WWI: Don’t Be a Slacker!

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Reading Times,  October 2, 1918

It was an unseasonably warm, sunny day when Aaron Krick of Reading wandered along the railroad tracks outside of Dauberville on October 8, 1918.  At 65 degrees, it was a perfect day for a walk and Krick had no intention of breaking the law. Suddenly the young man was confronted by uniformed railway police. After being accused of trespassing and arrested, Krick was hauled before the Alderman. He was asked to produce his draft registration card, but acknowledged that he did not possess one. He did not know that the country was at war, he told the Alderman, and he had no intention of joining the army. Aaron Krick was a “slacker.”

When our country entered the Great War in April 1917, the U.S. Army was ill-prepared to wage war against Germany. President Wilson asked for an Army of 1,000,000 men, and at first, relied on volunteers to meet that quota. When the volunteer pool slowed well below the desired number of recruits, the Selective Service Act of 1917 was passed on May 8th that year. The Act required all able-bodied men between the ages of 21 and 30 to register for the draft. Nationally, the draft was a success. 2 million of the 4.8 million men in service came from the draft. However, the number of men who “dodged” the draft nationally was somewhere around 325,000.

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WWI Draft Cards, Berks History Center Museum Collection

The term slacker had its beginnings on a national level. One week after the United States entered the war, a column appeared in the New York Evening World, which described the many different slackers and how a slacker is “willing to die of old age for his country.” The article also spoke directly to the reader, stating that before you called someone out for being a slacker, you must first look at yourself and make sure you were not a slacker as well.

In the eyes of a nation at war, draft dodging was taken seriously. The dodgers were constantly sought by the Department of Justice, who were responsible for their prosecution. If, like Aaron Krick, a young man was of age and did not register for the draft, he was detained by the authorities. In the instance that a young man registered for the draft but did not report, they were sought by authorities and held for the actions of the Department of Justice. Such was the case with Pedro Gomenz and Eugene Berlanger, who evaded the call to the Fleetwood board by going to Reading. They were prosecuted and branded as slackers. If a man was rounded up as a slacker, his name was published and he was considered a traitor to the U. S. and a disgrace to the community.

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Reading Times,  December 16, 1918

The term slacker also applied to those with actions that were deemed unpatriotic. If a man missed work in a plant that was vital to the war effort, he too was deemed a slacker. If a fundraising drive was held and someone refused to contribute, as an employee of Carpenter Steel did during a Red Cross drive, they were subject to ridicule by coworkers. Slacker Day was proclaimed at Carpenter Steel where anyone who did not subscribe to the Red Cross drive was subjected to the wrath of his fellow coworkers. One man who refused to contribute was met at the door, pinned down, and had a yellow stripe painted on his back. When he made it back to his feet, he was blasted with a fire hose as he left the property. Two other men who did not contribute to the drive discovered a sign mounted at their station in the water department which said, “There are two slackers here.” They claimed they had contributed and ripped up the sign. Their coworkers then posted another sign with an American flag draped over it. The two slackers were forced to contribute twice as much to the Red Cross as they had claimed. Then their coworkers made both men kneel and kiss the flag. One did so willingly while the other man’s actions did not go over well. He was chased from the area while women from another department threw stones at him as he left the facility.

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Reading Times,  November 15 1918

In Reading, Mayor Edward Filbert worked to break up the “loafing ring” of industrial slackers. He instructed city detectives to round up all industrial slackers and force them to work or hand them a jail sentence. Movie theatres, such as the Lyric, 808-810 Penn St., The Queen, 410 N 11th St., and the Majestic, 108 Oley St., showed moving pictures about slackers. The patriotic fever that was strong in this community during the Great War would not stand for anyone who “slacked” behind in their duties to their country and community. For some branded as slackers, jail might have been preferable than the wrath they faced in the community.

As for Aaron Krick, the man who wasn’t registered for the draft in October 1918 and claimed that he didn’t know the country was at war, he wasn’t completely honest with the Alderman in Dauberville. In September 1917, Krick was arrested in Reading for…being a slacker! Krick’s actual residence was Mohnton but he moved to Reading to avoid the draft and cause confusion as to which precinct he was registered. Krick continued to be investigated by police as late as 1921, when he was arrested at 9th and Penn Sts. on a charge of suspicion. Police believed he was wanted for being a draft dodger.

Richard Polityka is a longtime volunteer at the Berks History Center and project leader of the Berks History Center’s World War I project that commemorates the 100th Anniversary of the Great War. 

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