On March 4, 1918, Emanuel Swartzendruber opened his mailbox and found a draft summons to report to Bad Axe, Michigan, in order to leave the next day for Camp Greenleaf in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. On the 5th, he left Bad Axe with seventeen other young men, all reporting to Camp Greenleaf. As the train passed through Detroit, it stopped to pick up 500 other men. They all had the same destination.
Immediately upon their arrival at Camp Greenleaf, the officers stationed Swartzendruber in sanitation police. For his first full day at Oglethorpe, that’s what he did: clean toilets and work the sewer system. That night, when he knelt down to pray, the soldiers in the bunkhouse with him cursed and swore so loudly that he couldn’t hear himself pray out loud. The next day the commanding officer took many of the new recruits to see Civil War sites and lectured them on the heroism of American soldiers, telling them they had to follow in the footsteps of those great men who had gone before them.
That evening a military chaplain gave them another lecture. He explained to the new recruits that the United States was like David, the Kaiser was like Goliath, and that they were like the smooth stones in David’s sling, going to hit Goliath in the skull, in the name of the Lord. The chaplain prayed with the recruits that they would carry back many German skins at the end of the war. When Swartzendruber heard the chaplain say that, he knew that he couldn’t hide anymore. He had to make his stance clear, or else compromise his conscience.
He met with the commanding officer and presented his papers for conscientious objection. The officer let him off drill but ordered him to work in Kitchen Police. After a day of cooking, Swartzendruber went back and informed the commander that he could not take part in kitchen work either, because he was still doing it as a service member. The officer let him off duty and did not ask him to work again, even telling him one day to “Watch your bunk so it doesn’t run away”. Swartzendruber later remembered that only the lesser officers in that company gave him a hard time. Other than that, his life was easy.
But after a few weeks, he was transferred to service in the Medical Officers’ Training Corps. Right away, he knew that things wouldn’t be as pleasant. The first officer he met had a reputation for teaching CO’s common sense, and thought that with some force he could do the same to Swartzendruber.
The next day Swartzendruber found that the man in the bunk over from his was a CO from the Church of the Brethren. They immediately began to quietly pray together and encourage each other whenever they could find time.
His third day at MOTC was the toughest day so far. He and another CO were beaten before breakfast for refusing to put on their uniforms. After breakfast the sergeant ordered them to tear down an outhouse. As they began work soldiers stepped in and beat them with pieces of wood from the building. Once the building was dismantled the sergeant threw one of the men into the cesspool and shoveled excrement on his head, saying “I baptize you in the name of Jesus”. After a few minutes, the sergeant let the other CO’s pull him out and help him get cleaned up.
Then he tried to choke Swartzendruber with a piece of soap. Next, the sergeant hauled him out to the cesspool, held him by his feet, and let him down, into the pool, head first. One of the other soldiers stopped the sergeant before Swartzendruber was completely submerged. At the end of the day the sergeant asked Swartzendruber “Do you still love me?” He said that he did.
The next day, the sergeant threw Swartzendruber in the guardhouse. After a few days, he was court-martialed. The judge sentenced him and eight other objectors to ten years of hard labor in Fort Leavenworth. At first, they put him in a big grain bin, sealed off from light, with several other men. They ate bread and water for several days.
Later, he was detailed for farm labor in locations near Fort Leavenworth. Every morning he would march out with his prison gang to work, filling silos with grain, picking corn, and picking acorns.
After a few months of prison life at Fort Leavenworth, Swartzendruber was released after Armistice Day, only to be sent on to Camp Dodge, Iowa. There, officers treated him just as badly. They knew that they had full control over him until the War Department declared that they could release conscientious objectors.
Finally, eleven months after he opened his draft summons, Emanuel Swartzendruber went home.
Bibliography Mock, Melanie Springer. Writing Peace: The Unheard Voices of Great War Mennonite Objectors (Pennsylvania: Pandora Press US, 2003).