Above: Headlines from April 12, 1917 issues of the Alma Record and Gratiot County Herald
It was really only a formality in Gratiot County. In the days leading up to a Declaration of War from the United States Congress, people in Gratiot County were gearing up for an announcement that came on April 6, 1917: America’s entry into the Great War.
On the day prior to the announcement a group of volunteers led what would be a stream of Gratiot men who volunteered to join up. In Ithaca, nine high school students were part of a group that left the town early on Thursday morning to go to Alma, and on to Saginaw, in order to join the Navy. The group included Watson McCall, Howard Burtchard, Peter McAdams, Ivan White, Mike Scott, Davis Summerville, Robert Rayburn and William Rayburn. Ted Kress had volunteered earlier and joined the group, but he left a week later for a different camp. Four of the boys were given their diploma ahead of what would have been their June graduation from Ithaca High School. All of them had previously visited the enlistment office in Alma, took their entrance exam, passed it, and had been accepted for military service.
Ithaca held a celebration that Wednesday night. Early the next morning, the young volunteers were then paraded through the village and down main street past more than one thousand people who turned out for the send off. Stores displayed American flags. Windows and store fronts were equipped with colorful red, white and blue bunting. After they loaded up, twenty five automobiles and one hundred people followed the Ithaca boys as they proceeded over to Alma. As they arrived there, the fire department led the parade on through town. When they reached the Alma depot, crowds were filled with citizens from both Alma and Ithaca, as well as students from both high schools. Each volunteer was called up front and received an individual cheer from the enthusiastic crowd.
A short service then took place which included an address from the schools’ superintendents, a speech from a local lawyer, and the presentation of gifts from an Ithaca minister. Reverend Vatcher, from the Ithaca Baptist Church, gave each boy a New Testament, a gift from Ithaca businessmen. The playing of “America” and “The Star Spangled Banner” opened and closed the event.
After arriving in Saginaw, the young men headed for Detroit, then Lake View, Chicago, for five weeks of training. It was expected that they would be sent to Philadelphia and then on to naval patrols off the East Coast of North America.
What happened in Ithaca at the start of the war did not go unnoticed in Michigan. The state’s naval recruiting officer, Lieutenant W.W. Richardson, Jr., wrote a letter to the mayor of Ithaca saying that “Ithaca is upholding the honor of the state. If every city of Michigan wold come forward as has Ithaca, we would soon have our quota of men.”