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Ms. "The First World War"
Ms. "The First World War"
WWI conscientious objection / objectors
Waltner, Edward J.B.
A "C.O." in the First World War by Edw. J.B. Waltner
At the request of numerous friends this story of my experiences as a Conscientious Objector to military service, in the world war, has been prepared. It is not primarily the object of this undertaking to defend the position of an all out C.O., but rather to give to my friends a simple truthful narrative of what I saw, heard, and felt, and give to all who read this, an idea or better understanding of the difficulties encountered by the moral pioneer; I also hope that this story may redound to the Glory of Him who so graciously held His protecting hand over me during a very critical and dangerous period of my life.
Edw. J.B. Waltner
Things looked very gloomy for the peace lovers, in the early spring of 1917, yet many tried to be hopeful, and thought that the severing of diplomatic relations between nations did not necessarily mean war, even tho' in past history it has nearly always resulted in a clash of arms. To the common people it seemed unbelievable that it might be necessary or practical to fight a nation so far removed as Europe is from America, and with a vast ocean between. How large a task and how nearly impossible did it seem, and yet this country went right ahead, and by virtue of its vast resources, achieved a great military victory with and for the allies.
We hoped that war would become sufficiently popular that it would not be necessary to draft men into the service, but in this we all were destined to be disappointed, and in May 1917 a selective service act was passed in congress. This proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the government of the U.S was desperately in earnest. The event of registration, on June 5th, 1917, where all young men between the ages of 21 and 31 were ordered to register was a subject of much speculation and evil forebodings. Because of the exemption clauses in the draft act, most of the young men thought that they would not have to enter the service. There were those with dependants [sic], others with strong industrial claims, others secretly rejoiced that they were physically disqualified, others trusted in the constitutional guarantees of religious freedom from involuntary servitude etc. It is a safe estimate that only a minority of the young men were actually ready and eagerly await-
[await]ing their call to the colors, I, myself had, according to provisions of the draft law several well founded claims to exemption from service. They were: being married, being engaged in farming (production of food so vital to our nation), and being head or foremen of a farming unit. I felt that my claims were strong enough to “run the gauntlet” of the most rigid scrutiny of any local board that was appointed to act on such claims and classify the registrants; however I was doomed to disappointment; one by one my claims were denied, and all appeals were in vain, and I received my official call to entrain for Ft. Rily [Riley] on Oct. 4th, 1917. All my hopes were shattered; it seemed as if the Almighty had decreed that I should go into a military camp, and live the life of a C.O there. I wish to say however in fairness to the local board that there was one claim of mine which they did not (dare) to deny, or which they granted (reluctantly). It was my right to be exempted from combatant military service; the non-combatant service to be outlined by President Wilson, then Commander-in-Chief of the army. The board gave me an official document, or certificate of my rights in this respect, which I was to carry with me and present to my officers wherever I was assigned to.
The duties and cares of the last few weeks were a grevious [sic] burden. There were provisions to be made regarding the continuation of the farm work at least for the balance of the year. My crops were not all harvested. Preparations had to be made for the departure; arrangements for the possibility of death etc. We as a family unit tried as best we could to cheer each other clinging to the hope that there will be a glorious reunion even yet here on earth. In our efforts to remain cheerful and hopeful we were only partially successful. We had a fairly good Christian training,
and in precept were taught to rely fully on the One who cares for his own, but we had yet to learn the lesson or relearn the lessons in the school of life.
On Oct. 4th, 1919, the day of departure, we witnessed and participated in the saddest event that our eyes ever saw and our hearts ever felt; of course, we were young and inexperienced in the vicissitudes of life. There were 20 of us leaving a host of friends, relatives -- home ties were severed and in general there was much mental anguish and heartache in evidence. One of the officials who was delegated to be present at the “send off’ later confided to one of his professional colleagues, that he could not risk seeing such a sad spectacle again so he resigned from the office that made this necessary for him.
When one considers that on such days the whole nation is bleeding (figuratively) then a feeling of righteous indignation comes over one. If sin, the sin of the human race can cause such universal wailing then no wonder the Almighty hates wickedness and that Christians become disgusted with the existence of evil. Oh what great redemption will it be when sin and evil will be no more and Satan bound so as to deceive the individual and the nations no more.
The Red Cross did us the kindness of giving us a lunch basket for our trip to camp, yet although we appreciated the spirit in which they were given, in our grief we were unable to enjoy even the sincerest of hospitality or kindness. A relative and boyhood friend of mine was with me on this trip, he being also assigned to the same destination; in our common sadness we were drawn closer together and to the great Friend whose presence we coveted yet rather faintly felt, as usually is the case
in times of great stress.
The train was crowded with raw recruits which it had picked up in the counties north of us. A few more stops and the coaches were all filled, then we sped across the country as a special trainload of young patriots hurrying on to the defense of our country and to “make the world safe for democracy” (????)
God speed the day when democracy will also be safe for the world, and this can only be when professing Christians consistently try to live up to their Ideal, Jesus Christ, and when all the world will be influenced by the leavening of power of the gospel of Peace.
Here, on the train, which had now sped 1-200 miles away from home it became noticeable that many of the young men had lost their feeling of depression and slowly were “coming to” what they were in their former life. Some hold that the human race is constantly improving in ethics and morals, and others again, often known as the pessimists contend that the world is getting worse, i.e. that each new generation stands on a lower moral and spiritual plane than the preceeding [sic] one. My own observation seems to confirm the latter. I was especially impressed with the conduct or behavior of many of the young men. There was much profanity and misconduct on the train in general. Taking the name of the Lord in vain, even blaspheming to an extent that I marveled at Divine forbearance. This condition was not due to the particular position the men found themselves in, but rather a lack in their early training. They were insufficiently grounded to withstand temptations when the external restraints such as family government or civil law were removed. We reached our destination however without any serious crime being committed by
the recruits of our train; had a stop of one hour in Sioux City, and the boys went out to see the town and have a good time. It is remarkable that under above reported conditions that none of them returned to the train intoxicated. On some other troop or recruit trains we heard that even crime had been committed. Probably if we would have had a longer trip our boys would have become more unruly.
Everywhere we stopped the R.C. girls came to the station to hand the boys cigarettes, postcards and other gifts to show their appreciation of the “Sammies” as we were often called. The yelling, singing of war songs and other tumult kept us all awake thru the night and did not completely subside until our train pulled into camp the next day at noon. It was a warm and dusty day in Oct. We were met by our officers in charge of detrainment. Each men in charge of his county quota delivered to the officer the official papers given him by the local board. Roll was called and all the men were assorted [sic] according to sizes; the tall ones were put into Company A, the medium into Company B, and the small ones into Company C, and these were often called “runts”. Most of our boys were first assigned to the 342 M.G. Batt. As we were being marched into our barracks we were a bewildered, sad-looking group; at least some of us were very downhearted. Next followed a careful ablution by a cold water shower,-- the heating apparatus had not yet been installed.
