NEW: ROCKPORT TO ALCATRAZ PART 2
JEREMY WALTNER – PUBLISHER
When the United States declared war against Germany and thus found itself in the crosshairs of World War I, it didn’t go over well from sea to shining sea.
Not initially, anyway.
“The United States came reluctantly to the war,” said Duane Stoltzfus, a professor at Goshen College who shared his perspective as part of a larger story about Hutterite resistance to the war at a program hosted by Heritage Hall Museum & Archives last month. “Many people said, ‘This is not our battle to fight; this is for the Europeans to fight. We shouldn’t spill blood over their conflict.’
“But once the decision was made to go to war, the country, as if overnight, put on the armor of a different nation,” Stoltzfus continued, “There was a super-patriotism that spread across the country. German towns suddenly took on English names, and food changed names.”
Once visible example of this groundswell of American pride was found in Tacoma, Wash. — not far from the sprawling Camp Lewis were thousands of soldiers prepared to go war — where people set about to produce the largest American flag ever made.
“They tried to hang it,” Stoltzfus said, “but every time they put this flag on a pole, it snapped the pole. Eventually, they just hung it off the top of (a) building.
“But it is an indication of the kind of very visible commitment to the United States and its cause at this time.”
As robust as citizens of the United States were collectively in support of the troops and their place in the worldwide battle, so were four young Hutterite men defiant of it.
Brothers Joseph, Michael and David Hofer, along with David’s brother-in-law, Jacob Wipf — all of Rockport County in Hanson County — had boarded a train and reported to Camp Lewis after being chosen as part of the Selective Service Act of 1917, but didn’t do so to put on a military uniform.
They did so to explain why they couldn’t serve their country in The Great War — that Hutterites were opposed to violence in accordance with their religious anabaptist beliefs. In fact, Hutterites had sought military exemption since the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century and immigrated to America based on that assumption, which had been stated in a personal invitation by President Ulysses S. Grant.
But the young men were ordered to serve in World War I regardless, and when they refused to do so, they were arrested, tried and ordered to serve 20 years hard labor at Alcatraz, a prison on the island adjacent to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.
And so while Americans were largely reveling in a healthy dose of patriotism brought on by the country’s declaration of war against Germany, the Hofers and Wipf, instead, stood firm on their faith-based principals and refused to put on the uniform of a solider, even in the dark and wet hollows of isolation beginning in July of 1918.
The story of the four Hutterite men’s refusal to participate in military service was the focus of a program led by Stoltzfus and Dora Maendel, a member of the Fairholm Hutterite Colony in Manitoba. It was presented in Pioneer Hall and hosted by Freeman’s museum over two nights, on March 25 and 26, with support from the South Dakota Humanities Council.
The Hutterite’s imprisonment at Alcatraz was the most harrowing of what had been a long and difficult journey. They were ridiculed and assaulted for having long hair and wearing beards not long after boarding a train in Mitchell bound for the Washington military camp, and their explanation to government officials again and again about their non-violent beliefs did them no good.
In fact, it landed them in isolation.
“The island of Alcatraz was a fearsome place,” Stoltzfus said. “It was cold, it was windswept and there was a sense of foreboding of being cut off evermore from their family and their community.”
Upon arrival, the men do doubt got a sense of the kind of place Alcatraz was and the industrial prison life they would be facing. But even then, they still were given the chance to put on a uniform and do some kind of work, “but they refused to cooperate in any way, because they said, ‘We are not soldiers. We cannot put on anything belonging to the military.’”
And so they were escorted down 14 steps, led down the hall and into a series of cells in four corners of the hole, as it was known, and spent their days in solitary confinement.
Stoltzfus shared comments made by another consciousness objector who had been sentenced to time deep in the Alcatraz Island prison and experienced the same setting, describing in detail what it was like.
“He, in a sense, can speak for the Hutterites,” Stoltzfus said. “He said, ‘The hardest things to endure in the dungeon were the complete darkness, the sitting and the sleeping on the damp concrete floor and the lack of sight or sound of any human being. The 18 ounces of bread was quite sufficient after the first few days, and toward the end I had bread left over — enough to share with the rats, which were quite peaceful and friendly.’”
Not only were the Hutterites forced to live in solitary confinement, conditions were tough even beyond the isolation.
“These were the hottest months of the year,” said Maendel, taking her turn at the lectern. “They were also regularly interrogated rigorously and, sometimes, beaten with iron rods.”
There was no mattress to sleep on, no sheet, not even a wooden board, she said. The cells were damp, which made the heat even more oppressive, “and because they were chained to the cell doors for nine hours every day, they couldn’t even chase off the mosquitoes.”
Maendel noted that they were allowed outside the cells on Sundays to walk around the compound for exercise and fresh air, and that other prisoners took note of the ghastly rashes and swollen arms from being chained for so long.
“It is said that some actually had tears in their eyes,” she said, “and one of them was heard to ask, ‘Is this a way to treat human beings?’”
They did find comfort through audible prayer and soft singing, Maendal said; not only did that provide hope, it also offered assurance that they were still alive.
AFTER THE WAR
On Nov. 11, 1918, The Great War came to an end — at least on paper.
Three days later, the Hutterites left Alcatraz for Fort Leavenworth, Kan. and what Stoltzfus described as “a school of second chances.”
“The commanders believed they would give people who had done wrong in one way or another the opportunity to straighten out their lives and contribute in some way,” he said, “and there was a lot of work to be done.”
Stoltzfus said Fort Leavenworth was, in many ways, a small city — a self-supporting hub of productivity that featured order and precision. Some of the prisoners would work in shoe shops, others were involved in dairy, poultry and hog operations, there was a canner, a garden, greenhouses and a tailor shop.
“Secretary of War (Newton D.) Baker made clear his intention, his commitment, to see that everyone was contributing,” Soltzfus said. “It was important, he said, to develop men and keep them from going to easte; to make useful citizens of them.
And it was in this place that the three Hofer brothers and Jacob Wipf arrived.
Maendel said the Hutterites arrived at Fort Leavenworth on a cold and windy November night and were forced to stand outside and endure the conditions while waiting for their prison uniforms to arrive.
“Finally they came about 1 o’clock in the morning, and by that time, their arms were so stiff and cold they could hardly put them on,” she said, “and by this point it became clear that Joseph and Michael were very ill.”
Joseph and Michael were taken to the infirmary.
David and Jacob were taken to solitary confinement. The end of the ordeal was near.
This story concludes next week and will recall the accounts of the fate of the Hutterite men, and the aftermath