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Litigation Journal

Fall 2023: Game On

The Court-Martial of "America's Most Notorious Draft Dodger"

Fred L. Borch


  • Bergdoll’s court-martial for desertion began at Fort Jay on Governors Island, New York, on March 4, 1920.
  • On October 5, 1939, a 13-officer court-martial panel found Bergdoll guilty of desertion in time of war.
  • His two trials were said to have cost the American taxpayer millions of dollars.
The Court-Martial of  "America's Most Notorious Draft Dodger"
Peter M. Fisher via Getty Images

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While many readers will have heard of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who was court-martialed for desertion and misbehavior before the enemy in Afghanistan, few know about the court-martial of a soldier with a strikingly similar surname—Grover C. Bergdoll. What follows is the story of why this Bergdoll (apparently no kin to Bergdahl) was court-martialed not once but twice for desertion in World War I—a unique prosecution that lasted 20 years and cost millions of dollars.

Born to a wealthy family in Philadelphia in 1893, Grover Cleveland Bergdoll was the youngest of five children. The source of the Bergdoll fortune was beer, and the huge Bergdoll Brewery made thousands and thousands of dollars by providing beer to some 1,400 taverns and saloons in Pennsylvania.

To say that Grover was a spoiled brat is an understatement. After his father died when he was three years old, his mother, Emma Bergdoll, took over the business. She bought her youngest son whatever he wanted and spent thousands of dollars on racing cars for him. In 1912, she even gave Grover the money to purchase a Wright Brothers biplane. At the controls of this contraption, Grover “terrorized the Philadelphia community . . . dive-bombing roof tops, racing locomotives, and chasing frightened bathers down the beaches of Atlantic City.”

When the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, Grover registered for the newly instituted draft. In August, he received a notice from the Army that he was to report for a physical examination. But Bergdoll’s mother had been born in Germany and maintained close ties with her native country. Consequently, she convinced Grover—or he allowed himself to be persuaded—that he should not report for his draft physical. Bergdoll then disappeared from view. When questioned about his whereabouts, his mother told the Army that her son had fled to Mexico. This was a lie. Bergdoll had not left the country; he was hiding at his family home.

Agents with the Department of Justice searched for Bergdoll for several years. They finally found him in January 1920, after raiding the Bergdoll home in Philadelphia.

Bergdoll’s court-martial for desertion began at Fort Jay on Governors Island, New York, on March 4, 1920. The government’s argued theory was that it had in personam jurisdiction because, when the Army notified Bergdoll that he must report for his physical examination, he “was automatically inducted,” but he failed to report for that exam.

With jurisdiction established, the outcome was not surprising. Bergdoll was found guilty of desertion and sentenced to five years’ confinement at hard labor.

Now confined in a cell on Governors Island, Bergdoll hatched an escape plan that seems far-fetched today. He had his lawyer write a letter to the Army, requesting that he be released from jail so that he could recover $105,000 in gold coin that he said he had hidden on “a lonely spot on a mountainside” in Maryland. The letter claimed that Bergdoll was afraid that someone would find this treasure while he was in prison and steal it from him.

Amazingly, the War Department granted the request. But Bergdoll never went to Maryland after being released from prison. Rather, he escaped. He took a passenger ship to England and then a train to Germany, where he arrived in July 1920.

Bergdoll now set up house in a hotel in the village of Eberbach. This was his mother’s hometown, and she still had many relatives there. Grover’s “easy smile, firm handshake, and ready use of the German language”—he was fluent—quickly made him a local hero.

If Bergdoll thought he could live a peaceful life in an idyllic village, he was mistaken. In January 1921, six men in an automobile tried to kidnap him. They failed, but gunshots fired by the assailants wounded a young woman.

Local authorities quickly captured the assailants. One of them was an Army sergeant assigned to the American occupation forces in Koblenz, located some 200 miles away. The others were Germans who had been hired to help kidnap Bergdoll, bring him across the Rhine into the U.S.-occupied territory, and turn him over to American authorities there. The commander of U.S. forces in Koblenz immediately apologized for the attack and insisted that the American government had nothing to do with it.

A little more than two years later, in August 1923, Bergdoll’s freedom was again in jeopardy when an Army lieutenant arrived in Eberbach. He also tried to kidnap Bergdoll, but the lieutenant’s plan also went awry, as Bergdoll fought back and shot and killed the lieutenant’s accomplice.

Six years later, Grover decided that he should return to America to collect the $105,000 in gold coins that he had hidden—not in the ground in Maryland, but in his home in Philadelphia. It had been nearly 10 years since Bergdoll had been in the United States.

Once home, Bergdoll quickly gathered up the gold—and returned to Germany. The country had changed for the worse during his absence. Adolph Hitler and the National Socialists had come to power. By the end of the 1930s, Grover decided that the Nazis were not to his liking.

In January 1939, Bergdoll’s attorney notified the U.S. secretary of state that Bergdoll’s return to America was imminent and that he intended to surrender. In April, however, events took an unexpected course: Congressman Forest A. Harness introduced a bill in the House that would preclude “any person convicted of desertion . . . who has heretofore proceeded to a foreign country to escape punishment” from being admitted to the United States. The import of this bill was clear to all: Were it to be enacted, Bergdoll could never return to American soil.

While some commentators—and Bergdoll’s attorney—insisted that this legislation was ill advised, if not unconstitutional, Harness’s bill unanimously passed the House on May 15, 1939. For Grover, time was now very much of the essence. On May 25, the same day that Harness’s legislation reached the U.S. Senate, Bergdoll arrived in New York City as a passenger on the German liner S.S. Bremen. He was taken into custody immediately.

On October 5, 1939, a 13-officer court-martial panel found Bergdoll guilty of desertion in time of war. He was sentenced to three years’ confinement at hard labor and a dishonorable discharge. The entire trial had taken only three hours. The manpower spent by the Army and Department of Justice looking for Bergdoll—and the two trials—were said to have cost the American taxpayer millions of dollars.

Bergdoll was transferred to the prison at Leavenworth, Kansas. He was released from prison in February 1944. Within a matter of months, Bergdoll suffered a mental breakdown. He died at a psychiatric hospital in Richmond, Virginia, in January 1962. He was 68 years old.

So ends the remarkable story of the soldier who was twice convicted of desertion during World War I. Emma Bergdoll, who perhaps loved her son too much, lived to see Grover released from prison. And the Bergdoll fortune? It was gone. Prohibition had ended the days of the Bergdoll family’s brewery in 1920, and it never reopened after the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed in 1933.