Mark J. Price
The news wasn’t entirely unexpected. The war had been raging for nearly four years in Europe and it seemed increasingly likely that the United States would get drawn into the terrible conflict.
Akron residents braced for the inevitable.
On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson called Congress into “extraordinary session” to seek passage of a war resolution against Germany.
“With a profound sense of the solemn and even tragical character of the step I am taking and of the grave responsibilities which it involves, but in unhesitating obedience to what I deem my constitutional duty, I advise that the Congress declare the recent course of the imperial German government to be in fact nothing less than war against the government and people of the United States,” Wilson said.
In a front-page proclamation published the next day in the Beacon Journal and Akron Evening Times, Mayor William J. Laub issued a proclamation to reassure immigrants that no harm would come to them.
“I take this means of declaring to all foreign-born residents that they will be protected in the ownership of their property and money, and that they will be free from personal molestation so long as they obey the laws of the state and nation and the ordinance of the city,” Laub noted.
“I urgently request that all our people refrain from public discussion which might arouse personal feeling, and that they maintain a calm and peaceful attitude toward every one, without regard to their nationality.”
On April 6, the United States declared war on Germany. The Great War — it wouldn’t be known as World War I until its sequel arrived in the 1930s — was heralded as “The War to End All Wars.”
Patriotic fervor swept Akron. U.S. flags fluttered everywhere, and citizens rushed to the aid of their country. Rubber factories ramped up production of military tires, gas masks, reconnaissance balloons and other products for American troops. Citizens planted victory gardens in their backyards to help feed a nation at war. Gasoline was rationed.
Mayor Laub organized the Home Guard, a volunteer regiment to protect Akron against German saboteurs and spies. Within two weeks, 1,000 volunteers stepped forward. One of the first things the group did was to guard the city’s water supply at Lake Rockwell near Kent.
The government took control of wireless operations and telegraph lines. Unnaturalized Germans were forbidden to carry weapons or make threats against the government or get too close to military plants. German language newspapers, including Akron Germania, were not allowed to write articles about the war.
German potato salad was renamed Yankee potato salad, sauerkraut became victory cabbage, Vienna bread was called New England bread. While Ohio towns such as Vienna, Dresden and Leipsic considered changing their names, one Stark County community actually did so. The residents of New Berlin petitioned to change their town’s name to North Canton.
Hundreds of enlistees flooded military recruiting offices in Akron. The Navy and Marines were stationed on South Howard Street while the Army held forth on South Main Street. The Ohio National Guard’s Company F recruited from the Summit County Courthouse while Company B welcomed enlistees at City Hall. The National Guard’s machine gun company occupied the Hamilton Cigar Store at Main and Mill streets.
“This is the time for the young men of Akron to show their patriotism,” said Capt. W.C. Yontz from Company B. “They should enlist voluntarily, so that the state and country will see they do not wait to be drafted. If they don’t enlist, it will merely mean that the drafting system will be put in force at once.”
The government called for unmarried men ages 18 to 35 to join the Army and Navy. Within a week, the age restrictions were relaxed to ages 16 through 40. Black recruits initially were turned away at Akron offices until the government ordered that the men be enlisted for “colored regiments.”
Sgt. R.J. Pyatt, commander of the Navy office at 37 S. Howard St., was pleased with the recruiting efforts in Akron. “It’s different than in times of peace,” he said. “Then recruiting was from among a class many of whom were loafers and riffraff. Now it is a serious business, and it is the good fellows who are going.”
All 160 male students at the University of Akron were given compulsory military training. Coach Fred Sefton, a captain of the Home Guard, led drills three days a week.
“I believe that the man who goes to the front knowing just how to use a gun and who is familiar with military tactics is infinitely more useful as a soldier than the untrained man,” UA President Parke R. Kolbe said.
Meanwhile, female students formed a Red Cross unit to learn how to roll bandages and take care of wounded soldiers. Amon B. Plowman, a biology professor, and Sarah Stimmel, home economics instructor, led the training.
“If the boys start military training, I’m for ’em,” UA student Loretta Jones said. “I think every girl ought to crowd the work along and we’ll become Red Cross nurses if they want us.”
More than 500 soldiers conducted drills at Camp Akron at Silver Lake. The men pitched eight-man tents near the amusement park and spent the summer training before leaving for Camp Sheridan in Montgomery, Ala.
According to historian Karl H. Grismer, more than 65,000 Akron men registered for the draft and 8,988 were selected for service, “more than from any other Ohio city except Cleveland and Cincinnati.” Most trained at Camp Sherman near Chillicothe.
Big crowds waved goodbye as troops boarded trains at Union Depot off East Market Street.
“During the war, 304 Akron men made the supreme sacrifice,” Grismer noted. “Of this number, approximately two-thirds died on the battlefield or from wounds and the other third from disease.”
“The War to End All Wars” ended with the signing of an armistice on Nov. 11, 1918.
Since then, we’ve had six more wars.
That’s something to reflect upon as we commemorate the 100th anniversary of U.S. entry in World War I.
Beacon Journal copy editor Mark J. Price can be reached at 330-996-3850 or firstname.lastname@example.org.