At the earliest possible opportunity I requested to see the captain or commanding officer of my company and was granted this on the first day. I showed my certificate proving my status as a noncombatant, and my objection to military service. He questioned my briefly and courteously in regard to the nature, cause and extent of my objections, and then asked
whether I could wear their uniform. My reply was that I had no scruples against any form of clothing so long as it was adequate to cover my body, or something to that effect, and further reasoned that the uniform did make a soldier of me no more than stripes and numbers make a criminal of a Christian. Well, the captain said that he would try to get me transferred to somewhere -- I did not know it then, but there was a small group of C.O.’s already segregated at that time in this camp. The next day he told me to “turn in” all the clothes issued to me and put on my own suit preparatory to a transfer. However as I had already sent my own clothes home he said that he would first have to arrange for the transfer of my uniform also before I could be transferred. This, however, never was put through and I never was “segregated” into the C.O. group in Camp Funston. Otherwise my whole career in the army might have been entirely different. In Co. B 342 NGBH[?] I was assigned to K.P. duties and taking care of the mess hall, as my captain was kind enough not to order me to take soldiers drill against my convictions. I was soon known in the company as a nonfighter, C.O., religious man, and by other names also, and was quite an object of curiosity. Some of the Sargeants [sic] had their fun exposing my peculiarities to the rest of the boys. It did seem strange to them to see me in the messhall, doing the despised K.P. duty every day, as they asked the reason for it. They tho’t that this “bird” must be guilty in some way. In this company I received one vaccination and one inocculation [sic] which made me partly sick. Many of the boys fainted when given this treatment.
After eight days I was ordered to transfer along with seven other boys to the 73 Co. in the 164 Depot Brigade. In this company Capt. W.
was the commanding officer. The Depot Brigade is the place where men are received and finally sent to their final assignment. The 164 D. Brigade was receiving men for distribution into southern camps. If my memory serves me right the orders were to send good men to complete the National Guard at the border. In Co. 74 164 D. Brigade I soon became aware of the fact that my name might be included among those who were to be transferred to some southern camp, possibly to Camp Cody near Deming, N.M. I dreaded to think of being separated from the acquaintances that I had in Camp Funston and go to a place where I would not know a soul. The 73 Co. was located near an old Y.M.C.A. building where about 70 C.O.’s were already located and segregated. Again I presented my claims and credentials as a C.O. to my commanding officer and requested the lieutenant, who seemed very friendly to intercede for my transfer to this group. One lieutenant told me that the best friend he ever had was a Mennonite and that he would do all he could for me, but, he also added that the captain was very cross, overworked, and consequently of a mean disposition. I saw that I would have to take the papers to the captain myself. When Captain W. saw me and heard my request his eyes flashed fire, and he assigned me to the post of rear orderly permanently. This meant for me to take care of the bath and toilet rooms. I did this work a few days all the time telling my lieutenants to get me transferred to the C.O.’s across the street. Today I feel that neither of the two lieutenants was able to induce their Captain to sign an application for my transfer, even tho they may never have tried. One day Capt. W. came in from drill apparently tired and weary and saw me contented with my work; he remarked, “Well, that is one thing you fellows get out of your religion,
an easy life.” Poor man, he did not understand that it takes religion to make any task, particularly despised ones, look pleasant and easy. After about four days in this company my name was included in the list of those who were to go to Camp Cody. I did not appreciate or rather I was not elated in the anticipation of a delightful trip south for the winter, on the other hand, I was glad to get out of sight and reach of my commanding officer, Cap. W. He is the kind of man one is not pleased to meet. With a hard set face, a sharp protruding chin, and a disposition of a cross-cut saw, he was the object of sympathy and pity in the eyes of a Christian. This unfortunate man a few months later, according to press reports, became criminally insane, perpetrated the crimes of Grand-larceny, twofold homicide, and then, to escape the law, suicide.
Sunday at 11:00 a.m. we were marched to the R.R. yards and after several careful counts we bade goodbye to our friends at Camp Funston. At this point again my spirit was deeply depressed, was, “poor in spirit” because of leaving the few acquaintances I had and of the element of uncertainty in it all. I feared at once that at my new destination I would be the only one of my kind there with very little chance of any kind of recognition. My memory of the trip is rather vague; we took a southerly course over the M.K.T. road, passed thru the cotton fields and saw some of the things I learned of in geography, about Southern States. Our way took us over the largest part of Texas. It certainly is a large State, for we traveled in it alone for forty-eight hours, hitting the border at Del Rio, thence in a northerly direction through El Paso on to Deming N.M. our destination. We were fed on our way with bread, “Red Horse” (a kind of beef) coffee, jam and prunes. Occassionally [sic] there was
a chance to leave the train to buy a pie and the like. After a trip of four days we landed in dusty Demings, tired and weary. In Camp Cody Company 4 59 D.B. was my first assignment. First of importance for me was to see Lieutenant Nerrik who was now my commanding officer, (this company did not have a captain at this time) and to present to him my papers and claim as a C.O.
In Camp Cody I was transferred from one company to another and shifted into different branches of service quite frequently, and of course, each time so as not to be required to drill, it was necessary to present the paper on which I was officially certified as a non-combatant. This vital document, which had become to me something of a MAGNA CHARTA [sic], or BILL OF RIGHTS, was beginning to show unmistakable signs of wear, and it began to cause me concern lest it should not survive its mission, but as time went on transfers became less frequent, and it was not necessary to exhibit it so often; it held out till it accomplished its great testimony.
Lt. Nerrik feigned total ignorance of anything pertaining to Christian Non-resistance, but agreed to take my case “up” to Brigade Headquarters. As I was to be under his command only a few days pending my permanent (?) assignment to some other department, he did not trouble himself much about the matter but rather shifted the matter on to the next commanding officer to whom this C.O. was to be transferred. The four days in this company were spent by doing K.P. work and firing the incinerator. This machine was a sterilizer for all kitchen waste. We cooked the slop from 6 o’clock in the morning until about 11:00 at night or till the boiler went dry.
From here I was transferred amid a blowing sandstorm that filled ears and eyes, to the 109 Engineers. The boys there congratulated me and welcomed me. They said I was unusually lucky, “for we are going to France in about three or four weeks.” This was a nice how-dye-do for one of my kind; what business had I in France? Had they not enough trouble of their own there, why add to the difficulties and aggravations of our forces at the front? This time my determination to see the captain at once was stronger than ever. Captain S. received me and listened to a very frank statement that, before him was a C.O. and heard my definition of the term. The captain looked wise and suggested that I go on drilling with the rest of the boys and when the time to go into action came, I should then present my claim. I told him that would be treachery and deceiving the war department. “You should worry” was his curt reply.
