One May day in 1918, a teenager from Barrington sailed to France in what was known as “the war to end all wars.” He had volunteered for the 132nd Infantry, Illinois National Guard, at 16, lying about his age to join the American forces.
And while Otto Edwin Radke— the oldest son of Gustav Radke, a local carpenter, and Auguste Friederike Ernestine Radke, nee Burhmann—died a hero 148 days later, granting his family the honor of displaying a gold star in their window, his story stands as a poignant reminder of what life was like for many German-American families living in Barrington during World War I.
“The town’s German community celebrated its heritage. Its German band had musicians with names such as Meiners, Wendt, Gieske, Landwe, and Plagge. Young Otto was exposed to all of this,” writes Mary J. Manning, the reference librarian for the Col. Robert R. McCormick Research Center of the First Division Museum at Cantigny Park in Wheaton who published an article about her uncle’s history in the Summer 2014 issue of Prologue magazine. “A century ago, however, the Germans were at war with the rest of Europe, and the anti-German feeling was high in the United States. Young Otto’s peaceful, storybook boyhood was about to be interrupted.”
Radke grew up with six older sisters and three younger siblings in a white frame house on the edge of Barrington, attending local schools and going to services on Sunday at Methodist Church. Sidewalks in those days were still made of wooden planks; plumbing consisted of a pump and an outhouse.
“He probably skated on the Russell Street Pond and sledded down the schoolhouse hill on Hough Street or on Castle’s Hill, where they iced the slide to make it more slippery,” wrote Manning in the publication for the National Archives in Washington, D.C. “It was a close-knit family whose members looked out for each other. Otto helped his family with chores and maintaining their kitchen garden and feeding the rabbits the family raised for its food.”
They were living the American dream. But, as Manning wrote, that dream was deferred when fear and a wave of anti-German sentiment began spreading throughout the nation. Volunteer watchdog societies were organized to report on any gatherings that represented “the face of the enemy.” A hamburger was now to be called a “liberty burger.” Sauerkraut became “liberty cabbage.”
Being the oldest son, it is likely young Otto felt the need to distinguish his family’s loyalty.
“Despite being long-time U.S. citizens, the Radke family suffered taunts and criticism about their patriotism in their community,” wrote Manning, who notes that Otto’s father (and her grandfather) Gustav Radke, was naturalized as an American citizen in 1887, five years after his arrival in America. “”The family did not talk much about it, but they worried about the backlash. They had heard the stories of extreme prejudice and had read newspaper articles about violence against German Americans.”
Otto Radke and his cousin, Harry A. Radke, made a pact to make their allegiance clear by signing up for the Illinois National Guard. Radke’s mustering-in document is dated May 31, 1917. By July, he was sent to Camp Logan in Texas for training, and by May 1918, he had been assigned to serve with the 33rd Infantry Division in France.
Manning says that her uncle sent a postcard to his sister Alma from Houston in September 1917 that reported: “ “I haven’t much to say but it is sure some climate but oh the wilderness. Hope you are all as well as I am.” Otto Radke and his comrades in the Second Battalion, Company D, of the 132nd Regiment sailed together for Brest, France, on May 30, 1918.
He fought in the Battle of Hamel in July and moved through to the fields at Bois de Chaume in October, where an “untenable” barrage of German machine gun fire, gas and airplane attacks, and sniper fire sent the soldiers into the trenches. Otto and his cousin, Harry, died in action during those attacks.
Back home in Barrington, the teens were celebrated as heroes.
“Another gold star has been added to Barrington’s honor flag,” read a local newspaper article.
The family received a standard issue memorial citation, signed by General Pershing. And his mother received proceeds from his war risk insurance policy amounting to $2,582, which reportedly she kept in her bank account until she died in 1936.
Like many families who lost children in World War I, they were proud of the sacrifice. But as Manning says, there will always be the question of the prejudice that pushed her uncle into war.
“What Otto Radke might have made of his life will never be known. Being a teenager when he died, he was still deciding the paths he would follow.”
Radke is one of several local World War I heroes buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Barrington. And while Radke’s story is not yet included, the Barrington History Museum recently unveiled a special exhibition focusing on Barrington life during World War I, open on Saturday afternoons and by special appointment. It includes artifacts from that era, including an American flag that flew in front of Barrington’s city hall on Armistice Day—November 11, 1918.
Barrington History Museum is located at 212 W. Main Street in Barrington, 847-381-1730, barringtonhistorymuseum.org