Editor’s Note: World War I (1914-1918) was sparked by the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo. It seemed all the nations of the world were divided into two camps. The Allied powers were led by Britain and France and the Central powers were led by Germany. After a few months of hard fighting across Western Europe, the battle line remained stationary for almost three years until America entered the war on the side of Britain and France. America entered the war in answer to Germany’s policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. Rev. Hanko recounts his experiences in wartime Grand Rapids.
In 1914 there were rumblings of war in Europe. Soon England, France and Germany were engaged in an all-out war.
There was that long spell when the two armies in the trenches had reached a stalemate. Neither side made significant progress. Possibly it was like the time before Christ returns when the whole world is engaged in the final battle of Armageddon, but neither side dares unleash its lethal weapons.
People in our community hoped that America would stay out of the war. That was especially true in our home since my father was definitely pro-German, as could be expected when one considers his background. But then came the sinking of the Lusitania,1 and we were as involved as all the rest.
Strong propaganda encouraged patriotism, much more so than in World War II. The Germans were described as beasts, far less than human. Even the churches allowed themselves to become involved by stressing that God was on the side of the Allies. Dr. Beets2 would tell how the Germans sent poison gas into the trenches of the Allies and God turned the wind about so that the gas came right back at them. On Election Day he gave a radio speech on Genesis 3:9, “And the Lord God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Adam, where art thou?” He raised the question in the sermon, “Adam, where art thou on Election Day?” Children especially were aroused to patriotism with all kinds of ditties, sayings and songs.
On one occasion, Rev. Hoeksema was asked to make a speech encouraging the buying of Liberty bonds. The common consensus was that he would refuse, or if he did speak he would oppose the whole idea. When he spoke, some took tomatoes and eggs with them to throw at him. He made a strong defense of submission and obedience to those who are in authority, thus silencing his critics.
This over zealous patriotism was what brought another form of trouble to Rev. Hoeksema, minister in Fourteenth St. CRC in Holland, Michigan, when he refused to have the American flag in the church. His argument was that the church of Jesus Christ was not at war with the Germans, particularly not with the believers in Germany. The people threatened to tar and feather him, and later he was assured that this would have happened if he had not warned them that he was protecting himself with a gun. This gun was still lying loaded in the drawer next to his bed when he went to Pine Rest almost fifty years later.
A minister in Sully, Iowa was sought for something unpatriotic that he had said from the pulpit. He had to flee into the cornfields, and meanwhile his church was set afire.
In Iowa, no minister was allowed to preach in Dutch, unless this sermon was repeated word for word in English. An interpreter sat by to see whether this was done accurately.
In that kind of atmosphere the young men hastened to enlist for the service, or else waited eagerly for the draft. Anyone not in the service was considered a slacker or a “no good”. My brother Fred was rejected because of poor eyesight, but he would have done anything to get into the army. The girls wanted a “soldier boy,” and looked with scorn upon any one not in the service.
My mother lived in fear that at some time or another my father would explode against all this fanaticism and find himself in jail. She must have done a lot of praying for him, for he had a very hot temper.
Almost every home had a flag in the window with a blue star for each son in the service. If the young man was killed in action, the blue star was replaced with a gold star. In those days the immediate family was not the first to be notified. But every daily paper carried a list of the casualties that had been reported. Two of my sisters were engaged to boys in the service. As soon as they came home from work they took up the paper to check the list. Whenever a letter came they were ecstatic, but soon realized that it had taken a week or more for this letter to reach them. Much could have happened since the writing of the letter.
For a number of weeks in the winter of 1917, schools and churches were closed because of a coal shortage. The authorities maintained that so much coal was being shipped across the sea there was not sufficient for public gathering places.
Because of this closing of churches and schools, a few of the neighbors would come into our kitchen for “church” on Sunday mornings. My dad would conduct the service and read a sermon. Thereupon we would all enjoy a cup of coffee and a piece of cake.
We were all put on ration. Sugar was so scarce that we kids would go around the neighborhood stores in the hope of picking up a pound or two. We could purchase flour only if a like amount of a substitute was also purchased. We bought flour by the hundred pound sack, because my father used flour for paste in hanging wallpaper. So a hundred pound sack of flour brought along with it a hundred pounds of corn meal, oatmeal, or the like. We had corn meal for breakfast and corn meal for lunch. We ate corn meal mush, corn meal muffins, and corn meal bread. We were so tired of eating corn meal that we thought we would never want to see it again.
And then, to make matters worse, the influenza epidemic hit in the winter of 1918-1919.3 Once more schools and churches were closed for six weeks. Almost no one went to work. Nearly every home had one or more sick with the flu. Doctors could not keep up with the calls that came in. They worked day and night. But the worst of all was that they knew no cure. They tried the usual medicines, and they tried the most caustic medicines, all to no avail. Hundreds died. Funeral services were held outside. Very few went to the cemetery.
A little girl in our neighborhood died also. Her coffin was placed by the front window for the neighbors to see. The minister preached the funeral sermon out on the street.
