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Military Induction and Entrainment

“I, Benjamin Franklin Potts, do solemnly swear that I will support the constitution of the United States.”

The words feel like strangers in the mouth, being, at the same time, repeated after a man in uniform and of such moral import.

The American flag on his right, the Tennessee Tristar, left, the army officer stands before a group of young men. They are farmers, teachers, laborers, and railroad men. All dressed in their best clothes, they’re aligned in loose ranks. A small suitcase or a simple bag, containing a change of clothes and a shaving kit, sits on the floor to each man’s left. Their right hands are raised, palms out.

The officer continues: “I, state your name…”

“I, Benjamin Franklin Potts, do solemnly swear to bear true allegiance to the United States of America, and to serve them honestly and faithfully, against all their enemies or opposers whatsoever, and to observe and obey the orders of the President of the United States of America, and the orders of the officers appointed over me.”

June 27, 1918, one hundred years ago today, my great grandfather spoke these words, right hand raised, at the Houston County Court House in Erin, Tennessee, and so became a private in the U.S. Army.

The two oaths, taken by all commissioned and noncommissioned officers and privates, were defined by the First United States Congress in 1789. The oath for officers changed over the years, but the oaths for enlisted men stayed the same until the mid-20th century.

Following the brief ceremony, Private Potts was escorted onto a train with several dozen other draftees. On boarding, each man was given two box lunches, supplied by the Red Cross Society of Erin, that would be his dinner and supper. The train pulled out for Camp Gordon in Chamblee, Georgia, where they would undergo six weeks of military training.

Three months from that day, my great grandfather would be fighting in France.

Form 1029  Provost Marshal General Office

Form 1029, Provost Marshal General Office, showing Benjamin Franklin Potts (12th entry) was inducted and entrained for Camp Gordon June 27, 1918, and arrived two days later

Two of Ben’s three brothers were also drafted for the war. Nine months prior, Roy Albert, two years Ben’s senior, took the same train to Camp Gordon. The youngest, Clyde Brake, would leave for Camp Wadsworth near Spartanburg, South Carolina, in September 1918. Only the eldest, William Rufus, was excluded from the draft, being married with two young children at the time.


A Very Muddy Place

My great grandfather, like many veterans, didn’t talk much about his wartime experience. His family has only his discharge paper and a few anecdotes.

One hundred years later, I’ve discovered a few documents that bear his name. From draft registration to discharge, I’m following the paper trail of B. F. Potts’ journey to the battlefields of the Great War in France and back home again.

Previous articles:

The Butte of Vauquois

“Well, Daddy, what did you think about France?”
“It's a very muddy place.”

Benjamin Franklin Potts Registers for the Draft

As the Great War thundered across the fields of northern France, ten million American men, ages 21 to 30, signed their names to register to be drafted into military service.

Next article:

Army Training at Camp Gordon

Exploring Zovigli

“When you’re curious, you find lots of interesting things to do.”—Walt Disney

Akrotiri Spada is the northernmost point of Crete and the very end of Rodopou Penninsula. It’s marked by Zovigli, a conical hill that rises 70 meters above the surrounding terrain, which is 300 meters above the sea. Evenly spaced around the northern half of Zovigli’s base, oval shadows belie cave openings, the objective of our present expedition.

Zovilgli hilltop at Akrotiri Spada
Zovigli hilltop (upper right), elevation 370 meters

Lightly clothed against unseasonal April heat, wearing a hat and sunscreen against the rays, I carried in pockets a camera, a small flashlight, a pocket knife, and the dumbphone. A one-hour drive along a rough, gravel road took me to the start point, a lone farmhouse near the end of Rodopou.

Peninsulas Gramvousa (left) and Rodopou define Kissamos Bay

Peninsulas Gramvousa (left) and Rodopou define Kissamos Bay

Akrotiri Spada is named after its shape on a map. In Latin characters, the Modern Greek spelling is Spatha, which means “broad blade” or “sword,” and akrotiri means “cape.” Exploring is more fun in a place called Sword Cape.

A dirt track, impassable by car, leads two kilometers to the peninsula’s point. There, the hill is surrounded by several structures, including an empty concrete building, the remains of two stone-built towers, and a goat pen, the inhabitants of which roam free across the rocky landscape. The concrete building is certainly a wartime construction, built by German soldiers during the WWII occupation of Crete. The two round towers, both on the cliff’s edge overlooking the sea, were used by the Germans, but they may have been built earlier, possibly by the Venetians.

Ruined stone tower overlooking the Sea of Crete

Looking west from the point of Akrotiri Spada, a ruined stone tower overlooks the Sea of Crete; beyond is the point of Gramvousa Peninsula

Thorny cushion

A shrub called thorny cushion attacks exposed flesh below the knee

On approach to the hill, I surprised a goat kid, who put out a call to its mother. The nanny, on the hillside some distance away, returned the call and started down, while their herd-mates expressed displeasure at the unexpected visit. So, to a chorus of bleating goats, I picked my way over uneven terrain, up the hill toward a shadowy opening, avoiding sharp stones, holes, and thorny-cushion shrubs.

