The wonder is that the U.S. Army even wanted four young Hutterite farmers from the Rockport Colony in South Dakota. Soldiering was most assuredly not in their DNA. The communal church to which they belonged had been resolutely set against all warfare for 400 years. Their grandparents had immigrated to the United States decades earlier, leaving their farms in Russia to travel thousands of miles, all to avoid having their men drafted into a newly expanded Russian military.
At the time of immigration, the United States was eager for settlers, especially skillful farmers. President Ulysses S. Grant personally wooed representatives for the Hutterites at his summer home on Long Island, N.Y. While the president said he couldn’t promise they would be free of military service in the United States, he made the prospect of a draft sound highly unlikely—they could count on at least 50 untroubled years, he assured them.
Yet here these young farmers were on the morning of May 25, 1918, well short of the 50-year mark, summoned by the U.S. Army for service in World War I. Three of the men were brothers: David, Michael and Joseph Hofer. As might be expected in their closed community, the fourth man, Jacob Wipf, was a relative; he was Joseph’s brother-in-law.
All four were leaving wives and young children at home on the colony, where the main work was farming and where all members held all property in common, wanting to follow in the footsteps of the early believers in Acts. The 4,000 acres of colony land belonged to the community of Hutterites. The 500 head of cattle belonged to the community. The identical fieldstone houses belonged to the community.
On this day, the Hofer brothers and Jacob Wipf were boarding a special military train for Camp Lewis, Washington, where tens of thousands of recruits from the Western states were already learning to salute, drill and handle a bayonet. The Hutterites were determined not to participate in the military, but they had been drafted and wanted to cooperate as long as they could, hoping for an assignment they could accept.
In the eyes of the military, every man who boarded the train was already a soldier in the U.S. Army—even if some, like the Hutterites, required more shaping than others. Things had been tense between the Hutterites and their neighbors since the United States entered the war a year before. The Hutterites had refused to buy war bonds.
And they kept to themselves and dressed oddly. The men wore black and grew beards, symbolic of their commitment to God. They also spoke German, the language of the enemy on the battlefield. On the very day the men left for Camp Lewis, South Dakota had banned the speaking of German in schools and churches, one of many efforts to ensure loyalty.
The tension between the Hutterites and their neighbors was apparent as soon as the four men boarded the train. A conductor took them from one Pullman coach to another, trying to find a place where they would be left in peace. To most of the 1,200 young men on the train, the Hutterites were “Russian cloonies,” slackers of the worst kind.
All was quiet through the first night and into the next day. Then at midafternoon, a group of young soldiers stormed their compartment. They hauled the Hutterites away, one by one, to cut off their beards and cut their hair. For the men with shears, it was a harmless and patriotic way to get the Hutterites to look the part of soldiers—“free barbering” they called it. For the Hutterites, it was a frightening introduction to the Army.
Stretching across about 70,000 acres, Camp Lewis was the largest of the Army’s camps. It was, in many respects, an ideal place in which to train for battle. Few of the other training sites could compete with the vista at Camp Lewis (pictured). The barracks were arrayed in two curving arcs, which opened toward Mount Rainier, capped in white.
But less than 24 hours after their arrival, the Hofer brothers and Jacob Wipf found themselves not on the parade ground but in Guardhouse No. 54. The officers had pressed the men to line up in formation and to fill out the enlistment and assignment cards, but the men were steadfast in their refusal. The card required each recruit to list his hometown, age and basic information—but on top of the card it said “Statement of Soldier.” The Hutterites insisted that they were not soldiers and so could not complete the card. They said they could not line up with other men as soldiers. They could not head to the parade ground to drill.
In sending all drafted men to military camps (with no option for civilian service), President Woodrow Wilson and Newton Baker, the secretary of war, were confident they could persuade everyone, including members of the historic peace churches, such as the Hutterites, to do their part for the Army and the nation. Men who didn’t want to carry a gun might, as soldiers, drive an ambulance or cook in the kitchen. The Army needed everyone. Wilson and Baker also envisioned the Army as a melting pot. At the time of the war, one third of Americans were born overseas or were the children of immigrants.
But the Hutterites were committed to their own worldview, in which two kingdoms, one of God and one of the world, stood in conflict. They believed they could not contribute to the nation if it meant having to wear a uniform and serve in the Army. The Hofer brothers and Jacob Wipf had the misfortune of arriving at Camp Lewis just as commanders across the country appeared intent on using trials to send a message to conscientious objectors like them and just before Secretary Baker opened the way for farm furloughs.
Before putting men on trial, though, the military had to declare they were insincere or defiant. The reasoning often seemed to be that anyone of sound mind who refused the military’s fair offer of noncombatant service must be insincere. By that logic, the Hutterites stood no chance in securing a different outcome. They saw themselves as Christians, not soldiers, and as Christians their refusal to obey military orders was a sure sign of sincerity. The Hutterites and military officials were talking to one another across kingdom walls.
All four men were found guilty of all charges. They were sentenced to 20 years of hard labor, to be served at Alcatraz.
At the end of July 1918, the Hofer brothers and Jacob Wipf, chained together in pairs and escorted by four armed lieutenants, traveled down the coast by train to Alcatraz.
On arrival, each prisoner was instructed to take a bath and put on prison dress. When the men refused to put on the Army clothing, they were led down a flight of 14 stairs.
In this dungeon, each man entered a cell under a sloping brick arch, six feet high at the uppermost point; the cell itself measured 6½ feet wide by eight feet deep. Guards left a uniform on the floor for each man.