Whether Captain S. thought me capable of such a cowardly act or not, I cannot say but he was willing to excuse me from drill and applied for me for my next transfer. On one point we both agreed perfectly, viz: The Engineer Corps in the Army was no place for a C.O. as every man must be a trained rifle-man.
After two days in the 109 Engineer I was transferred back to the Fourth Co. in the 59th D. Brigade for board and lodging, but not for work. At the division headquarters I was questioned as to the nature of my objections and then assigned to K.P. duty in an officers mess, under the direction of Chaplain Lt. Harry Klein. This officer told the cook with whom we were to work that he had received special instructions concerning our treatment, and that we were not to be molested in any way as long as we did our work well. In the foregoing paragraph I said “we”
for it was to my great delight and comfort that here I met my first C.O. friend in this Camp, and he seemed to be equally delighted in me, and had a lot to relate when the opportunity came. He came from Funston, and had had experiences parallel to mine, and was assigned to the same mess. He too was with the 109 Engineer Corps the week before, but in a different company. Our ties of friendship grew. Here during our stay of ten weeks some important things happened. We went through all the injections of vaccine and virus and other red tape the same as the rest of the soldiers. My stay in the officers mess afforded me a splendid opportunity to acquaint myself with the general average ethics of men who were brought up under the strict military discipline. Some of these men, of course, being reserve officers, were “young” in the service (ninety-day officers). Others were quite old, even gray haired. There were about thirty-two in all that ate at this mess. Many of these were very nice and accomodating [sic]; real gentlemen, whom I openly admired although we differed violently on a great moral issue. Officers feed well. We were not required to observe any feed regulations as far as I recollect. The officers paid for their board and could have anything the market offered, except liquor, which was not dispensed openly. At home people were rationed in this and that and were bound to substitutes and meatless days etc. A program of food restriction that discriminates between classes, in my opinion is open to criticism. True enough officers and soldiers pay a great price with their service, but for which they get fair pay materially, and much honor and praise of the world, and it seems to exempt such free necessary food restrictions is unjust.
About two weeks after I had been in the Fourth Co. 59th D. Brig.
to which I was attached during my service at the mess, and where my papers and records were kept, Sergeant C. sent me a written order demanding of me to “turn in” my uniform complete, excepting, shoes overcoat and underwear. In place thereof he sent me a pair of old machinist unionalls. This is the only case to my knowledge where a C.O. ever was asked to surrender a uniform once he consented to wear it. I believe this “non-com” was short a uniform, and asked for mine to cover up the shortage. In spite of all the red tape it was possible for crooks to take these government issued clothing, sell them to civilians and make a supplement to their salary. I very readily and gladly complied with this order, and never after that in all my sixteen months stay in camp was I ever asked or ordered to put on the soldier’s uniform again. It would have been easy for me to get a uniform rationed to me, but I felt that it would be inconsistant [sic] to wear the soldiers garb by choice and decline his duties.
About the middle of November we heard rumors of a trainload of C.O.’s having arrived from Camp Lewis. Most of them seemed to be scattered among the various companies of the Depot Brigade and later reportedly sent to the New Base Hospital for their permanent assignment. Occassionally [sic] a service man or officer referred to “long haired” or long bearded” C.O.s and told of abuses and of acts of violence committed on such. Lt. Harry Klein on one occassion [sic] expressed his deep resentment of an act of violence perpetrated on a C.O. who had been treated to a triple dose of salts, then very clearly confined to his tent under guard, until the violent convulsions of his digestive system subsided and left him sorely in need of an abolution [sic]and a new suit of clothes. A bath and a uniform were given him. The above episode came to me through hearsay, but there
is no doubt in my mind that that [sic] this story has a real historical basis.
At this point, in fairness to the military authorities, I wish to say, and do so with a feeling of deep gratitude that in all the sixteen months in the army I never once was subjected to any physical abuse, nor was it my lot to witness any severe act of lawlessness or man-handling by the authorities, although later many reports reached me of or concerning those who endured bodily violence at the hands of overzealous, and undisciplined officers or privates. I heard of (now well substantiated) acts that rightfully belong to the Dark Ages. My work at the mess was accepted as a temporary assignment until the President according to the draft act would officially define all non-combatant service from which sincere objectors had the privilege of choosing. His ultimate designation of non-combatant service included “farm furloughs” which was acceptable to most of the objectors who had not beforehand signed up for hospital or quartermaster service, but arrangements for furloughs to farms were slow in the making and so many sincere objectors did not get into this service before the war was over. Consequently hundreds were “pushed” about in camps and causing the officers many annoyances. My work at the mess was much enjoyed by myself and Mr. Klippenstein, a C.O. friend of mind from Henderson, Nebraska. The staff consisted of one Mess Sergeant, two cooks, and two DISHWASHERS. Our pastry cook (baker) was a typical Greek. We also had a young Polish lad who worked in a restaurant in civilian life, and who served here as table waiter. The Pole and the Greek sometimes got into difficulties and one time it became so serious that only by prompt action on the part of Mr. Klippenstein and myself, were we able to avert bloodshed and possibly murder. In the pers-
[per]son of the Greek we had the rare spectacle of a man (otherwise rational) being suddenly transformed into a temporary homicidal maniac. It looked dangerous. The wrath of men when enkindled is fierce. How true the words of the German poet:
Gefaechrlich ist’s den Leu zu wecken Zerstoerend ist des Tiger’s Zahn; Jadoch der schroecklichste der Screcken Das ist der Mensch in seinem Wahn.
On holidays, such as Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Year we usually had company for mess; these were officers of higher rank, such as Colonels, Generals, Major Generals etc. On these occassions [sic] our cooks made elaborate preparations, and we feasted like they do in the King’s banqueting hall. There was always enough left of the good things so that the kitchen staff was well repaid for the extra work they had to do in connection with these feasts.
At about New Year 1918 the Depot Brigade here, as a whole was dissolved. Most of the reserve officers at this time received their assignment. This left only the Ninth Company of this Brigade intact. This was now called the Surplus Detachment, and became the “dumping ground” or segregation camp of the C.O. This organization was the home of the homeless who did not belong to any other more permanent company. Besides the sixty C.O.’s who were in this company at one time, there were also a few dozen of Non-Coms (Officers without a commission) those of the rank of sargeant [sic] and under. Most of these were the remnant of the original S.D. Cavalry. These non-coms caused plenty of annoyance to the C.O.’s until they were removed in February 1918, leaving us sixty with only a Captain and two Sargeants [sic] in command. Here in the Surplus
Detachment we boys got to know each other; had our own cooks and good ones too, for they held the camp record for cleanliness and economy. We took plenty of informal exercise, such as playing baseball, and hiking to the mountain near by [sic]. A few times attempts were made to drill us, but these met with but little success and the efforts in this direction were soon given up entirely. All our mail was marked Surplus Detachment, and the friends and relatives took special notice of this. My dear wife wrote me and said that if I was a “surplus” here I had better come home and help take care of the place. Speaking from the civilian standpoint there are many surpluses in the army.
