In 1918, American Children Were Enlisted to Fight an Enemy More Destructive Than the Germans

Exploiting children took on a whole new meaning in April of 1918. While U.S. infantrymen battled the Germans, "School Soldiers" were sent to the battle lines to help fight a destructive enemy plaguing the homefront: squirrels. George H. Hecke, commissioner of California's State Horticulture Commission, created what would be known as the "Squirrel Army." The effort was presented as an extension of the United States' declaration of war on Germany, which was made the previous year.

“We have enemies here at home more destructive, perhaps, than some of the enemies our boys are fighting in the trenches," said Hecke. By organizing “a company of soldiers" in their classes or in schools, children were encouraged to help annihilate their ultimate foe—the ground squirrel. The rodents were a source of bubonic plague back then, and the cause of an estimated $30 million in crop devastation. That's equivalent to $480 million today. Hecke called for "Squirrel Week," which ended up being seven days of murder and mayhem.

Image: Public Domain Image: Public Domain

Forty-thousand dollars was used from California's wartime emergency fund to kick off the anti-squirrel campaign. Thirty-four thousand posters and 500,000 leaflets were put together and distributed to citizens.

Kids were enticed to join Hecke's call to arms with pamphlets and posters that were titled "Kill the Squirrels." The posters declared that the state was looking for patriotic children to do their bidding by sprinkling poison outside of the rodents' underground homes.

The artwork was especially intriguing, as it depicted a woman holding a pail filled with poison barley, smiling and saying, “Children, we must kill the squirrels to save food. But use poisons carefully.”