2012 C. Henry Smith Peace Lecture – “Standing in Chains at Alcatraz: When Hutterites Were Called to War'”

by Duane Stoltzfus, Goshen College Professor of Communication. Prepared remarks for March 12, 2012 – Goshen College Convocation, Church-Chapel

(Note: Related hymns that were sung in between sections during the presentation are also noted.)

The wonder is that the United States 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. While the president said that he couldn’t promise that 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 fifty untroubled years, he assured them.

And yet here these young farmers were on the morning of May 25, 1918, well short of the fifty-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 U.S. entered the war a year ago. 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. At a glance the Hutterites might be mistaken for their cousins, the Amish; but where the Amish carved out separate homesteads and farmed with horses, the Hutterites shared all property and used modern machinery.

They also spoke German, the language of the enemy on the battlefield. On the very day that 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 to the United States.

The Hutterites looked and spoke as if they had just been transported from a European village in the Old World. When they worshiped, as they did each day, they used an archaic form of High German, the language of their sacred hymns and sermons, written centuries earlier by Anabaptist martyrs and those close to them. The Hutterites saw themselves as a pure remnant of believers, ever watchful, knowing that persecution could return at any moment.

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. Finally, the conductor found a compartment for them. As a safeguard, the Hutterites wedged a two-by-four across the door so that no one could enter.

All was quiet through the first night and into the next day. Then at midafternoon a group of young soldiers came to the door. They knocked. The Hutterites kept quiet. The soldiers knocked again. They told the Hutterites they only wanted to talk. Eventually, the Hutterites relented and cracked the door open. The men stormed in. They hauled the Hutterites away, one by one, to cut off their beards and cut their hair close to the scalp. 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.

Dear Maria,

Our savior has indeed said that they will come to us in sheep’s clothing, but in truth they are ravenous wolves. . .  When we arrived in Judith Basin in Montana they came to us . . .they cut my beard and hair off completely.  . . . Our savior has gone before us as an example that we should follow after him in his footsteps, for we have come into such a great suffering. . . It’s now 11:30 and time to go to sleep. We are going here so fast through the mountains and beside the mountains. If one thinks back how we have come here from our dear community, one could cry bitterly. Especially if one reflects on where we are being taken. It is deplorable. But God has promised us that he will stand and go before us if we only will trust in him.

Your never-forgetting spouse, Michael Hofer

Rockport Colony to Camp Lewis (May 1918)

“Heart with loving heart united” (Hymnal: Worship Book, #420)

The best way to picture the importance of Camp Lewis to the nation during World War I, according to a magazine writer, was to stand in the Texas Panhandle and face north, drawing an imaginary line through the middle of the country–through Oklahoma, then Kansas, and Nebraska and the Dakotas, right up to the Canadian border.

If you looked east from that line, you would have seen fifteen national army training camps. If you looked west, you would have seen one: Camp Lewis, at American Lake, Washington. The recruits from Alaska, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming, and many more from Minnesota and the Dakotas, all headed to Camp Lewis, some, like the Hutterites, traveling as far as 2,000 miles.

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. The average summer temperature climbed to a comfortable seventy-one degrees and dipped down to a refreshing fifty-two degrees at night. Few of the other training sites could compete with the vista at Camp Lewis. The barracks were arrayed in two curving arcs, which opened southeastward toward Mount Rainier, “the Great Sentinel of the Camp,” capped in white.

The camp was bursting at the seams, with tens of thousands of men shoehorned into the officially designated company barracks. To accommodate the overflow, hay sheds were turned into barracks for at least 1,000 others. Some men slept outdoors in tents.

Meals were served at six in the morning, twelve noon, and six in the evening each day in the mess hall. For breakfast, the cooks piled metal plates with steak, potatoes, and rice, and filled cups with coffee, as the men filed by. The other meals were even larger, ending with pie. The army’s daily ration was an impressive 4,761 calories.