Beyond the cave openings are tunnels, blasted out of the stone hill by the Germans. The tunnels extend up to 50 feet straight into the hill. Inside, green moss grows in thin film on the walls near the entrances; a layer of goat droppings covers the floors. Bore holes in the rear of each tunnel give away the digging method: drill a hole a couple feet deep and the diameter of a dynamite stick, insert explosives, stand back and hold your ears, then clear out the rubble.

In front of the tunnels are gun emplacements and various structures I guessed were once headquarters and mess hall. Each emplacement is connected to the next by a man-height trench, also blasted out of solid rock.

Gun emplacement at 3

Gun emplacement at 3., tunnel behind

In all, I counted five tunnels. The trench leading east from the easternmost tunnel, which I refer to as the first or 1., leads to a large hole. Its purpose I could not guess.

In the opposite direction from the first tunnel, the trench leads to a rock slide. Pacing my steps, I counted—roughly, due to difficult footing—forty to fifty paces between each of the other tunnels. However, moving west from the first through the rock slide to the next tunnel, I measured twice the distance. Therefore, I presume the rock slide must cover another tunnel or some such emplacement.

Field sketch

Field sketch showing emplacements around Zovigli’s base

Emplacements from east to west:

0. Hole, trench begins
1. Gun emplacement and tunnel
2. Rock slide (buried emplacement?)
3. Gun emplacement and tunnel
4. Headquarters, tunnels on either side
5. Mess hall and forked tunnel
6. Depot, trench ends, road begins

What I call the “depot” (6.) is the foundation of a small rectangular building. An old track, now grassed over, starts there and goes a hundred feet or so before becoming lost in stones and thorny cushions.

Looking up the west face, it didn’t seem so very far to the top. I was ill equipped for climbing, shod in flat sandals. However, I knew from earlier satellite reconnaissance there was a rectangular structure up there, and this might be my only chance to explore it. So, I screwed on my hat, stuck the Arizonas to my feet, and scrambled to the top.

From Zovigli hilltop

From Zovigli hilltop, 370 meters above, a tour boat rounds the cape

I was alone, but there were witnesses. I reached the pinnacle and looked down. Passengers aboard a tour boat, likely on its way back from the remote beach at Diktynna, must have been saying, “Look, there’s a guy climbing up there!” and “Oh my God, he must be crazy.” I posed for photos.

The rectangular structure may be another wartime construction. Two by three paces in area, five feet high, the four stone block walls and a similar floor are in better shape than the ruins below. In one corner, a two-foot square opening in the floor captures one’s attention. Four rusty rungs set into the stone lead down a few feet. Below that, only a flat rock floats in cool darkness.

Stone block ruins atop Zovigli

Stone block ruins atop Zovigli from above

A debate raged in my head. There was much swearing. I really wanted to see what was down there. I could have descended the rungs and hung a leg down to test the distance to the rock, but if I so much as lost a sandal in that hole, the return hike would be grueling. And much worse than that was well within the realm of possibility. After more minutes than sanity should have allowed, prudence won out.

On the highest rock, there is a cement column, which serves as a geological marker, beside a cairn. The latter indicates the place has been visited by at least a score of other climbers since the Germans left. I found a suitable example to add to its height.

Up there, it was just me and the wind, with the rocks and the sea and the whole world below.

Tell me again, Jonathan Livingston, what is the perfect speed…?

A Bonelli’s eagle

A Bonelli’s eagle, common in Crete

Benjamin Franklin Potts Registers for the Draft

June 5, 1917, the Great War thundered across the fields of northern France. Earlier in the spring, a large-scale attack, called the Nivelle Offensive, failed with heavy casualties, resulting in a series of mutinies and mass desertions in the French army. In the Argonne Forest, a battle of mine-and-countermine, now two years in, was riddling the Butte of Vauquois with tunnels and craters.

In the United States, ten million American men, ages 21 to 30, signed their names to register to be drafted into military service. One of these was my great grandfather, Benjamin Franklin Potts.

In April, following the discovery that Germany was negotiating with Mexico to join the war against its northern neighbor, the United States declared war on the German Empire. The Selective Service Act of 1917 was enacted in May. It authorized the conscription of men to raise an army, allowing certain exclusions. Among them, having a dependent parent, or a dependent sibling or child under 12 years old, were considered good reasons to be exempt from the draft.

In addition to this date, three other national registration days were held. One, on the same date a year later, to register men turned 21 during the year, followed by a second, August 24, for the same reason, then a third, on September 12, which broadened the eligibility age, from 18 to 45.

All four sons of Jack and Ellen Potts were of eligible ages. Benjamin Franklin, who was called “Bennie”* by his family, was accompanied that day by his brothers: William “Roofy”* Rufus, Roy Albert, and Clyde Brake.

*The nicknames are recorded in the 1910 census (image) when Benjamin was 16 years old and Rufus, 20.

According to his draft registration card, B. F. Potts was 22 years old, short in height, medium in build. He had gray eyes and dark brown hair. Born September 18, 1894, in Slayden, Tennessee, by 1917 he resided in nearby Tennessee Ridge. He laid and repaired track for the Lincoln & Nashville Railroad. He was Caucasian, unmarried, with no prior military experience and no good reasons not to get some.

Draft registration card  Benjamin Franklin Potts  June 5  1917Draft registration card, Benjamin Franklin Potts, June 5, 1917