Mennonites in the World War/XI

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There are three disciplinary camps in the United States. They serve the same purpose for the sol dier who receives a prison sentence as the Federal prison does for the civil transgressor. There is scarcely a time when there are no military prison ers, and during a war there are naturally many more than in times of peace.

One of these camps is on Governor's Island, N. Y., another on Alcatraz Island, Calif., and the re maining one is at Fort Leavenworth, Kans. Because of the bitter complaints regarding the treatment re ceived by the prisoners at one of the other camps, all conscientious objectors at the other two places were transferred to the last named place, hence our account will apply only to Fort Leavenworth and the prisoners there.


Something of the size of the barracks may be grasped when we hear them speak in terms like the following: "The sixth wing;" "There are five hun dred prisoners in this wing;" "There are more than three thousand prisoners in these barracks;" "About eighteen hundred of us ate in the mess hall at one time;" etc.


"Going to Leavenworth"

After the court-martial sentence had been passed the party was considered a criminal. On the way from camp to the disciplinary barracks, or from one of these prisons to another, at first there was no difference shown in favor of those who were sen tenced because of a religious conviction against war and the greatest desperado. They were hand-cuffed, and in some cases hands and feet were manacled at night. Some of those who were taken there later were not even hand-cuffed. Those who were taken to Fort Leavenworth from the east were kept in the Kansas City police "lock-up," provided a continued journey would bring them to their destination late at night. Several of the Camp Taylor C. O.'s spent one night there. Imagine the walls of that building re-echoing as the boys sang from memory such songs as "Faith of our fathers," and "O my soul, bless thou Jehovah." It must have given the police a new sensation. On Arrival

Once inside the large iron gates, and they se curely barred, with guards standing around all well armed, the hand-cuffs were removed. It was neces sary for the prisoner to register, to give the name and address of his nearest relative, and receive a number; for hereafter he is hardly considered worthy of a name but is known entirely by number. All this was done in the office just inside the gate. Here he gave up all his belongings, even down to comb, handkerchief, and toothpicks.

Getting Prison Clothes

The prisoner was then taken to the store room


where tie removed every bit of clothing and placed it on a pile, then went to the next attendant who fitted him out with prison clothes. Some of these clothes had been worn by former prisoners but were thoroughly sterilized before being given out again. The clothes were of the plainest possible cut, only one pocket being allowed in the trousers in which the regulation blue handkerchief was carried. Occasion ally a shirt or a jacket had a pocket, but they were not supposed to have. But why should a prisoner have other pockets? He was not supposed to carry anything else.

The Prisoner's Probation

The prisoner was next taken to the basement of the fourth wing for confinement, this being the only lock-cell-wing in the prison. If he showed signs of reform (Imagine how this applied to some of the most consecrated young men in the Church) he would soon be allowed more privileges, but for the time being he was kept at work under guard con stantly while not at mess or in his cell. Very soon his "nearest relative" received some blanks to be filled out, asking such questions as : "How often has the prisoner been arrested and for what?" "Is he accustomed to getting drunk?" "Are any of his an cestors habitual intoxicants?" and a number of other questions just as inapplicable to people of this class. But it should be remembered that in order to keep peace among so many there must needs be uniform ity of treatment and questions. If the report was favorable and the prisoner was well behaved he was given a "star parole" and was allowed to work on the dairy, poultry, or hog farm. If it became evident


that the prisoner was safe to put among other pris oners, he was soon put into another wing where the cells were open and the prisoners were allowed to commingle. This was not always an advantage. A quotation from a political objector will show very clearly that he did not consider it so. He says: "Communication from one floor to another is open. This leaves about eighty men free to roam around the section at night, for all sorts of devilry. As there are many who have bad records in civil life you will not be surprised at the conditions which ob tain here, where I have to sleep and spend my extra time. Dope fiends, auto thieves, burglars, and ....are quite common. They are very nice to the C. O/s, and will do anything for us, but just living with them is dangerous enough. Their filthy lan guage and dirty stories from the lowest underworld are enough to drive a man crazy. One can not read or think because of the constant stream of filth." Another writes, "I feel that a few years of this kind of confinement would make a mental or a physical wreck of the best kind of a man. We can not be too deeply concerned about those who are still there." The jeopardy is increased by the fact that some of the most loathsome and contagious diseases are found in these men which endangers the health of the prisoners.

