Whiting’s Foreign-Born: Suspected Terrorists, Patriots and Potential Soldiers during World War One

John Hmurovic
October 2018

Whiting was watched closely in the late 1910s, the years America fought in the Great World War. The reason it came under scrutiny was its population. Between 35 and 40 percent were born overseas, and many of them came from countries we were fighting. Were these German, Slovak, Polish, Hungarian and Croatian residents of Whiting more loyal to the lands of their birth, or to their new home? Were they a threat to our security? Or, were they men who could be convinced to fight alongside American soldiers?

America’s primary enemies in the World War were Germany and Austria-Hungary. Most of Whiting’s sizable foreign-born population, 81 percent, came from those countries: 28 percent were Slovak, 20 percent Polish, 12 percent Austrian, 11 percent Hungarian, and 10 percent Croatian. In addition, there were smaller numbers of Serbs, Czechs and Germans living in Whiting. Most of those nationalities came under the rule of Austria-Hungary, and some were under German rule.

“What’s To Be Done With Them?”, asked former Indiana State Senator Frank Gavit of Whiting in 1918. He said these aliens from enemy countries were one of the greatest problems facing the United States. While “our native born and naturalized boys and men (are) going voluntarily in the defense of our country…the alien enemies take their jobs.” Because these men were born in Germany or Austria-Hungary, the United States decided it would be too risky to have them in the military. But Gavit and others worried that once the foreign-born moved into more responsible jobs, they would become wealthy and powerful, and in better financial position than the American-born soldiers who would return home after the war.

Gavit proposed that those born in Germany and Austria-Hungary be barred from operating businesses in America, and instead be required to work in jobs that were essential to the war effort. He also proposed that half of the money earned by those immigrants be kept by the government to pay for the war. State Senator James Nejdl, who came to America at the age of four with his Czech parents, urged others to renounce their country of birth, because “all should be true Americans.”

The fact was, most were. In 1917, shortly after America entered the war, there was a massive display of patriotism in Whiting. Mayor Walter Schrage called for the citizens of the city to gather on the night of April 10 to show their support for the war effort. A band marched down Schrage Avenue to 121st Street, over to New York Avenue, then to Ohio, over to Cleveland, back to 119th Street, and on to Oliver Street. Behind the band was every lodge and social organization in the city, the Boy Scouts, Camp Fire Girls, and the members of the Elks Club who carried a giant flag in the procession. Behind them were young men who just enlisted to join the fight, and at the end of the parade were “hundreds and hundreds of foreign-born citizens, following the flag of their adoption, showing by their bearing and manner that they were ready to do their part to uphold and protect it.” That description was in the Whiting Call newspaper, which also said the presence of the foreign born “was most inspiring.”

Rev. Julian Skrzypinski was an outspoken leader in mobilizing the Polish community of Whiting to come to the aid of the United States in the World War. He was the pastor of St. Adalbert in Whiting from 1911 to 1923, and then served as pastor of St. Stanislaus in East Chicago for over 40 years before his death in 1973 at the age of 92.

There may have been no public figure in Whiting more outspoken about supporting the fight against America’s enemies than Rev. Julian Skrzypinski, the pastor of St. Adalbert’s parish in Whiting. When America entered the war, Whiting’s Polish community quickly organized to help. They met in late 1917 to start recruiting volunteers to serve in the Polish army in France. The 36-year old Polish-born Skrzypinski organized the meeting and was chosen to serve as the honorary president of the recruiting committee.

One of the committee’s first efforts was to hold a massive pro-American patriotic meeting in the Whiting Auditorium. The meeting raised hundreds of dollars to buy shoes and clothing for Polish soldiers. One of the most prominent speakers at that event was Rev. Skrzypinski. In the weeks ahead, he also delivered several strong sermons at St. Adalbert’s in support of the American and Polish war efforts.

Just a month later, in the final days of 1917, he was sleeping at 5 A.M. in the St. Adalbert rectory when an explosion ripped through the building. Seconds later, a second one hit. Rev. Skrzypinski ran to the phone to call for help, but someone had cut the phone lines leading to the rectory. Within minutes the building was engulfed in flames. Rev. Skrzynpinski, his assistant, and the housekeeper all fled to safety. No one knew who bombed the St. Adalbert rectory, but most were certain it was a German or Austrian sympathizer who wanted to quiet Rev. Skrzynpinski from speaking out.    

The Polish community responded to the efforts of Rev. Skrzypinski and others to join the Polish Army. John Tokarz led the recruitment efforts in Whiting, and he was able to enlist thirteen Polish men from Whiting to fight alongside the allies in France. The thirteen were: Joseph Dostatni, Martin Dominik, Rudolf Dudzik, Albert Kaczmarczyk, Joseph Lesniak, Andrew Marcisz, John Murzyn, Walter Olszewski, Zenos Paczewicz, Joseph Slanda, Peter Slanda and Anthony Smoron. Peter Slanda was killed in action.

Tomas Masaryk led the effort to recruit Slovaks and Czechs into an army that would fight alongside America and it allies in the World War. After the war he became the first president of the new nation of Czecho-Slovakia.

