American Legion carries on, but for how long?

By Mike Crowley • Meadville Tribune • May 30, 2022 

CONNEAUTVILLE — A familiar scene will take place this morning in this corner of northwestern Crawford County and across the country.

After meeting for breakfast at 8 a.m., members of the Means-Flynn American Legion Post 615 will head to Conneautville Cemetery, where they will perform the first of six Memorial Day ceremonies at area graveyards. Small flags have already been placed on the graves of veterans by Legion members and other volunteers. When the post’s rifle squad arrives, there will likely be a brief prayer followed by a rifle salute and then the playing of “Taps.”

Would Memorial Day be Memorial Day without ceremonies like this?

Conneautville, like much of the country, is likely to have an answer to that question sooner rather than later, according to the steadily dwindling group of men who make up Post 615’s rifle squad. About 12 men can be depended on to make it to funerals where post members provide military honors and the Memorial Day ceremonies that the post has been performing for generations.

“The dirty dozen,” rifle squad commander Mark Sladick jokingly calls them in a reference to the World War II movie of the same name — a film most members of the group saw for the first time when it was released in 1967 and when they were in their 20s.

On Friday, Sladick and several of his fellow members drank coffee in the post’s social club a little before noon. Seated at the bar, David Prince, 78, flipped through a scrapbook that hadn’t been added to in decades while his brother Tim Prince, 75, looked over his shoulder. A few seats away, their cousin Clint Prince, 70, the post’s commander, leaned an elbow on the bar decorated with tiny U.S. flags and bouquets of shiny red and blue stars. Gary Clark, the post’s finance officer, was nearby, wearing a USS Shangri-La hat. On the wall behind him, World War II-era aircraft looked on the verge of flying into the bar from out of two paintings about the size of small movie theater screens.

“After this Memorial Day,” Sladick said, “we’ll say, ‘Well, we pulled off another one’ — or at the next funeral, ‘Well, we got that fellow taken care of,’ but who knows how long we can do it. That’s the big thing.”

At 67, Sladick is younger than all but one of the post’s active members. Technically, there are about 100 active dues-paying members, he explains, but only a dozen or so can be depended on to regularly participate in rifle squad duties and perform the other responsibilities that come with operating the post.

Formed by American veterans of World War I and chartered by Congress in 1919, the American Legion quickly spread following the return of those veterans to civilian life — including nine posts in Crawford County.

In the 1940s, the organization drove passage of the G.I. Bill and it continued its support for veterans in the decades that followed. Recent years, however, have seen declining membership even as rules regarding membership eligibility were softened. Not since 2010 has the national organization experienced membership growth from one year to the next, according to

It comes as no surprise that membership in Conneautville’s Post 615 has declined as well. Amid stories of the post in their youth — when their fathers were active and the speakeasy-style peep hole on the door to the third-floor ballroom came in handy — the current members led a tour of the post’s current reality. Each flight of stairs up from the social club was a step further back in time — one that might have been accompanied by a soundtrack if the broken down player piano on the second floor had had any life left in it.

The second floor resembled an abandoned attic. An artificial Christmas tree stood near a bar that hasn’t seen use in decades. On the wall nearby was Civil War memorabilia and the American flag used by Post 374 of the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization of Civil War veterans that was dissolved in 1956 following the death of the last member.

Up one more flight to the third-floor ballroom and the sight was less nostalgic and more intimidating. Other than another abandoned bar against one wall, the room was largely empty — a row of old tables, a locked safe in one corner, everything covered in flakes falling from the intricately detailed ceiling. The last time Tim Prince, the post’s adjutant, could recall the ballroom being used for an event was a dance in the late 1970s.

But amid the signs of decay, back on the second floor, stood a corner cabinet built by Prince’s father and other members of the previous generation of Post 615. The cabinet houses the World War I era Springfield .30-06 rifles that the rifle squad has used for generations — and will use again today and likely next year as well.

Prince pulled one out — to show off, but also to reminisce.

“Sacred,” Sladick said, looking at the relic in Prince’s hands. “When you grab one, you know it. It puts you in the mood as soon as you hold it.”

But the pull of the past is less attractive to today’s veterans, and the remaining Post 615 members acknowledged that what they see happening to their organization is hardly unique. They need look no farther than the Masonic Lodge a few blocks away, the fraternal organizations spread out across the county, and the emergency response units struggling to find staffing.

Population decline is an inescapable factor — several of the men, themselves all born and raised near Conneautville and Sprongboro, have seen their own children move away. Both boroughs have steadily declined in population since 1950, but the “dirty dozen” can’t help but think there are other factors as well. and while fewer people is an explanation, an explanation won’t be of much use if in a few years no one is available to lead Memorial Day ceremonies or to provide military honors for veterans’ funerals.

It’s not clear what, if anything, would revive the post. Twenty years of war in Afghanistan has had no impact for Post 615 and little effect on the national level.

“I think people’s priorities now are not —,” Sladick says, before cutting himself off.

“I feel that the younger generation today, including my own sons,” Prince said, “they don’t have that camaraderie that used to exist in these smaller communities, where everybody would participate.”

Changing demands on parents play a factor as well, according to Clark.

“Take a younger person who’s still got a job and still working — he’s committed to that and his family,” Clark said. “To be an officer and be active down here, you’ve got to sacrifice time. You’ve got to have the time to put in. They just don’t have the time to do that.”

The Memorial Day parades in which the men remember marching down Main Street in Conneautville, past the Legion hall to the cemetery, have been a thing of the past for several years. While the men were in good spirits, they found little reason for optimism about the post’s future and had a hard time imagining a happy ending for the organization whose story has been so central to their town and their lives.

“I can just see the handwriting on the wall,” Prince said. “There’s just nobody doing the things that we do to volunteer our time to keep this place running.

“It’s coming to an end,” he added.

But not quite yet — certainly not today, when the dirty dozen will be out in force, saluting the service of veterans all over northwestern Crawford County.

“With us,” Sladick said, “we can’t just say, ‘Hey, I’ve got to walk away from it,’ because it’s been such a part of our life — you can’t.”