Written By: Olivia B. Waxman
Veterans Day, which falls each year on November 11, is a time for Americans to remember the sacrifices made by those who served in the U.S. military. But the first Veterans Day—dedicated to veterans of all wars—also happened to honor a different group of Americans.
On Veterans Day in 1954, one month after President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued the first Veterans Day proclamation and the new holiday officially replaced Armistice Day, a whopping 50,000 men and women from coast to coast were sworn in as new U.S. citizens in what LIFE magazine called “the first time in U.S. history that citizenship was conferred upon so many people in so many mass ceremonies.”
A photo in the Nov. 22, 1954, issue showed three Japanese people getting sworn in on the battleship U.S.S. Missouri in Bremerton, Wash., on the same deck on which the Japanese signed their surrender on Sept. 2, 1945, ending World War II. But many more photos from that day exist in LIFE’s archives, and they provide a unique look at that historic day.
At a ceremony at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field where 1,600 men and women took the oath of citizenship, U.S. Attorney General Herbert Brownell Jr. acknowledged the renewed significance of the ceremony’s overlap on Veterans Day.
“November 11th is a hallowed day for all Americans,” he said, “And it continues as a day dedicated to memory of the past and hope for the future hope that all men can learn to live together in peace as we have done in this American melting pot of the world.”
He also emphasized that swearing allegiance as a U.S. citizen was more important than ever in 1954, with the Cold War in full swing. In fact, the Cold War had changed the character of the country’s most famous immigration station, Ellis Island, which was put to use in the ’50s to implement a post-WWII policy that banned people who had been affiliated with a totalitarian party.
But as Brownell said in his speech, Ellis Island had been is disuse as an immigrant station, with only a few hundred detained there in recent months, compared to the 1.2 million that Ellis Island had processed in 1907. Immigration services in New York would be moved to a different building, off the island, on Nov. 12, 1954. The day after this historic Veterans Day, Ellis Island closed as an immigration center.
“The island buildings, I feel sure, can be put to useful service in other work,” Brownell said.
In the decades that followed, the immigration center would be reopened as a museum—one that, all these years later, sees even more visitors each year than the number who came through Ellis Island annually at the height of immigration.