Prison Precautions

These prisoners were expected to work, and for the first few days they were assigned to work within the compound in order that they might be near when wanted at the office, for they were not yet ready to be turned to work in the fields with the "gang."


Every precaution was used so that in case a prisoner got away he might be caught again. Their finger prints were taken, their number placed on the front of each trouser leg, on the back of their shirts, coats, and raincoats. A card with the number on it was placed under the chin and a photograph taken. The picture with all the information regarding the pris oners was taken to the Rogue's Gallery in the Fed eral prison. With these precautions, his prison clothes only, and the many guards, little hopes could be had of escaping and not being found.

Prisoner's Rights

From that time the prisoner's rights were few. If he made complaint of ill treatment the under offic ers usually gave some answer of contempt, such as, "If you had behaved you would not be here," or, "All that is the matter with you is that you are out of luck." Patients in the hospital were given sim ilar answers. All these could be borne by the relig ious objectors, but for people who were resentful and many of the prisoners were these things bred intense hatred toward the officials ; and what is a great deal worse, against the government, for there is where the blame ultimately lands.

Psychopathic-Psychologic Board

This board was expected to make a close study of the individual character of all prisoners and de cide on the possibility of a reformation. The mem bers of the board asked a number of questions of which the following is a partial list: "Were your parents ever insane?" "Have you any relatives in the penitentiary?" "Have you any relatives in the poor-house?" "Were your parents ever alcoholics?"


"Did they use other drugs, opium, morphine, etc.?" "How many times were you arrested before?" "What other names have you used at various times in your life?" "What is your naval or military experience?" "How many court-martial trials have you had?" "What were your employments in civil life?" "Were you ever discharged?" "Why?" "Are you married?" "Do you want to live with your wife?" "Does she want to live with you?" "How long did you go to school?" "W T ere you ever expelled?" "Why did you quit?" "Do you think that your court-martial was fair?" "Do you admit your guilt?" "Are you sorry tor what you did?" "Do you want to be restored to duty and be a good soldier?" Imagine how these questions would apply to some of the noble Chris tian young men, at least one of whom was an or dained minister in the Mennonite Church, or to some who had their A. B. degrees from college and were leaders in Christian work in their home congrega tions. But here again it must be remembered that the tests would be much the same to all, as one of the best means of keeping the unruly quiet ; again, that the principle to which these nonresistant young men held was not understood by the examiners any more than it was by the officials or the soldiers in the army.

The classification of the religious objectors ac cording to "rule and rote of the army officer" was not an easy job. Here is one case: A member of the examining board thought that all men could be class ified on their past records and their education. He called a certain Mennonite into his room. The officer gave him a mere glance but looked closely at some papers before him and said, "You have finished a


college course and have done some post graduate work. You have held a good position in an institu tion of higher learning;" then without lifting his eyes from the paper he said, "What business do you have to be a C. O.?" The brother made no reply. The officer said, "Eh?" Again no reply because the officer had been profane in his questioning and he waited for a respectable question. After a long si lence the officer said, "What do you mean by class ifying yourself with this ignorant, dull, and illiterate crowd?"

The C. O. "Sir, I think your characterization is quite inaccurate. The C. O.'s compare quite favor able with the average soldier." (Here the C. O. intended to refer the officer to the psychological test at Camp Taylor, where the C. O. company made a record twenty per cent higher than the next best company in the camp, but the officer cut him short.)

Officer. "We have the figures and know what we are talking about. It is not so queer that such illiterate fellows should have such narrow-minded views about war, but here you are been going to school for many years, at good schools too, where I am sure they would not teach any such notions. . . . and you have been teaching. Haven t you been able to get away from such narrow, petty notions about religion?"

C. O. "No sir, I do not allow myself to be swayed by the opinions of others unless I am con vinced. I never agreed with the majority."

Officer. (Disgustingly) "O you never agreed with anything."