In this Detachment we had many privileges to receive visitors and have religious worship with them. Rev. Heatwole of LaJunta, Colorado came to us twice and preached the gospel pure and simple without any references to war or patriotism. Then Rev. N.J. Krehbiel of Heedly, California stopped in enroute [sic] to Kansas. Also Rev. Kliewer and Rev. H.P. Krehbiel made a special trip to our camp to inquire concerning alleged mistreatment of C.O.’s. Their visit was of a diplomatic nature, and I’m convinced the results were very satisfactory for all concerned. Rev. King and Rev. Loucks of the Old Mennonites also visited us with a message of encouragement, love and sympathy, and also an admonition to remain true to our convictions. Brother King made the statement that the very integrity of the whole non-resistant church will be measured by the course of its adherents, under pressure and tests. This somehow became to me as I pondered it a tremendous challenge, have not gotten rid of it yet, and I believe it holds true under any crisis. Otherwise I was not influenced much by what friends had to say (or others also) in regard [to] what course
to take. I heard and felt an inner voice and according to Paul’s example Gal. 1:16 “conferred not with flesh and blood”. Even before the president made his official outline of what was to be non-combatant service, the camp officials repeatedly solicited in a friendly way among our group for hospital work especially. Many of the boys in our group yielded and went into some branch of service which is usually called non-combatant. Day by day our group shrank in size or number. Often it was pressure from home that caused the boys to take service in the army. One young man whom we considered the staunchest in his stand yielded quickly when he received news from home that his wife and next of kin, were being despised and mocked on his behalf. What pain have some well-meaning friends caused by advising a course which they should have known to be at variance with the way Christ pointed out. Yes, to go with the masses is easier, and if it were merely a question of preference or expediency I should consider anyone foolish for defying the authority. Whittier says in his poem, “Barklay of Ury”:
They are slaves who dare not speak for the fallen or the weak; They are slaves who will not choose hatred, scoffing and abuse, Rather than in silence shrink from the truth they needs must think; They are slaves who dare not be in the right with two or three.
On the first occassion [sic] where a special effort was made in the Surplus Department, to persuade us to accept Hospital or Q.M. service, our commanding officer was Captain S. He was not very popular in the company, nor did he have much of a liking for his subjects. One time he, in presence of visiting officers, as we were going to mess, remarked loud enough for all of us to hear, “I wonder these fellows don’t object to eating”. Should we have in a group declared a hunger strike against
the authorities no doubt he would have had something worse to say about us. On the day we were questioned concerning non-combatant service we were taken individually into company headquarters where a few officers and a stenographer were seated. The inquest was conducted by our Captain S. Each of some forty boys was examined separately. I was among the last ones called and as usually [sic] on such hearings the patience of officers lasted about so long, then the nervous tension demanded a release. When my turn came to enter the “sweat box” for the grilling, I had about the same to say as all the others before me, (there was not much variety) my questions had reached the saturation point, and the statements made by me or something in my bearing caused an explosion. The last straw will break a camel’s back, and I was the last straw in this instance. He swore to his heart’s content. There are elements or forces in the unregenerate man which do not yield to rules of discipline, nor will they always be held in subjection as the result of mere moral or ethical training. There is only one power potent enough to cope with these forces inherent in the natural man; that power is the gospel of Jesus Christ which is the “power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth” Roman[s] 1:16. Another investigation of this sort, but many times as intensive was held in spring of 1918. It was conducted by two officers who claimed to have come direct from Washington D.C. to “help us”. They purported to be students of theology and also psychologists with plenty of experience. Their mission was to give the C.O.’s a mental test and see if we were sincere. At first we received the regular army intelligence test, in which we answered several sheets of questions on many different subjects. Then these men had heart to heart talks with the
individuals. This time I happened to be one of the first ones called. My questioner began in a very kind and sympathetic tone; he reminded me of the great difficulties we were causing the government, and that it required much patience and forbearance on the part of the officers dealing with the problem. I informed him that it was easy for me to see that we were causing them many headaches, and was sorry for it, but did not seen [sic] anything that we could do about it; (or something along this line of thought). Then followed a careful survey of my pedigree, a query into the nature and extent of my objections, and finally an inspection of the logic of non-resistance. We got along fine in our thirty minute discussion and it seemed that he really meant well, so inwardly a feeling of thankfulness came over me, that there were at least some worldly men big and broad enough to participate in a conflict of ideas above the plain [sic] of human bitterness and anger. Forty is a big number though, especially if their cases run pretty much along the same line; so when the last ones were “on deck” and the psychologist was talking to Brother Lemke, his patience (like in the former inquest) too gave way, and instead of persisting in his meek and sympathetic manner, he launched into Brother Lemke with a tirade of abuse winding up with a picturesque and comprehensive curse telling his victim that he did not “have a d___ bit of religion.” If Captain _____ would not have claimed to be a student of Divinity such a wind up would not have been so shocking, but as it was we began to feel that we must be a strange group of young men. Doubts and fears began to assail me in such hours. Could it be possible that all the world is wrong, and we, just a mere speck in humanity, right?
During the time of our segregation, from December 1917 to May 16,
1918, we had the following commanding officers, Captain S____, Captain Beaver, Captain Metcalf, and Lieutenant Taylor, of which the last three were kind, considerate and tactful, in short, they were gentlemen. The boys of the Surplus Detachment became very much attached to Captain Beaver so that when the time came for his transfer we made him a neat gift as a token of our appreciation. This not said in a spirit of selfpraise [sic] but merely to show that it is possible for men of different views to live together in harmony. It was through the recommendation of Captain Beaver that the Division HDQRS granted me a fifteen day furlough at a time [when] most such applications were denied.
About the last event of importance in connection with the Surplus Detachment, was the visit of the Division Commander. His exact purpose was not made known to us, but he had a short lively chat with a number of the boys. One he asked why he had on a uniform, the next one he asked why he did not have one on; to some answers he replied, “I don’t believe you” etc. One day (we were about to be moved to our new home where a messhall had been built for us near the Division Stockade) Major B. from the Remount came to the S. Det. We were called into the messhall and he spoke to us in the following manner, “I have come to you with facts, -- not lies. The Remount is short twenty men, and the Division Headquarters agreed to give me twenty of you. I can do the choosing. You will have the privilege of a meeting one hour each Sunday in the Y.M.C.A. if you so desire. You will have to drill, take care of sick animals, and obey all orders. If your refuse to obey I’ll make you wish you were in h___. I am a gentile and my religion is summed up in two words – play fair. If
no twenty volunteer we will take twenty and you will go to the Remount today.” This was the sum and substance of his talk, and very nearly an exact quotation. He had not said so very much but he said it in such a way that it left a taste in nearly every ones [sic] mouth. It was plain that he meant business, yet no one volunteered. The next twenty-four hours was a time of great anguish and much prayer – yes, we pray more when in trouble – every one felt in his own heart that we were approaching a crisis. To disobey meant persecution, to obey meant giving ground. It meant to betray our church, our profession and our covenant. In times like this there rages deep in the part of man, where no man can approach, a conflict as fierce as any fought with fire and steel in the carnal realm, and it is very telling on body and mind. The one voice, the fear of man, the glorious opportunities for advancement, the honor of the world, the safty [sic] of the loved ones at home, against the Higher voice: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me., Matt. 16:24. Every inch of ground is contested to the limit of the opposing forces. This is the time when help is needed. Hebr. 4:16.
