One hundred years ago this month, Texas and Waco went to war, and two local museum exhibits show how the experience changed both.
At the Historic Waco Foundation’s Fort House, where “Uniting the Home Front: Waco in World War I” is on display, the view is how Waco responded locally. It explores not only support for the Army training base Camp MacArthur and aviation training base Rich Field, but also the selling Liberty Bonds to finance the war, living with fuel and food rationing and, for women, involvement with service organizations including the American Red Cross.
As displayed at the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum, the impact came in new duties for the Texas Rangers, from increased vigilance for border security — already a deep concern for several years because of the Mexican Revolution — and rounding up draft evaders to the creation of volunteer Loyalty Rangers charged with reporting pro-German or other suspicious activity in their counties.
The war already had gone on for three bloody years when America entered it on April 6, 1917, to, in President Woodrow Wilson’s famous phrase, make the world “safe for democracy.”
Waco rallied for the war effort, prodded, perhaps, by federal legislation that criminalized criticism of the war and cracked down on supposed German influences.
Historic Waco Foundation curator Rachel DeShong assembled “Uniting the Home Front” from items in foundation and private collections, plus pieces on loan from Texas Military Forces Museum, National Archives and Records Administration and the Museum of American Finance in New York.
A Liberty Bond is on display in the exhibit. Organizations and individuals sold Liberty Bonds to raise funds for the war and weren’t above using public pressure to make the sale. DeShong said the Young Men’s Business League, a forerunner of the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce and prominent in the war effort, sometimes threatened to print the names of individuals and groups it felt “undersubscribed” bond sales.
Much of the Waco war effort focused on Camp MacArthur, a training camp for about 30,000 soldiers primarily from Michigan and Wisconsin, and Rich Field, where recruits got their first taste of flying aircraft.
The city had to close the Reservation, a district of legal prostitution near downtown, as a condition of getting the camp. Wacoans stepped up to provide wholesome entertainment for the troops, who were largely confined to the sprawling camp, with churches and civic groups providing musical entertainment, religious services, book and poetry clubs and dances.
One of the exhibit’s rarer pieces is a soldier’s scrapbook, replete with photos of his time at the camp, DeShong said. The camp also provided entertainment for Waco, albeit with a military bent, with parades from the camp to the Cotton Palace grounds where mock battles were staged and once included a 147-plane airshow.
A nurse’s light blue-gray uniform, which earned nurses the nickname “Gray Ladies,” stands in a central display, along with a soldier’s brown wool uniform, complete with tall boots, puttees and the famed arrowhead-shaped patch of the Texas 36th Division. A strand of barbed wire from the trenches in France and an Enfield rifle also represent those who fought in Europe. Waco enlistees usually went to Camp Bowie in Fort Worth for training, then served in the 36th Division or the 111th Sanitation Train.
DeShong found something remarkable in her research: Of the 82 McLennan County residents who died in military service during the war, only 19 were killed in action. Nearly half, 37, died during their time in the United States before being shipped to France, likely due in part to the lethality of the 1918 Spanish Flu, she said.
That flu killed more than 50 million people around the world and hit both Camp MacArthur and Waco hard in the fall of 1918.
“Uniting the Home Front” notes that the war wasn’t the only thing occupying the attention of Waco residents in 1917 and 1918. Texas Gov. James Ferguson was impeached on corruption charges during the summer of 1917, and temperance also was a major social issue. Waco went dry in December 1917, two years before the 18th Amendment made Prohibition the national law of the land, DeShong said.
Texas Ranger museum
The World War I exhibit at the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame shows the Texas Rangers already had their hands full by the time America went to war in 1917. The Mexican Revolution had created chaos the rangers had to face as they patrolled the border and maintained defenses.
“World War I played into what was going on on the border,” said Randy Bloxom, research librarian at the museum’s Armstrong Research Center.
Germans had supplied the Mexican Army with rifles and other weaponry during the revolution, and suspicion of possible German infiltration of the Texas border peaked with the interception and release of the Zimmerman telegram, in which German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmerman suggested to Mexican officials they could reclaim some American territory by choosing to join Germany in the war.
Rangers also found themselves called on to apprehend deserters from the U.S. Army and draft evaders. Ranger John Dudley White died in the line of duty while trying to track down a deserter in East Texas.
To ferret out “disloyalty” by any Texans opposing the war, opposition made criminal in House Bill 15 signed by Gov. Bill Hobby, the Rangers created a volunteer Loyalty Rangers force more than five times the number of regular Rangers. Each county could field up to three Loyalty Rangers, whose duties were to inform on residents suspected of disloyalty, although Bloxom said it’s not known exactly how many suspected Texans were actually found guilty under the law.
The special exhibit that Bloxom pulled together features weapons and a pair of binoculars owned and used by Rangers serving in 1917.