Of course, the men had to work off the food. The recruits were being readied to ship out as infantrymen to the front lines in France. You can hear the excitement in their letters home and later memoirs. A young  Mennonite from California, David Janzen, was eager to put on a uniform as a noncombatant: “After thirty days of such drilling it was easily seen how a fat pouch began to slide off a roly-poly man or how the spindly bank teller set his feet down firm and solid and a swing came to the men as they marched to and from the drillground.”

But less than 24 hours after their arrival, the Hofer brothers and Jacob Wipf found themselves not on the parade ground, but instead 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 that they could persuade everyone, including members of the historic peace churches, like 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.

Secretary Baker spoke about how men of every religious group and every immigrant stream and every political view would be welded into one body: “For when, on some moonlight night, on the fields of France, some American boy’s face is upturned, some boy who has made the grand and final sacrifice in this cause, no passerby nor no imagination that reaches him will be able to discern whether he came from a blacksmith’s forge or a merchant’s counter or a banker’s counting room. He will simply be an American.”

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 the Secretary Baker opened the way for farm furloughs.

Before putting men on trial though, the military had to declare that 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.

So the men went on trial, accused of disobeying orders. Lieutenant Robert Shertzer and Sergeant R.B. Hilt were among those who testified.  Shertzer recalled confronting the men.

Shertzer: “What is the matter with those four men?”
Hilt: “They won’t fall in.”
Shertzer: “They will fall in.”
To the Hutterites, Shertzer said: “Here, you men fall in that last squad there.”
Hutterites: “We can’t do anything like that.”
Shertzer: “I explained to you men about this. This has nothing to do with fighting. I read the orders to you, and you will have to obey orders or else you will have to go to the guardhouse.”
Hutterites: “We can’t.”
Shertzer: “Sergeant, take them over to the office. We will have to put them in the guardhouse.”

Then the Hutterites were called to the witness stand.

Q: Are you willing to take part in any noncombatant branch of the service of the army?
A: No; we can’t.
Q: What are your reasons?
A: Well, it is all for war. The only thing we can do is work on a farm for the poor and needy ones of the United States.
Q: What do you mean by poor and needy ones?
A: Well those that can’t help themselves.
Q: Does your religion believe in fighting of any kind?
A: No.
Q: You would not fight with your fists?
A: Well, we ain’t no angels. Little boys will scrap sometimes, and we are punished; but our religion don’t allow it.
Q: To put the case like this: If a man was attacking or assaulting your sister, would you fight?
A: No.
Q: Would you kill him?
A: No.

All four men were found guilty of all charges. They were sentenced to twenty years of hard labor, to be served at Alcatraz.

Dear Maria,

We must hold firmly to God and plead to him with prayers for the strength of his Holy Spirit, so that we might win the battle and remain firm unto the end, and fight for truth as so many of our forefathers did who came out of the fight with bloodied heads. And now they are yonder and have received their reward. And, dear spouse, if we want to go there where they are now, then we must also follow in their footsteps and give heed to their faith. For the children of God are called to nothing else than to affliction, cross, tribulation, persecution, and hatred from the world.

Joseph Hofer

Camp Lewis to Alcatraz  (July 1918)

“I sing with exultation” (Hymnal: Worship Book, #438)

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. The island was formally designated the United States Disciplinary Barracks, Pacific Branch, but it was better known as Alcatraz, or simply “The Rock.” From the San Francisco mainland, the ride to Alcatraz on a prison launch took roughly twenty minutes, heading into the wind that blew through the strait known as the Golden Gate.

From the dock they climbed a steep path, with one switchback after another, to reach the massive cellhouse at the top of island. Gnarled trees marked the way, bending and twisting in the wind.

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 fourteen stairs to the basement of the prison, a place of solitary confinement known as “the hole.”

In this dungeon, each man entered a cell under a sloping brick arch, 6 feet high at the uppermost point; the cell itself measured 6.5 feet wide by 8 feet deep. Guards left a uniform on the floor for each man. Before they left, a guard warned, “If you don’t conform, you’ll stay here ‘till you give up the ghost like the four we carried out yesterday.”