The following afternoon May 16, 1918 we were ordered to move to our new home near the stockade, but before the order was half carried out a new order countermanding the first, came, which called for closing the books and dissolving the Surplus Detachment. Twenty of us were sent to the Remount and the rest (thirteen) to the Q.M. I was with the group going to the Remount. We went over there at 5:00 p.m. fixed up our quarters for the night, but when bedtime came we could not sleep. It was a time of watching and praying lest we FALL in this temptation. The next morning our seargent [sic] grouped us into squads and assigned us to our duties
only to learn that we could not and would not comply with the order. The seargeant [sic] reported our refusal “up” to the captain and to Major B. who soon came stalking into the barracks with a captain and lieutenant trailing at his heels all clad in full military regalia and side arms bristling. With a firm voice he commanded, “I give you a military ‘awder’ to go to the stables and perform work as assigned.” He left the barracks, but soon came again to see what effect his order had taken. In the meantime one of the lieutenants gave each of us a certificate stating that we were non-combatants with the only privilege that we were not to be transferred from the Remount against our will. The second time Major B. came, he gave each an individual order and wanted to know if we obey or refuse. He seemed not to be satisfied with, “I can not do it”, as though the success of prosecution depended more on the manner than on the fact of our refusal. After each one had refused as politely and quietly as he knew how, he told one of the Lieutenants to draw up the charges. Further he read to us from the articles of war and threatened to bring charges of mutiny against us besides the charge of disobedience. This threat to charge us with conspiracy to mutiny, gives evidence to what extent men would go if they could. This mutiny charge was dropped before it came to trial; there was not the remotest idea of any sustaining evidence that we acted in collusion. Any rational mind knowing our past record or circumstances could easily see that our unity in objecting to military service was the cause and not the effect of our segregation. This however can be said to the credit of Major B. he did not mince words and gave us fair warning that the situation was grave. He predicted a
general court-martial, if we remained firm, “As sure as Christ.” There was little doubt that we were going to be tried though we felt that the military order was not lawfully given to us and that the trial would be unconstitutional. A light guard was thrown around our barracks and we were under arrest. Before we were started on our way to the Division Stockade, I wrote a hasty note home telling briefly what had taken place and added that Heaven only knows what might yet happen to us. I handed this to a guard and begged him to post it, which he promised, and half hoped that it might pass the censor. It did, and in about a week a reply reached me at the Division Stockade; it read something like this: “We have received your note of distress, and want to assure you that we are resigned to the situation, no doubt you will after conviction be sent to Ft. Leavenworth as that is where military prisoners are sent to.” Then followed a few sentences of scriptural encouragement and close [sic]. The letter was brief and to the point. It would be impossible to tell my readers how much this assurance from home meant to me – it buoyed my depressed spirit tremendously. Before being taken to the stockade it seems that another attempt was made to disuade [sic] us from our folly (?) in risking a trial. A young Frenchman from the Y.M.C.A. came to us with an attempt to show us that the doctrine of non-resistance is unnatural and unscriptural. He caused considerable annoyance, because we thought we had given our final answer and did not care to reopen the case. He was a wolf in sheeps clothing, but not very adept; it was easy to pierce his mask.
It was about the 18th of May when they took us to the Stockade which was to be our home till after the trial. On the way down we were
forced to carry our luggage if we did not care to abandon it. It was about half a mile to go and those with heavy luggage had their first taste of persecution, as the squad of guards coached us along.
Marvel not mine ancient friend Like beginning like the end Quoth the Laird of Ury. Is the sinful servant more Than his gracious Lord who bore Bonds and stripes in Jewry? Give me joy that in His name I can bear, with patient frame, All these vain ones offer. While for them He suffered long Shall I answer wrong with wrong, Scoffing with the scoffer?
Arriving at the Stockade our personal effects were likewise taken into custody. Money, jewelry, watches, cameras, razors etc. were all taken from us and deposited in a tent, outside the stockade, which was guarded by a soldier. A few of us were given receipts, and the rest and to go without. Much of the above property never was returned to us. Five hundred dollars is a conservative estimate of value of goods and cash stolen. We do not know who got it all, but some of the items were taken by those who were detailed to watch them. Some watches and pens were actually identified by us prisoners when we saw them being worn by guards. Well, this was a minor matter and caused us no sleepless nights; especially so in contrast to other things that occupied our attention.
While in the Stockade awaiting our trials we went on working just as the rest of the prisoners, each man under close guard. We earned our daily bread by working in the reclamation yards and graveling roads. In every respect we were treated like other prisoners, and got along tolerable well with our colleagues in infamy, except that some complained
of the C.O.’s working too hard. We soon learned to avoid this offence where we were not urged on by our “chasers”. It must have been about three weeks of our stay here before the trials began. Each one was tried separately and these trials lasted on the average of half a day. An attorney was appointed to defend us. No doubt he was able as an advocate but it’s natural that he lacked interest in our defence [sic]. He was not paid by his clients, who from the military standpoint were a stumbling block anyway; why should he exert himself to get us acquitted. Other officers even dubbed him a Conscientious Objector. He did not advise us that it was not likely to be to our advantage to take the witness stand. He said nothing of the right to object to irrelevant questions, but he did caution the court that the logic of a C.O.’s position is of far less important in the eyes of the law than the question of his sincerity. He also questioned the testimony of a psychologist who diagnosed me and found me twenty-five per cent sincere and seventy-five per cent German bias. The plea in my behalf was based on the fact that evidence of insincerity was Very Light, and emphasized the fact that I was a member of the Mennonite Church practically all my life. The manner in which the cross examination was conducted created in me a strong impression that the court tried to trap me into making some seditious utterance. Probably I am mistaken in this, for heretofor [sic] I had never been in a courtroom to witness a trial, except once where an unruly boy was tried before the Justice of The Peace. I believe it is a mark of good citizenship, if in their civil life people refrain from litigation, but rather settle their differences out of court, or if they are not hailed before magistrates. Here are some of the stock questions commonly asked a C.O. and used generously
at these trials.
