As March 1918 was winding down the various armies were preparing for the spring fighting season. The Germans had begun Operation Michael on March 21, the first round in their Spring Offensive. The United States was still getting the American Expeditionary Forces up to speed. A significant aspect of that took place on Governors Island, where Colonel J.C.F. Tillson of the 22nd Regiment was in charge of rounding up shirkers from the Selective Service process. Some estimates in early 1918 put the number of shirkers from the draft as high as 250,000. Army officials crunched the numbers and were more sanguine, putting the number at around 50,000. This was still a sizable but not insurmountable number.
John C. Fremont Tillson graduated in the West Point Class of 1878 and spent the next forty years serving in all of the usual places one might expect an American military officer to serve in these decades: out West against the Indians, in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, the Philippines, China, and now the Department of the East. Governors Island seemed to be a holding station for slackers across the Greater Northeast. Presumably the men were held in the jail within Castle Williams while awaiting their fate. Colonel Tillson worked diligently to make sure that shirkers were given every opportunity they could to avoid true punishment. He did this by starting from the premise that most men were not draft dodgers, per se, but individuals who had not reported for training due to some misunderstanding. Often literally.
Colonel Tillson noted to reporters and to audiences at public events that many of the men whose cases he saw did not speak English. It’s not surprising. Tillson’s adult life coincided with the massive influx of immigrants to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Seeing Ellis Island across the harbor from Fort Jay every day would have only emphasized that. Tillson often had to use translators to interview the men. Very few of these saw hard time. Most had their cases straightened out and headed off to Camp Upton on Long Island for training. Tillson remained in the Army through the end of the Great War and retired in 1920. For a decade he ran the New York State Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Home in Bath, New York. He died eight days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. His wife died five days later. They are buried at Arlington Cemetery.
(bottom image/New York Times)