Alcatraz, which after the war would become a federal prison known for its high-profile inmates like “Machine Gun” Kelly and Al Capone, was always a fearsome place, windswept and cut off by cold currents. In the dungeon, all was pitch black and quiet. For the first four and a half 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 that 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 gave up their resistance. Wipf would later recall: “But, we had decided, to wear the uniform was not what God would have us do. It was a question of doing our religious duty, not one of living or dying–and we never wore the uniform.”

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.” When guards led the men up the narrow steps and into the outside yard after nearly five days underground, other prisoners gathered around them. The four men tried to put on their jackets, but their arms were too swollen.

When the men wrote home, they said nothing of the conditions at Alcatraz. So other inmates, including Philip Grosser, who wrote a memoir, can speak for them: “The things hardest to endure in the dungeon were the complete darkness, the sitting and sleeping on the damp concrete floor, and the lack of sight or sound of any human being. The eighteen ounces of bread was quite sufficient for the first few days, and towards the last I had some of the bread left over. The rats were quite peaceful and friendly.”

By military law, the convicts could not be kept down in the dungeon longer than fourteen days at a time. The Hutterites rotated into and out of the dungeon during the four months that they spent at Alcatraz, first two weeks in the dungeon, then two weeks in a regular cell, and so forth.

Wilbert Rideau, an award-winning journalist who served forty-four years in Louisiana prisons for killing a woman, described the panic that often overtook him in solitary: “One . . . two . . . three . . . four . . . five . . . turn. Walk back. One . . . two . . . three . . . four . . .  five . . . stop. Suddenly, adrenaline is coursing through me. I freeze, like a feral cat who spots a stray dog. It’s the walls! They’re closer! They’re moving in on me, closing up the tomb.”

The United States Supreme Court nearly declared the punishment unconstitutional in a case in 1890 in which a Colorado murderer had been held in isolation for a month, awaiting his execution. World War I provided more evidence that solitary confinement was a cruel practice. The authorities closed the isolation cells at Alcatraz. For the better part of the twentieth century, in keeping with the court’s outlook, the United States used solitary confinement relatively sparingly, and only rarely for long term.

What happens to someone in solitary? Two psychologists who have researched the growing use of solitary confinement in the U.S., Craig Haney and Mona Lynch, said that every study has documented psychological damage among the inmates who were held for longer than ten days. The damages includes chronic anxiety, insomnia, panic, impulsive anger, memory lapses, hallucinations, self-mutilation, and suicide.As members of a communal group, the Hutterites must have felt the isolation with an extra burden, but the men are silent in their letters, except to suggest that death is in the offing.

Dear Anna,

My dear spouse and children, I’m sure you’ll be anxious to hear how things are going during these dark days. We’re all quite well, temporally and spiritually, and wish you the same. . . .  It seems that we’re supposed to stay here in this misery. But we have to pray to God that he will lead us on the right path. We all do not expect to see each other in this world anymore, the way it seems now, but we should not despair, with God’s strength we hope to overcome, as we have promised God, we trust in him. He’s the only one who can help us, as he did in olden days.

David Hofer

Alcatraz to Fort Leavenworth (November 1918)

“Who now would follow Christ” (Hymnal: Worship Book, #535)

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 end on November 11, 1918.

Three days after the armistice the Hutterites left Alcatraz, still in chains. Under overcast skies that threatened a chilly rain, they boarded a train for the Army’s main disciplinary barracks, at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, guarded by six sergeants.

Joseph wrote what would be his final letter:

My dear wife, since we will no longer see each other in this troubled world, then we will see each other yonder through the power of God. With this we must be satisified with that which God allows to happen. And he will not lay upon us more than what we, with his strength, can endure. . . .

And when you look at our scrawling you can well imagine how low our spirits are, for we are where the waves are roaring and in that time when the seas throw up the dead–if you can only see this in the right way.

This is all for this time, my dear wife. For this is not a good letter at all, since the train shakes and bounces so much. Now to close. My best greetings to you and our dear children, father and mother and all the brothers and sisters in the faith.