Those who understood the foreign born in Whiting were not surprised by their desire to see the United States win the war. Many Slovaks, Poles, Croatians and Serbs, among others, disliked the Austrian-Hungarian empire. They saw Germany and Austria as invaders, occupiers of their homelands. They wanted to see Germany and Austria-Hungary defeated, and for their homelands to become independent countries.

That desire also brought Whiting to the attention of those hoping for an independent Czech and Slovak nation. Thomas Masaryk would become the first leader of the new Czecho-Slovakia after the war, but during the war he led an effort to create a Czech and Slovak Army to fight alongside the United States and its allies. Since Czecho-Slovakia was still under Austrian-Hungarian control, the soldiers for that Czech-Slovak army had to come mostly from other places. Russia had numerous Czechs and Slovaks in their prisoner of war camps. Those men had been forced to fight for Austria-Hungary, but were more than willing to join a new army that would overthrow the empire which controlled their homeland. Masaryk’s efforts to convince Russia to cooperate received a huge boost in July 1917 at the battle of Zborov, named after a village located in today’s Ukraine. At that battle, 3,500 Czechs and Slovaks defeated a larger, better equipped and better trained line of Austrian-Hungarian soldiers. As word of the victory at the Battle of Zborov spread, it boosted Masaryk’s efforts and the enthusiasm of Czechs and Slovaks around the world.

The Battle of Zborov, fought in what is today the Ukraine, played an important role in the fight to make Czecho-Slovakia an independent country. It was celebrated in this postage stamp in 1937.

In the United States, efforts to recruit soldiers for the Czecho-Slovak army started shortly after that, on October 1, 1917. Less than a week later, those recruiting efforts came to Whiting. Rev. John Bradac, pastor of St. Paul’s Evangelical Church in Whiting, not only led the Slovak recruiting drive in Whiting, but also the entire Great Lakes region of Indiana, Illinois and part of Wisconsin. In Whiting, 31 men quickly signed up to join the Czecho-Slovak army. They were:

Jan Bahlieda
Karol Berdis
Jan Chmurovic
Josef Dado-Rinka
Jan Duffalo
Karol Fasiang
Josef Gesik
Jan Haban
Josef Jalovecky
Stefan Job
Jan Kajan
Jan Kovac
Josef Krasnican
Josef Kukuc
Josef Kussy
Josef Kvorka
Martin Machaj
Karol Majcher
Jan Martinovic
Michal Masiarnik
Josef Puncho
Jan Puplava
Pavel Rohan
Andrej Sec
Josef Segan
Josef Skorupa
Josef Stanek
Anton Susienka
Anton Vallo
Daniel Vietoris
Pavel Zahora

Czech and Slovak soldiers in the trenches at the Battle of Zborov in the Ukraine.

A large dinner to honor the men was held at the Slovensky Dom, the Slovak hall which still stands on the corner of 119th and Temple Court. On November 11, 1917, the men left Whiting to join recruits from other parts of the country, and by November 26 they landed in France to join the fight. They were given minimal training before being sent into battle. They were paid 15 cents a day.

There is a story that one of the Whiting soldiers, Josef Skorupa, was in hand to hand combat on the western front in France when he was about to ram his bayonet into an Austrian-Hungarian soldier. At the last second, they recognized each other. “Brother,” they yelled out. They dropped their guns and hugged, in what was described 16 years later in a Whiting newspaper as “one of the greatest dramatic reunions of the war.”

Back home in Whiting, Slovak groups raised money to support the Czecho-Slovak army, holding bazaars and other events. Rev. Benedict Rajcany, pastor of St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church, organized a meeting of Slovak women at the Slovensky Dom. About 300 attended. The women decided to focus their efforts on helping the Red Cross. Lydia Chilla was chosen as chair, with Mary Brenkus serving as secretary, and Susie Novotny as treasurer. Seventy-five women formed the Slovak Ladies Auxiliary of the American Red Cross. Others formed a group to raise money for the war effort, with a committee of 21 women heading up the effort. They were:

Eleanora Baran
Julia Beda
Anna Berdis
Mary Brenkus
Terezia Cernota
Lydia Chilla
Mary Curosh
Sophia Dvorscak
Anna Hornyak
Mrs. John Hruskovich
Julia Jusko

Mrs. Kasperin
Helen Klen
Helen Kocan
Annie Kresach
Susie Novotny
Mary Pataky
Sophia Paunicka
Mary Puncho
Susie Puncho
Mary Skrabala

The news carried reports of Czechs and Slovaks being captured by the Austrian-Hungarian army and hanged on the spot as traitors. But the 31 men from Whiting survived the war. In gratitude for their service, all of them were offered lifetime government positions in the new Czecho-Slovakia, which became an independent nation late in 1918. All but one turned down the offer, choosing to return to their adopted homes in Whiting. The only one to stay was Josef Dado-Rinka. He fell in love while overseas, got married in Czecho-Slovakia, and took a job as a postmaster in Prague.