hoover, Marshal Ferdinand Foch of France and Governor Pollard. Just four months later, in February 1932, many of the same units traveled to Alexandria for the parade celebrating the bicentennial of George Washington's birth. Other participants included the Alexandria Light Infantry and Petersburg Grays.
To help promote esprit and keep members informed about plans and activities, a monthly newsletter entitled the Virginia Guardsman began publication in the late 1920s. In 1932, it changed format from a newspaper to a photographic magazine printed on glossy paper. Its content changed as well and now featured photo stories which personalized individuals and units statewide. Publication slowed, due primarily to economic conditions, from monthly to quarterly by 1936 and finally ended in 1938.
Among the Guardsman's stories for 1932 was one honoring Sergeant Glenn Seabright of Company I, 116th Infantry. As a member of the Virginia National Guard Rifle Team he won the President's Trophy "The Best", signifying that he was the top rifleman in the armed forces of the United States. In fact, the rifle team, of which he was a member, placed first among Guard contingents nationwide that year, and had eight members on the list of the "President's Hundred". The rifle team consistently scored high during the 1930s and gained respect throughout the Army for an almost unbroken string of victories in competitive shooting.
Money for military affairs from both federal and state sources became very short with the onset of the Depression, hindering the Virginia Guard's programs in areas ranging from armory construction and renovation to realistic training and equipment modernization.
* From The Tradition Continues: A History of the Virginia National Guard 1607-1985; edited by John W. Listman, Jr.; Robert K. Wright, Jr.; and Bruce D. Hardcastle. Taylor Publishing Company 1987.