The men arrived at Fort Leavenworth, on Tuesday, November 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 men entered a massive prison that night, enclosed by a stone wall that varied from fourteen to forty-one feet high.

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, November 29. The guards said that family members could not see him. But Joseph’s wife, Maria, 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.

Dr. David M. Morens, an epidemiologist who has studied the history of pandemics, said various factors could have left the brothers vulnerable to influenza. For example, they might have had a vitamin deficiency linked to their diet. In the end, Dr. Morens said, “Why these two men died is a mystery not easily explained by the conditions under which they lived.” What’s also puzzling is that two brothers died. The mortality rate, even for soldiers living in cramped barracks, was under five percent. “Statistically,” he said, “the death of both brothers was not likely under any circumstances.”

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.

But several days after Joseph and Michael Hofer died, Secretary of War Baker ordered that prisoners no longer be chained standing to the bars of cells.

Darius Rejali, an expert in the history of torture, concluded that the harshest punishments during the war fell on conscientious objectors like the Hutterites from Rockport, who refused all service or work in the military. The standard punishment for such men, standing handcuffs, is one of the many coercive physical techniques that Rejali refers to as “clean tortures”–that is, techniques that leave few marks.

Rejali argues that torture is not defined by its methods: “No particular practice is ‘torture’ in itself.” A doctor who pierces a patient’s ear may be responsible for pain, but not torture. Torture, he writes, occurs at that moment when public authorities use techniques of physical torment on restrained individuals for a public purpose (to intimidate, draw false confessions, or get information). By this definition, the Hutterites (restrained) indeed met with torture (standing handcuffs) during their imprisonment (by military officials) for failing to follow orders (in the public duty of going to war).

Jacob Wipf’s father and others were trying to win Jacob’s release, especially now that the war was over. Still, as winter changed to spring in 1919, he remained in solitary confinement.

Though relatively few in number, conscientious objectors were of research interest to the federal government. One question looming in the forefront was whether men who resisted service in the army were held back by their inferior intelligence, as government officials believed. Given the popular portrayal of objectors as lazy, dimwitted, and crazy, the scientific studies showed surprising results. Conscientious objectors were actually more intelligent than soldiers in general–at least according to Army mental tests. Tests showed that 46 percent of the conscientious objectors received a grade of A, B, or C+ , compared with 27 percent for soldiers as a whole.

Of the nearly 3,000,000 American men who entered the army, 3,989 were conscientious objectors, and of that number 504 were court-martialed.

Mark A. May, a researcher at Syracuse University, prepared a summary of the data. His report cast further doubts on the appropriateness of the court-martial of the Hofer brothers and Jacob Wipf. “The degree of sincerity of a conscientious objector is a thing almost impossible to determine.” May also challenged the Army’s fierce determination to redirect men like the Hofer brothers and Jacob Wipf into conformity. “So when creed, minister, parents and friends tell him that war is wrong and that he must not fight, what could be expected of him? For a man like this not to be a conscientious objector would violate all the laws of heredity and environment that operate to make men pursue certain courses of action.”

Fort Leavenworth to Rockport Colony (December 1918; April 1919)

“We are people of God’s peace” (Hymnal: Worship Book, #407)

On April 13, 1919, nearly eleven 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 them 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 to neither 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.

Stoltzfus, the chair of the Goshen College Communication Department, is the author of “Freedom From Advertising: E.W. Scripps’s Chicago Experiment.” He serves as copy editor of The Mennonite Quarterly Review. He holds a Ph.D. from Rutgers University, earned his bachelor’s degree in English from Goshen College and has taught there since 2000. He previously worked as a reporter and editor with several newspapers in New York and New Jersey, including The New York Times.

The C. Henry Smith Peace Lecture, named for a former history professor at both Bluffton University and Goshen College, includes a research grant for the lecturer. The grant is awarded each year to a professor at a Mennonite college, who then presents the lecture at both Bluffton University and Goshen College.