Alcatraz, which after the war would become a federal prison known for its high-profile inmates such as “Machine Gun” Kelly and Al Capone, was always a fearsome place, windswept and cut off by cold water currents. In the dungeon, all was pitch black and quiet. For the first 4½ days the Hutterites received half a glass of water each day but no food.
At night the men slept without blankets on the cement floor, which was wet from water that oozed through the walls—there were no beds in the dungeons. There were also no toilet facilities beyond a pail assigned to each man. On the floor beside them were soldiers’ uniforms, promising some warmth if they relented.
The prison officials were determined to break the resistance of the Hofer brothers and Jacob Wipf during their first week in the dungeon. During the last 36-hour period underground, each man’s hands were crossed one over the other and chained to bars in the door. The chains were drawn up so that only their toes touched the floor, a technique known as “high cuffing.”
By military law, the convicts could not be kept down in the dungeon longer than 14 days at a time. The Hutterites rotated into and out of the dungeon during the four months they spent at Alcatraz, first two weeks in the dungeon, then two weeks in a regular cell and so forth.
As members of a communal group, the Hutterites must have felt the isolation an extra burden, but the men are silent in their letters home, except to suggest that death is in the offing.
San Francisco celebrated the armistice with a human chain of 5,000 people, who gathered at the Civic Center, still wearing flu masks as a precaution. Like so much of the rest of the country, the city was just emerging from the worst of an influenza epidemic when war, at least on paper, came to an end on Nov. 11, 1918.
Three days after the armistice the Hutterites left Alcatraz, still in chains. The men arrived at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., on Tuesday, Nov. 19, at 11 at night, fully spent.
Chained together at the wrists, carrying their satchels in one hand and their Bibles and an extra pair of shoes under the arm, they were hurried on, up the hill toward the military prison.
The three Hofer brothers and Jacob Wipf, who had been confined together since their arrival at Camp Lewis in May, finally separated at Fort Leavenworth. Joseph and Michael Hofer turned gravely ill. While David Hofer and Jacob Wipf were placed in solitary confinement, standing in chains nine hours a day, Michael and Joseph Hofer were hospitalized. Prison authorities alerted family members back in South Dakota.
Their wives arrived at Leavenworth in the evening in time to see their husbands. Joseph was barely able to communicate. He died at 8:35 the following morning, Nov. 29. The guards said that family members could not see him. But Maria, Joseph’s wife, was forceful. The head officer relented. With tears in her eyes, she approached the coffin, which was set on two chairs. When the lid was opened, she found Joseph in death dressed in a military uniform that he had steadfastly refused to wear in life. Michael Hofer died a few days later.
To the Hutterites, the men were martyrs who died because of mistreatment at the hands of the state while remaining true to their religious beliefs. The Army listed the official cause of death as pneumonia, brought on by influenza.
The third brother, David Hofer, was immediately released, free to accompany the bodies of his brothers home to South Dakota. Jacob Wipf remained in solitary confinement.
Several days after Joseph and Michael Hofer died, Secretary Baker ordered that prisoners no longer be chained standing to the bars of cells.
On April 13, 1919, nearly 11 months after his arrest, Jacob Wipf reversed his walk through the iron gates of Leavenworth, free to return to South Dakota in time for spring planting.
Back in South Dakota, he found a Hutterite homeland transformed. Many of the colonies had abandoned their farms and moved to Canada, and the Rockport colonists would soon do the same. When they reunited that spring, Jacob Wipf and David Hofer may have taken a short walk up the Rockport hillside to the cemetery to pay their respects to Joseph and Michael. All the grave markers in the cemetery were the size of a shoebox and identical, save two. One pictures the men bending low to read the grave markers for Joseph and Michael, where a single word had been added: martyr.
The experience of the four men contributes significantly to one of the darker chapters of this period of American history, when a wartime patriotic fever and a widespread suspicion of all things German fueled attacks on conscientious objectors and others who did not rally to the cause.
Their tale, distressing as it is, does not follow a simple script, neatly dividing the cast into heroes and villains. As the narrative unfolds, we can see why the Hutterites became absolutist objectors during the war and feel empathy for the men in the face of their sufferings. At the same time, we can appreciate the challenges set before military commanders and guards who followed a different set of orders and, by their worldview, could not understand why these men would not contribute to the national cause, if only by pushing a broom.
Even so, the government can be held to account these many years later. In Washington the highest officials in the land set in motion a series of actions, carried out by subordinates, that in isolation may have seemed measured and appropriate. The cumulative effect was a miscarriage of justice. Four men who sought neither to harm nor injure anyone at any turn ended up hanging in chains, a treatment President Wilson himself later described as “barbarous or mediaeval.”
The Hutterites were part of a stream of Americans in World War I who were punished for remaining true to their convictions. They could have fallen in line on the broad path. By insisting on taking the narrow path, the Hutterites and other dissenters forced the nation to confront the most essential of questions: Is this the meager freedom that we wish to share in the United States? That someone will be imprisoned for refusing to fight or for criticizing the war or for speaking ill of the nation’s leaders? And over time, the answer came back from lawmakers in Congress, from justices on the Supreme Court, and, most importantly, from neighbors, that we can do better.
Our constitutional compass, including the First Amendment, promising freedom of speech and freedom to practice religion, and the Eighth amendment, banning cruel and unusual punishment, now points us toward a higher ground. The Hofer brothers and Jacob Wipf received one-sentence obits when they died, but they left expansive legacies. Their story of holding fast to religious beliefs in the face of persecution challenges Christians in their walk and reminds all Americans, nearly a century later, that we’re only as free as the Hutterites among us.
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