In April 1917, America was still a nation of the perpetual stand down, using a small volunteer army and then calling on the citizen soldier when needed. On the eve of the Great War, the regular army numbered 97,000. By the end of the War 4.5 million Americans had been mobilized to military service.
Now, contrary to what you may think, with this Great War to make the world safe for democracy, soldiers weren’t blazing their way to the recruiting office to sign up. The Sacramento Naval recruiting office had 12 recruits in the first week. The Marine office averaged 2 a day for the first week and the Army office had similar numbers. By the end of April, the voluntary option had enabled California to fill 21percent of its quota of 4,700 recruits. Nationwide, the figure was abysmal – 17 percent. Nevada led the country at an astonishing 97 percent.
The only solution would be a draft bill, which President Wilson signed on 28 May, 1917. So, the draft was now law and all able-bodied men between 21 and 30 were required to register. Governor Stephens, in line with this, created a statewide registration holiday which would close businesses and free up these fellows to do their legal duty. This meant that major businesses closed – Weinstock-Lubin, Lavenson’s Shoes, and Breuner’s Furniture were a few.
That day would be June 5.
Overnight 10,000,000 Americans would be eligible to be drafted. In Sacramento County, it was estimated that between 8,000 and 10,000 men registered. However, over half of those claimed exemption – in most cases, for dependency. By July 12, it was determined that Sacramento City would be required to provide roughly 507 men for service, the county 196, while the entire state would have to provide a total of 23,000.
On the morning of August 4, Karl Oehler, a bank teller at the Fort Sutter National Bank and the son of a German-immigrant pastor was the first Sacramentan to take a physical examination under the draft. He claimed exemption on grounds of having a dependent wife. Didn’t matter – Oehler didn’t pass the physical because he didn’t weight enough according to his 5’11” height – 8 pounds short.
Learn more about the WWI Draft as, on November 5 at 6:30, the Central Library will be presenting The Great War in the Great Valley: Sacramento During the First World War. The program will include discussion on the city and War and a presentation of photos of Sacramento during World War I.
This photo and many more like it can be found in the Sacramento Public Library’s Sacramento Room which is open to the public Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday 1 to 5, and Thursday 1 to 8.