What would you do in case of an attempted rape on your mother or sister? Would you kill one man to save the life of a thousand? Is it wrong for any and all Christians to fight or wage war? Is or is not our President a Christian as well as you? Which side would you rather see win? Some of these questions are not only unfair but also absurd and should not have been admitted in these trials but this was not for the defendant himself to say.
All of the boys except one were found guilty of the charge, willfully disobeying a lawful command, and were given sentences ranging from ten to thirty-five years. These were reviewed and approved, and one by one or in groups of two or three we were railroaded to the Disciplinary Barracks (military prison) at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas.
Before leaving my description of the camp adversities, let me say that in all cases at all points I studiously tried to avoid unnecessary friction, always giving the officers the benefit of every reasonable doubt. Never had I at any time disobeyed an order until I was forced to “draw the line” at the Remount. Sargeant [sic] Clark of the Fourth Company of the 59th Depot Brigade once complimented me for being the “most irradical C.O.” he ever saw. (don’t know whether that weighed so heavy; at that time he may not have had to do with many of them) yet in order to maintain a reasonable degree of consistency between profession and conduct, the break as inevitable.
When we left Cody, about the 14th of June 1918, we had had a good foretaste of persecution, yet we felt a peace “that passeth understanding.”
My transfer to the Disciplinary barracks, was in company of two other C.O. friends, whom we’ll call Brother S. and Brother K. We were also provided with a body guard for the trip, and a few preparations needed to be made, such as packing up what was left of our personal belongings, brushing our clothing etc. Each of us three were also trimmed up with a neat set of shining wristlets, as a badge of recognition, known in police parlance as “come-alongs.” It cannot be said that it was an especially sad trip for us. We did not have to worry about changing cars, or whether we had the right ticket or things of the kind; we had our leader to look after that. There was perfect harmony and fellow feeling between us and our guard. He arranged for our meals in the diner, which we of course had to pay for with what money was left us, excepting a small ration allowance which he received from the government for us. He said we might as well spend our money for a few good meals, for our money “will be taken from us again at our destination”, and we’ll “never get meals like this there”. He really seemed to sympathize with us and expressed the hope that we as good Christian boys would get along well in our new home. Besides eating and talking we had nothing more to do enroute [sic], so we sat and admired our neat little “ornaments”, trying to see if they might be slipped off some way. Brother S. succeeded in freeing both his hands unobserved by our escort. He took them to him and told that that “these things came off.” The guard with a suppressed smile took out his key and put them on the convict again, this time pulling them a notch or two tighter. After a little while Mr. S. tried it again and in typical Houdini fashion succeeded again, and when he handed them to his captor again, the man did not try
try to look sober any more. He laughed and said, “All right, you do not need them any more,” and slipped them into his pocket; then looking at the other prisoners and not wishing to be partial, he stepped over to us and unlocked our hands also. When we pulled into the station at Ft. Leavenworth we were again handcuffed until we were safely in the walls of “Capitol Hill”. At 10:00 p.m. on the 15 of June 1918, the massive gates of the D.B. swung open for us and the gatekeeper greeted us with, “You are welcome to our city”. It took about two hours (there was a constant stream of prisoners coming in those days) to register and deposit our personal effects. It was there about 12:00 p.m. when we retired to our private cells. Everything was clean and orderly, and I am sure I’m speaking for my two partners also when I say that we rested peacefully under the Shadow of His wings.
The first few days were spent in getting rigged up for the daily routine. There was no particular rush nor should there be for we had on the average fifteen years before us. Regular prison garb was issued us and numbers painted on the backs of the shirts and jackets and over the knee of the trousers; thus we were literally numbered with the transgressors. Some of the boys did not make this very plain, when they wrote home about getting numbers on the back. In a few instances it was misinterpreted to mean branding and really caused the relatives some anxiety. I am sure that our government does not in any of our penal institutions mark a man bodily for life. They want him after serving his sentence to go back into society, as free as possible from the stain of a criminal record. For this reason all the mail coming to the D.B. was to be marked only with a box number and not the name of the institution.
The first week we had a few short examinations. The commandant asked us if we were going to work as prisoners. In the executive office we were asked as to our ability and preference for work. In the hospital we had our fingerprints taken, and received a physical examination. The medical examiner inquired into our past history, habits, ancestry etc. Finally a group of C.O.’s and others were taken to [the] chaplain, Major S. He made a speech something like this: “To those who made an error in the service of their country I express my sympathy, but take courage and thank God for the chance for restoration to duty, if after a few months you prove your fitness for further service; but concerning those (speaking of C.O.’s) who refuse to participate in this most holy war, I reserve my opinion.” It was no difficult matter to guess the Chaplain’s opinion, but that opinion was soon destined to be changed. His action later showed that he considered the C.O. an all around desirable man, and a model prisoner. about When we reached the D.B. there must have been about 100 C.O.’s there already. Fourty-five [sic] had just arrived from Camp Travis[,] Texas, and were the subject of street gossip. Most of the boys chose farm work.
My place of duty at first was in the fifth gang, a gang which was composed entirely of C.O.’s numbering about fifty. Our work was with hoe and scythe during the summer months. Other C.O. gangs worked at the stables in the dairy industry, or on other projects. Many individuals were scattered among other gangs working on construction work or in the quarry. A fair portion of our boys were used inside in office work. One young Mennonite served in the post office and was rapidly promoted. He has later in civilian life served the Lord as a minister of the gospel
under the General Conference. It seems that the prison officials at once adopted the policy of segregating the Religious Objectors from the other convicts as much as feasable [sic] for work, but for sleeping and eating we were pretty well mixed up with all the rest of the prisoners. Despite the heavy sentences imposed on the Objectors, the authorities soon tendered them a gratifying confidence, as evidenced by the fact that most of them were soon paroled without request or application. This meant that they could go about their prison duties without a guard, could leave or enter the main gate anytime during work hours, by merely showing their pass as they left and returned. The gate corporal made a check of the movements of the paroles, and when it happened that an error was made in the “check in” when the boys came in at night, it sometime[s] caused a lot of inconvenience. One night about at 10:00 the prisoners were all lined up, most of them in their pajamas ready for retirement, and a careful count was made of the entire number and then a recount. We wondered if one or more had “gone over the hill” or what the trouble was. Pretty soon 13222 was called and asked to report to the gate corporal. When I got there, and it was past eleven, he gave me a bit of his mind for failing to present my number when I checked in a few hours before. I tried to tell him, but it did no good, that I had done my part and that the trouble this had caused was all due to a slip of his. In the fall of 1918 they assigned me to work in a green house; not a bad job for wintertime. Our work consisted in raising vegetables for the market. Our foreman was a typical Englishman, by the name of Fisher. He was a civilian, and we worked together in perfect harmony. We were not always successful in our efforts at producing these winter vegetables. For example:
One time I had to uproot about – well, several thousand mature tomato vines which for some reason had become sterile, and just would not bloom or produce tomatoes. Whether our boss knew where the trouble was with these plants or not I do not know but I don’t remember that he ever told us the secret of that failure. The rules of discipline at the D.B. were not severe, but had to be complied with in the minutest detail. We could correspond with the outside world subject to censorship of course; there was no restriction on conversation between prisoners, excepting probably under certain conditions. (There have been, I am told, on several occassions [sic], as the result of disorders or uprisings, the application of the Iron Rule, where conversation is greatly restricted if not forbidden altogether. Such an occassion [sic] came several months after my discharge, and as a punishment for extensive riots in the D.B.) In talking to a soldier sentry or officers, the prisoners must stand with arms folded. Sidewalks are forbidden the prisoners. Breaking the rules results in loss of “good time” (the portion of a suspended sentence usually remitted for good conduct), Sunday work or both.