A gloom hung over all. Everyone wondered, “Will it strike us next?” There were some homes where the whole family was stricken, and one home where there were five deaths. My future mother-in-law, Mrs. Griffioen, gave birth to a child in a room shut off by sheets while others in the family had the flu.
Ministers were in a quandary as to what to do. Rev. Groen was so afraid of catching the flu that he refused to visit any one. Rev. Jonker of Dennis Avenue CRC was out almost day and night visiting the sick. He would place a ladder next to an upstairs window, in order to visit someone upstairs. He wore himself out to a point where he could hardly preach. The consistory allowed him to preach old sermons for awhile.
Our family was spared. We sat at home, trying to seek a bit of entertainment amongst ourselves. But sitting home day after day can grow very wearisome. I remember walking along Wealthy Street, just to get out, but the streets were void of pedestrians. It was “like a painted ship upon a painted ocean.” It hardly seemed real. The break came on Sunday when we had our home service in the morning. To prevent further spreading of the sickness, no more than seven people were allowed to meet together; but we did invite in a few neighbors. These were times when prayer was no longer a mere formality, but a cry of the anxious soul pleading for the sick and bereaved.
As the nation struggled to deal with this public health disaster, it also had to contend with sick and crippled men returning from the front. One political cartoon showed two large millstones with people being poured in at the top and mangled corpses dropping out of the sides. Over it stood the caption: “Will war never cease, will peace never come?”
But actually the war was grinding to a close. On November 6 we received a false report of the armistice. The country went wild, absolutely berserk. Young and old sought to give expression to the release of their tensions. Schools closed, shops closed. An unofficial holiday was called. Since there was no radio or television to turn to, everyone awaited eagerly the next special edition of the paper, for us The Grand Rapids Press. It seemed as if the whole city poured down town to get the latest news as it came out.
We boys went to the Press office, bought ten or twenty papers and sold them on the streets. Although the price was three cents, almost no one bothered to ask for change. People were ready to give a nickel or a dime just to obtain the very latest news. An unorganized parade ran along Monroe Avenue. Some trucks carried effigies of Kaiser Bill4 being hanged. Others gave expression to their joy in other ways. But there were no thanks given to the Almighty except in the churches.
Three days later, on November 11, 1918, when the true report of the armistice came through, people had little energy left to celebrate again.
When the boys came home there was a grand parade down town. They came in full uniform, metal hats and all. The churches had special welcomes. In Eastern Avenue CRC, we had a program with a band, saw various drills with guns and bayonets, heard bugle calls, and finished off with ice cream and cake.
There were many of our young men who did not return. Even for those who did, life was not easy. These boy soldiers had undergone anxious hours and terrifying experiences. Some had fallen for the French lassies.
My sister Sena noticed that her boyfriend was cold and aloof. On Memorial Day they sat together on the lawn. He had no desire to go anywhere. In their letters they had addressed each other as “Hubby” and “Wifey,” but there was no more of that. In fact, after a few weeks he told her that he was not interested in her any more. I saw her dropping his letters one by one into the stove to be burned. Later he married a French girl.
My sister Henrietta was also planning to get married to her boyfriend from Byron Center. One Sunday afternoon she was visiting at the home of his parents. Henrietta and her fiancé were not getting along. His father called him outside and said, “It is better to separate in peace than to live together in trouble.”
These girls had waited at least three years for their wedding day. They had used their spare time to fill their hope chests. And now all their dreams were shattered.
Sena soon met and married Charles Van Dyken. But for Henrietta the situation looked very precarious. She was 28 years old by this time. Her hopes of getting married were almost nil. She knew a fellow on our street who was nothing more than a bum. She started going with him, much to the chagrin of my parents. My mother was very insistent saying, “If you marry him you need not step into this house again.” She did give him up, but she said to our mother, “If I’m an old maid it will be your fault;” to which my mother responded, “I would rather have that on my conscience than see you marry that bum.”
Not very long after, Henrietta’s girlhood sweetheart, Rich Helder, appeared on the scene. He also had been in the war. In fact, he had stood in line while one after another was called to go out to meet the enemy. He would have been the next, but no more were needed. Those men never returned. One night, he sat in a barn which was struck by a bomb. He and his buddies wondered how they had escaped alive.
It was not long after their reunion that the two of them were married. I am sure that my sister’s strong attachment to Mother was due to the fact that Mother had kept her from a foolish marriage.
These war years were hard ones for the family, but a much more difficult battle was coming. This one would be fought in the church.
1The Lusitania was a British liner that was carrying many American passengers. It was sunk by a German submarine in May of 1915. Over a thousand lives were lost. This incident was the immediate cause for America entering the war on the side of the Allies.
2Dr. Beets was a Christian Reformed minister and secretary of missions.
3The flu epidemic referred to here was actually a pandemic of the Spanish influenza which killed more people than the fighting of World War I.
4Kaiser Bill refers to the Germany’s ruler at the time of World War I.