About a year ago, respected San Francisco historian Ken Maley asked whether I realized that this Nov. 11 will mark 100 years since the end of the First World War — the Armistice took effect, famously, at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month, in 1918. Maley and I then set about organizing a centennial commemoration, which will take place on the afternoon of Sunday, Nov. 11 at the War Memorial Veterans Building in San Francisco, after the annual Veterans Day Parade.
World War I and the armistice that ended it possess special historical significance to San Francisco. The fervor created by World War I ultimately resulted not just in parades, but a plan for a war memorial.
The University of California purchased a block of land bounded by Van Ness Avenue, Franklin Street, Hayes Street and Grove Street to be conveyed to San Francisco for the purpose of erecting a war memorial consisting of a Memorial Court, a building for the San Francisco posts of the American Legion and a theater which we know as the Opera House. That agreement dates to Aug. 19, 1921, and resulted some 10 years later after voter approval of a general obligation bond in the 1931 opening of the War Memorial and the 1932 opening of the Opera House.
The First World War has particular significance for my family, too. My father, Shepard Sanford Kopp, was born in Russia in 1897 as the youngest of six children. The family lived in a shtetl devoted to farming. After immigrating to Brooklyn in 1912, learning English and finishing a two-year course at Brooklyn College of Pharmacy, he enlisted in the Army in May 1917. He was sent to France with the American Expeditionary Force under the leadership of General John Pershing, who had been posted at the Presidio. Not yet a U.S. citizen when he joined the Army, my father was naturalized in France and there met Quentin Roosevelt, the youngest son of President Theodore Roosevelt.
Quentin Roosevelt, a pilot in the Air Corps, was killed in aerial combat in July 1918. I was born 10 years later, and my parents, following Jewish custom, named me Quentin after the recently deceased airman.
Meanwhile, more than 1 million Armenians were being massacred by the Turks in both Turkish Armenia and Russian Armenia. In January 1919, President Woodrow Wilson ordered the formation of an American military mission to Armenia, which consisted of about 100 enlisted men under the command of Major General James Harbord. The three-month mission investigated the genocide reports and concluded they were bonafide.
Because he could still speak some Russian, my father was chosen for the mission, which he served well after half the detail was captured by Turkish brigands who thought the soldiers were Armenians. My father secured their release after demonstrating to their captors that he was circumcised and, therefore, couldn’t be Armenian!
A group of citizens under the chairmanship of retired Marine Corps Major General Mike Myatt, with me as co-chairman, have raised $100,000 through the S.F. Performing Arts Center Foundation for displays and events culminating at 6 p.m. Nov. 11. World War I banners were displayed in the War Memorial lobby in May, posters in June, photographs in July. Those will be maintained through 2019, the 100th anniversary of the American Legion’s founding.
Among those who have devoted great time and effort to this project are retired lieutenant colonel Wally Levin, a trustee of the War Memorial and steward of the Veterans Day parade; Paul Cox, chairman of the American Legion War Memorial Commission; Nelson Lum, commander of American Legion Cathay Post 384; Sal Compagno, president of the World War 1 Historical Association; Edgar Flowers of the Fleet Week Association; San Jose State University professor of history Jonathan Roth; Dana Lombardy, a WWI history consultant; and Janice Tong of the American Legion War Memorial Commission.
Our hope in putting together this commemorative event is that World War I and San Francisco history may, thus, be preserved for future Americans, and especially Jews, who should remember that the war freed Palestine from Turkish rule and set the stage for the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.