The institution conducts the following industrial and agricultural pursuits. Farming, Livestock, Dairying, Poultry; they have shoe factories, machine shops, blacksmith shops, ice factory, tailor shop, laundry, and others. The work is done by military prisoners under civil or military foremen. For pastime the boys get movies twice weekly, library books and general service each Sunday morning. The various denominations may have service with their men. The Catholics, Jews and Mennonites had such special services, quite regularly. Mennonite services were held each Saturday afternoon, and most of the C.O.’s attended this
service. We considered this a special kindness on the part of the officers, to grant permission to Rev. Minninger [Mininger] of the Old Mennonite K.C. mission to come to us regularly and to minister to us. Brother Minninger too never in this world will fully realize how great a service he thereby rendered to us and our Master. “What ye have done the least of these ye have done unto Me.”
Bath and shave were given twice weekly; prisoners doing the barbering as their part of “hard labor” and at the same time learning a profitable trade. Meals were served in a colossal mess hall which seats 1300, yet to accommodate all we needed to have three shifts for each meal which made nine settings a day, or practically meals at all hours; of course, no prisoner was permitted to eat more than three times. Each one was assigned to either, early, general, or late mess, and if one was caught slipping in twice as sometimes happened on Sunday breakfast, when we had two fresh buns, scrambled egg powder, and coffee, the guards removed him rather roughly. Food in general was not fancy and we had plenty of chronic grumblers, who even went so far as to charge the local authorities with fraud in connection with the administration of the food allottment [sic] or ration. The meals were wholesome enough to keep up our normal weight even though they were lacking in sugar and fats. In the long run we developed a craving for these elements. On Thanksgiving and Christmas we had special meals, and it put the entire multitude into a better humor; or as we might put it, it improved the morale.
Individual prisoners were on certain days and hours allowed to receive their relatives as visitors, either occassionally [sic] or regularly. This always was something to look forward to. I was especially fortunate
to have a member of my family located in the city of Leavenworth, only two miles distant. In this way my wife could visit me Saturday and Sunday afternoons quite regularly. The prisoners and their visitors all met in a great hall where they sat on seats or benches and conversed together and also ate a lunch prepared by their visitors. Of course, we were under constant surveillance, for often visitors were tempted to abuse this cherished privilege, by smuggling contraband articles to their friends. The authorities had to be on the alert constantly for weapons or money. Here I learned to appreciate Matt. 25:36, “I was in prison and ye came unto me.” Especially is the prisoner lonesome when in the hospital. His fellow prisoners cannot very easily see him there. It is much easier for an outsider to obtain a special permit to go to one in the hospital.
A few things about the prisoner body in general, such as the temperament or morals. The following does not apply to the C.O.s. Although during my stay at the D.B. for about seven months everything went fairly orderly and peaceful externally viewed, yet underneath there was easily perceptible an undercurrent of unrest and tension. The prisoner body was a rather mixed affair as regards the character of the men. Some were seasoned criminals, others had only made a beginning in that direction; then again a large share of the convicts were built of breaking the military rules, such as getting drunk, going AWOL (absent without leave), the “do-as-you-please” type. The moral state in general was low. Wickedness and sin is rampant. It was here that I learned of the existence of a practice which brought the downfall of the ancient city of Sodom, Gen. 19:4-9. Men are impulsive even on slight provocation. The spirit of revenge is strong. If a prisoner wanted to do something more
in the interest of law and order, aside from living decent himself, he was at once stamped as a traitor to his fellow prisoners with terrible consequences usually. A room orderly was murdered for reporting another prisoner who was negligent in keeping his cell tidy. A number of men were tried on a murder charge. One of our Mennonite boys who knew about the crime was called as witness for the prosecution. This witness at once had to be placed under heavy guard and kept in a private place outside of the walls during the course of his trial. When his testimony was no longer needed he was taken to another prison far removed. All this was necessary for his safety. I had a personal letter from this brother two thousand miles away, telling me of his whereabouts and conditions there, but no reference whatever to the trial or the circumstances of his transfer.
In the mess hall one noon a diner struck a waiter with the fist; almost quicker than you can say, “Jack Robinson” the whole seething mass of humanity was on its feet, many throwing their tin plates in the direction of the seat of trouble; if its a fight everyone wants to get in. There is usually a strong force of guards in the hall at mess time, but that time they needed time to restore order. All this fury was caused by an unsatisfactory slice of bread.
Our life in D.B. was more free from the harassing, mocking, and derision we faced in the army. Of course, we had by this time become somewhat immune (so I thought) to being hooted [at] and mocked. Let them curse, let them call me slacker, or yellow back or anything disgracefull [sic], we were now steeled against all forms of mockery. Hold on, dear Brother, when you feel that you are secure of attack from a certain angle, there
is danger. Let him that thinketh himself to stand take heed lest he fall. One day I was walking home from work, a lone parole prisoner; as I was going up the ascending road from the river bottom to the bluffs upon which the Fort is built, somewhat weary and tired from the labors of a warm summer day I was accosted by [a] group of rather young children who railed me with, coward, yellow back, slacker, etc. I don’t know where they got their information, but they took me by complete surprise. A feeling of resentment overwhelmed me and I would have given anything for the moment, to be privileged to lay my hands on these youthful prancers and teach them civil look and decent speech. In my childhood days my grandmother sometimes told me the story of Elisha and the bears, how the prophet was mocked by a group of children and how the man of God invoked Divine wrath on the children so they were eaten by bears. I could not understand this story in its implication. It seemed all out of proportion when I compared the offence [sic] with the punishment. It is a little clearer to me now, even though I am no kin to a prophet, and worthy of less consideration than was Elisha.