C. O. "I say I never agreed with the majority on a number of moral questions. I never approved


the use of tobacco or liquors, and even while in school I was opposed to joining college fraternities, going to dances, playing cards, etc. " but the of ficer had gotten more information already than he wanted and dismissed his party.

These experiences are given at some length to show the methods used by officials, and to show that the C. O. could not be placed into any of their out lined classes. He was a puzzle in camp, and no less so here.

Shall he Work?

As stated, these men were expected to work. They had refused to work in camp; shall they work here? Each one solved that question for himself. A few from some of the smaller branches of Menno- nites refused to work and suffered the consequences which as a rule were, "the solitary." But why should they work here and not in camp? Most of them decided this question on the following basis: They were no longer considered as soldiers, for in their court-martial they were dishonorably discharg ed from the army (Being a part of the army was one of their principal objections to working in camp) ; the work was not military, and did not pro duce military products more than any other farm ; it was not furnishing any money for the support of the war, for it was reported as not self-supporting. A number of the C. O.'s went there with a full de termination not to do military work even under prison discipline, but on investigation believed that they could work here without violating any Gospel principle.


Gang Work

After the first few days the prisoners were sent out in gangs of possibly five under a guard who was well armed to work on the farm during the day, to be brought in for their meals and for the night. The guard was held responsible for any one who got away; hence he wanted them constantly in sight and did not want more than the proverbial five. One of these guards was given charge of ten men, all of whom were C. O. s, and complained to the officer over him that it was dangerous and unjust to be held responsible for so many. He was very nervous for a while, but soon became more and more confi dent, and in time permitted his men to go about their work without making any effort to keep them in his sight. In a gang of forty or more men which in time was composed entirely of C. O.'s the guards were reduced gradually until there was only one, and he slept much of the time. The boys proved that they could be trusted. In fact, the officers believed these young men more than they believed each other. The overseer of one of these farms was quite en thusiastic about making his farm a success, and be came discouraged when he heard that the C. O.'s were to be discharged and that he must again depend on criminal labor. He could not trust the latter class and did not expect the amount nor the quality of work which he had been getting.

Star Parole

Most of the Mennonite boys received star pa roles after they had worked with the gangs for a time. They were not kept under guard after that, but were assigned some certain work for which they


were held responsible. They must report regularly, but their work was so far away from the barracks that frequently they would not get back more than once a week. Some of them slept in a barn near where their work was.


After a murder had been committed the C. O.'s were scattered promiscuously among the other pris oners. In cells occupied by six men, anywhere from one to four may have been C. O. s. No one had any choice as to who his room-mate should be. Thus the vilest and the best in the prison might easily have been required to live in the same cell. This was a trial. Think of these young men, clean in hab it and language, being placed with those having loathsome diseases, and who were vile in body and mind, and who had very little regard for human life. With all this these wicked men respected the Chris tians for trying to live clean lives in such a vile place. One of the C. O.'s said, "The prisoners would do anything for us." This does not corres pond with the Kansas City papers some time in December, 1918, when they stated that the C. O.'s were a real problem for the prison administration to handle ; that they were hated in the army and by the prisoners at Leavenworth; that the latter were con stantly finding ways to show their contempt toward the poor, deluded boys; that it had been necessary to segregate the C. O.'s to avoid clashes between them and the other prisoners ; that the C. O.'s were responsible for fights, riots, and strikes. One young man said, "I was at Fort Leavenworth during two of the disturbances, and am in a position to say that


no religious C. O. was connected with either; and I am very confident that none were involved in any thing like that after I left." The same in substance has come to us direct from a half dozen other young men who had been prisoners there. But if the officials believed the C. O/s more than they did each other, there seems to be no reason why we should not do likewise.


The meals were fair in quantity, but not always in quality. They followed a regular routine. That is to say, the menu for Monday noon was the same each Monday noon except when that chanced to be a holiday and so with all the other meals. The pris oners always knew what to expect. At regular in tervals all new-comers were seized with griping pains in the bowels for which the food was blamed, but in course of time they seemed to become im mune to these disorders.

