As centennial commemorations across the country honor American men and women who served in the First World War, put their courage in stark perspective with the seedy story of Grover Bergdoll, a man who fled rather than fight.
First, some background.
Bearing the namesake of the 22nd (and 24th) president, Grover Cleveland Bergdoll was born with a silver spoon — or silver tap. The scion of a beer baronetcy in Brewerytown, he took readily to the life of the leisure class, racing automobiles and piloting planes.
Driving at 80 miles per hour on country roads as a teen, a public outcry met the issuance of his license in 1912.
“Bergdoll literally burned the Lancaster Pike,” ran the Evening Public Ledger, referring to his penchant for purposefully backfiring as he passed trucks hauling hay, setting them ablaze.
Long before TMZ struggled to keep up with the Kardashians, the press banged about with Bergdoll and his brothers. Newspapers from Philadelphia to Topeka followed the “Playboy of the Eastern Seaboard.”
Rapture turned to rage following America’s entry into World War I and the passage of the Selective Service Act.
Though he registered, Bergdoll failed to turn up for his physical examination.
Speculation abounded as to why, and as anti-German hysteria kicked up across the country, this “son of a German mother” became a clarion call for the worst of American paranoia.
“Your paper called me a pro-German,” Bergdoll wrote to the Public Ledger while on the lam. “That statement is an infamous lie and a rank falsehood.”
Funnily enough, Bergdoll would have likely received an employment exemption from overseas service had he showed up for his physical. His listed profession, “manufacturer of automobile parts,” was a much-needed home-front occupation.
Bergdoll evaded authorities throughout the war, despite many reported sightings, and was finally apprehended in 1920. Police kicked down the door of his Wynnefield manse and — after battling with his revolver and blackjack-wielding mother — found the draft dodger hiding under the pillows of a window seat.
Amazingly, Bergdoll escaped his captors shortly thereafter. Spinning a tale of gold he buried in Maryland, he persuaded the police to let him out — under armed guard — to retrieve it. He gave them the slip, fleeing to Canada before boarding a ship for Europe.
For nearly two decades, Bergdoll lived it up in Germany, marrying a gardener’s daughter and raising a family.
But the American public — and federal authorities — didn’t forget.
“Of the 337,649 Americans who evaded the … draft, Bergdoll was the nation’s No.1 slacker,” Life magazine asserted.
Bounty hunters and federal officials often crossed the Atlantic to nab him, but Bergdoll soon earned the sobriquet “Fighting Slacker.” He bit the thumb off one assailant and shot another dead.
“I am through with Americans,” Bergdoll is quoted as saying in the local Eberbach press. But homesickness — and the confiscation of his fortune — began to gnaw at his “playboy, wastrel soul.”
He tried another approach to avoid prison.
“A fortnight ago, a beauteous young German woman arrived in the U.S. with two little girls in blonde pigtails, a flaxen-haired boy waving a U.S. flag, a babe-in-arms,” reported Time magazine. “They were Dodger Bergdoll’s wife and children, come to visit his 76-year-old mother in Philadelphia and petition the federal government to pardon him.”
His mother was even more emphatic in her plea. In a filmed, pathos-drenched clip, she sat next to a portrait of President Franklin Roosevelt and wished aloud, in her thick German accent, “that our great president will pardon my boy and make me a happy mother again before I die.”
FDR didn’t reply.
By 1939, with the feds planning to strip his American citizenship and Hitler’s Wehrmacht issuing its own draft notices, the now-pudgy and mustachioed Bergdoll finally relented and boarded a ship for New York. He was arrested upon arrival and sent to Fort Leavenworth, Kan., to serve his sentence.
Once released in 1944, his health and marriage collapsed. He would die “demented and forgotten.”
Grover Bergdoll, “the most publicized draft dodger of World War I, died of pneumonia yesterday in the Westbrook Psychiatric Hospital. … He was 72 years old,” ran the headlines in 1966.
“The man who took Grover Cleveland Bergdoll’s place when the draft evader, now a fugitive in Germany, failed to answer the call, died a hero in the Argonne forest after being cited by the commanding general of his brigade for bravery in action in one of the most noteworthy battles of the war,” reported the New York Times.
That the story of this soldier — Russell C. Gross — is forgotten is a poignant reminder of the arbitrary whims of the public’s attention and memory.
Vincent Fraley is communications manager for the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. firstname.lastname@example.org
On May 31, veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will read the words of First World War soldiers and share their own prose, poetry, and art at the Historical Society. Free and open to the public, visit hsp.org/Calendar to register.