The C.O.’s do not lose their identity when entering the D.B. neither is there any friction between them and the other prisoners as has been reported by the hostile press. Very seldom if ever have the C.O.’s as a minority group received a fair break at the hands of the large newspapers and that is not surprising. It was extremely detrimental to champion an unpopular ideal and is so today. There were about forty C.O.’s that refused to perform prison labor on the ground that the institution was under military jurisdiction. To me it seems that some of these men carried their scruples to unnecessary lengths, yet one
their courage and outstanding bravery manifested in their suffering, a suffering that in a few instances culminated in death. Professor C.H. Wedel says that conscience is sensitive like the eyeball and tolerates no external pressure. Each conscience is non-elastic. If a man takes nine hours daily chained to the bars of his cell instead of light work with full meals, whereas in solitary he gets only bread and water then it is evident that conscience does not always act in line of least resistance. Captain Fisk in charge of the farm colony, after getting acquainted with the everyday life of the C.O.’s, once made this statement, “I believe there is something like objecting to war on religious grounds.” Another captain was asked by a press reporter how long it would be before the long-bearded objectors would be converted into fighting men. He replied that it would take another incarnation.
The Spanish influenza made its first appearance in many generations in this country in the fall and winter of 1918-1919. It did not hit all sections of our country at once. We had been reading of the epidemic in eastern cities while we remained unmolested in our little city. Then all of a sudden it broke over us like a storm follows a hot summer day. It came with terrific fury. Everyone seemed sick at once. We had been reading of the filled hospitals in other places, now our hospitals and mortuaries were hopelessly over-taxed. I myself was in the hospital about two weeks, my wife was dangerously ill in the nearby city, but made a quick recovery and as soon as able she called to see me and found me still in the hospital. My recovery was normal but not complete as I retained a permanent injury to my vocal cords. They say figures don’t lie, but liars figure. Someone with a knack for figures and figured out
that the death rate in our institution for the month of November 1918 during the epidemic, was nineteen times that of the city of New York, although these figures might be correct in a way, yet there is a catch in them intended to convey a false impression to the public, as a slap at the authorities. Still we suffered heavy casualties, and at the end of the week we had seventy corpses most of which had to be laid out under a canvas for a few days until coffins could be obtained for shipping them home.
Some time along in mid-winter a commission was sent from Washington to us for the purpose of examining us as to sincerity. This was about or soon after the time the armistice was signed. This board consisted of three members. Dean Stone, Judge Julian Mack, and Major Kellog. This commission examined many objectors in the various camps and finally also came to us who were under sentence. At the D.B. this commission examined a few hundred. One of our ministers, Rev. H.P. Krehbiel, was also present during a part of the inquest. I do not know how long this work lasted, but according to unconfirmed reports it was found that over ninety present of those examined were sincere.
There is little doubt that the findings of this board had a lot to do with the action of the War Department which was now confronted with the task of demobilization of soldiers and C.O.s and political prisoners as well. After the cessation of hostilities in Europe, agitation for the release of all sorts of war prisoners began in earnest. The King of Italy granted a general amnesty to some 30,000 political prisoners, and in our country similar moves were proposed. However, public hostility toward religious and political prisoners was still strong, and it
was not until the close of January 1919 that Secretary of War N.D. Baker dared to brave public indignation, by boldly announcing that he had DECIDED TO USE HIS POWER FOR GRANTING CLEMENCY in the case of 113 C.O.’s at Ft. Leavenworth. Our life under the military was subject to frequent changes; for periods we were happy and contented, and then came days of fear and anxiety, and sometimes a longing to be free from the vice-like grip that held us in the military machine, and from which we could in no way extricate ourselves. At times we felt like the Israelites in bondage. Psalm 137:1. For consolation I sometimes repeated a line of Longfellow’s “Rainy Days.”
Be still sad heart, and cease repining; Behind the clouds is the sun still shining. Thy fate is the common fate of all; Into each life some rain must fall Some days MUST be dark and dreary.
God was moving mightily in the interest of a group of His children, and he was using a man clad in civil authority to do it. “Wenn die Stunden sich gefunden, bricht die Hilf’ mit Macht herein”. That sweeping order of Secretary Baker I believe included the Nullification of our sentences and all references thereto expunged from the records. I conclude this from the fact that our certificates of discharge made no mention of all this.
On the morning of January 27, 1919, after mess all 113 whose names had already appeared in the columns of a nearby daily, were marched into a large hall where we were to be mustered out of service; the whole prison city was excited. If this could happen to 113 at one time, and C.O.’s at that, “what good news might come to the rest of us yet,” thought many. It was regarded as a straw indicating the direction of the wind. It took
many hours until all the details of our demobilization were completed and it must have been some time [in the] afternoon before we passed through those massive gates for the last time and we were once more civilians.
A news reporter of one of the nearby dailies was in the hall and watched the entire program. He took note of what was being said and done and occassionally [sic] he took the phone and dictated his observations to the paper in Kansas City which he represented. From what I overheard of his conversation it seemed that he presented the basic facts quite fairly; but when the paper appeared the next day with a detailed account of happenings at the D.B. the preceeding day, it was so distorted that one might have mistaken it for an entirely different event. I have already stated that the press was hostile to this group of people and seldom missed an opportunity to attack, by misrepresentations. In this instance however, it went beyond all bounds. A noted fairminded [sic] journalist himself, characterized this attack as “the climax of outrageous misrepresentation…………. and sober observers are despairing of modern journalism.”
It would be futile to attempt to describe the feelings of one who is at once released of all external restraints. It was a feeling akin to being dazed or stupefied. On another occassion [sic] one man who was discharged alone had to be reassured by a guard even after he was outside of the walls with his belongings and discharge papers, that he was actually free to go any place and need not return.
My dear wife, who in company of about a half dozen others, had come to meet and greet their husbands, arrived on the street before the prison entrance, early before sunrise that morning. There is a little
waiting room right across the street from the main entrance. There they waited and watched patiently (or impatiently) for the glorious exodus, while other women whose husbands were not on the list repaired to their rooms to weep. After a few days stay in the city of Leavenworth where we visited the Federal Penitentiary, we said good-bye to the gloomy walls and castles of North Eastern Kansas. In looking back over a period of sixteen months of eventful life my only regret is that I have not trusted my Lord more implicitly, and was not always willing to bow humbly in perfect submission to His holy will. I trust that the foregoing narrative will dispell [sic] the erroneous conception that choosing the course of Christian non-resistance in wartime is choosing the easy way and evading the obligations of citizenship. There are some good things that a C.O. can do for his country even in war time, and those duties must be found outside the military machine. On the other hand let me say that I sincerely respect the authorities in Washington and the leading men in the war department for their efforts to find a socially acceptable solution to this difficult problem – the C.O. in war time.
The above narrative was first written in 1919 and published as a serial in a weekly newspaper. It has now, 1942, been re-written and revised in phraseology, but the events reported remain practically unchanged. A few happenings have perhaps been omitted and others given more in detail.
Waltner, Edward J.B., “Ms. "The First World War",” Conscientious Objection & the Great War: 1914-1920, accessed November 21, 2019, https://cosandgreatwar.swarthmore.edu/items/show/1615.
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