Overcrowded Conditions

It is not easy to realize the difficulties experi enced by the full house." There was room for eighteen hundred when the prison was all in use. Commander Rice received word to prepare to take care of five thousand, but how was he to do this? Everything was arranged and equipped for about one-third that many. Beds could be placed in the corridors, but that was not desirable. Arrangements could be made to eat at different hours so that the same dining hall could accommodate twice as many ss could get to the tables at once, but that would be a source of dissatisfaction but what with regard to the hospitals? This increase in numbers at the


prison would tax that department to its utmost. Then came the influenza. An effort to describe is useless. No wonder that some of the prisoners did all in their power to keep out of that place, and some suffered severely simply because they did not report actual conditions. This crowded condition also meant that patients could not always have the care that they should have had.

The Solitary

This was the most dreaded place in all the dis ciplinary barracks of the nation. At Alcatraz this was possibly thirty feet below the surface of the earth. At Fort Leavenworth it was not so deep but was deep enough to be quite dark. When some one refused to obey orders he was likely to be sentenced to the solitary. Here they were put on a bread and water ration for two weeks then on full rations for another two weeks and so on. This was done with a view of breaking the will of the supposed culprit. Young men from several of the smaller branches of Mennonites who refused to work because they had conscientious scruples against aiding anything that was connected with the military establishment were sentenced to the "hole," as the solitary was common ly called. Possibly the most cruelly treated were the four Hutterites Jacob Wipf, David, Michael and Joseph Hofer. They spent four and a half days in the Alcatraz solitary without any food and only a a half glass of water every twenty-four hours. At iiight they slept on the cold, damp concrete floor without any blankets, and during the day, with their hands through the bars of the prison so high that they could stand on the floor with difficulty, the


hand-cuffs were fastened on and they were required to stand there for nine hours each day. In course of time these four men were transferred to Fort Leavenworth. Being required to wait for some time after reaching the prison, and being sweated on their arrival, two of them (Michael and Joseph) took a severe cold which developed into pneumonia and both died in the hospital. The father, the two wid ows of the dead men, David Hofer and Jacob Wipf remain to tell the story. The two wives and the father hurried to the scene as soon as they found out that they were sick. Sorrow fills their hearts, but it is the sorrow of pity and forgiveness. No words of bitterness, no spirit of hatred is heard or seen. Rather the prayer of the Master is manifest, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."

The Attitude at Washington

From the beginning it was evident that the gov ernment at Washington was inclined to be lenient toward those who had received a court-martial sen tence because of religious scruples, and quite a number had been released from the disciplinary bar racks. Finally the board of inquiry came to Fort Leavenworth and examined the C. O.'s with a view of finding out those who were sincere. Those who had united with a nonresistant church before this country entered into the war, and were able to con vince the board that they believed the doctrines of their church were asked but very few questions. Those who were not so clear, or had united with the Church only a short time before going to camp, were examined quite carefully. It is generally con-


ceded that the board wanted to be fair. As a result of this examination, one hundred thirteen were given their discharge in one day. The public was not pre pared for such a wholesale release, newspapers crit icised the war department very severely, and one of the legislatures in a western state passed a resolu tion showing its disapproval and disgust. As a re sult releases were not so general after that, but so far as known at this writing every Mennonite has been released. Another kindness of the department was that the religious conscientious objectors re ceived the middle discharge rather than the lowest or dishonorable discharge, as required by the court martial sentence.

A Retrospect

Many of the experiences of the C. O.'s were very trying, but praise God for the courage which was manifested. A little compromise in camp might have lessened their trials and have kept them from the disciplinary barracks, but it was a case of "Choosing rather to suffer affliction than to enjoy the pleas ures of sin for a season." As a rule, the record of the brethren was good, both in camp and in prison, and it was very evident that they made their influ ence felt, both with the officials and with the prison ers by proving that the religion of Jesus Christ could be lived as well as professed : under adverse circum stances as well as in the home and the Church. A great blessing came to many at that time and has ever since been a means of strength to them, while others who suffered equally severe trials and stood bravely for the right were blest as much as their brethren, only to lose it afterwards, and all because they could not stand the praise of men. They preached to others by their actions but have since shown a spirit different from the lowly Nazarene and their influence which they might have continued to exercise, is gone. We praise God that this does not apply to the majority, and we pray that it never will.