Lewis B. Hershey

Director of Selective Service

Don Lavender, 33°

Bro. Lewis B. Hershey ably served for more than 30 years in one of the government’s most controversial positions.

If ever a man was cut out for a job, it surely was Lewis B. Hershey, the most famous Director of the Selective Service System. During his nearly 29 years as Director, he walked a proverbial tightrope serving six Presidents, pleasing Congress, and placating the American public.

Hershey grew up on an Indiana farm in the late 1800s. With determination, he not only completed high school at a time when many left school after the eighth grade, but he went on to college. While still a young man, he served as a deputy to his father who was the local Sheriff. He also served as principal and teacher in a small school.

In 1911, he joined the Indiana National Guard for which he was paid ten cents for each weekly drill he attended. His first duty as a guardsman was in Indianapolis where his unit was sent to put down unrest as a result of a strike. As officers in the guard, at that time, were elected by popular vote, he succeeded in being elected as a Lieutenant in 1913.

The Indiana Guard was called to duty on the Mexican border in Texas, and Hershey commanded a company there for a short time in 1916. He returned to the University of Indiana to do graduate study later that same year. When the Indiana Guard was called up in 1917, Hershey was sent to an artillery unit and promoted to Captain. About this time, he married his longtime Indiana sweetheart, Ellen Dygert. His unit was sent overseas and arrived in Europe just as the war ended. He continued to serve in Europe for almost a year during which time he traveled and gained a perspective on the situation there.

Upon his return to America, he received a regular army commission as a Captain in 1920. While serving at Ft. Sill, he suffered an injury to his right eye in a polo game that caused him to lose sight in that eye. Nevertheless, he attended Command and General Staff School in 1931.

Following a short tour in Arkansas preparing camp sites for the newly formed Civilian Conservation Corps, he was selected to attend the War College which he completed in 1934. After 15 years as a Captain, he was promoted to Major while serving in Hawaii at Fort Shafter. Between that duty and his next assignment in Washington, he decided to take his family on a trip around the world.

In 1936 he was assigned to the War Department in Washington. Three years before, a group called the Joint Army Navy Selective Service Committee had drawn up a bill creating a new Selective Service System. A group of Reserve Officers called selective service specialists had been recruited. They were chosen for their influence in their local communities and were already taking correspondence courses about Selective Service with the idea they would form a nucleus for a national headquarters.

Bro. Hershey’s previous study in behavioral psychology, both at Command and General Staff School and The Army War College, made him a good choice to work with these selected recruits. He traveled throughout the country winning their loyalty and instilling the philosophy which was to be the basis of the Selective Service System.

In July and August of 1940, Congress began its debate on the Selective Service Bill, and by virtue of his four-year association with the concept, Hershey was a prime resource. It was then that he injected his personal philosophy about a decentralized system which would be operated by local boards. In September of 1940, he was promoted to Lt. Colonel. It was in these proceedings that his ability to deal with Congress as well as handle controversy first became evident.

A university president was assigned to be the first Director of Selective Service, but in reality, Hershey, as his assistant, handled most of the day-to-day operation. When the university president resigned in April of 1941, Hershey became Acting Director. He was appointed Director July 31, 1941, and was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General, bypassing the rank of Colonel.

Throughout his nearly 30 years as Director of Selective Service, he most always knew what Congress and the American public would accept. Any individual responsible for interrupting the lives of so many people would certainly be subject to criticism, and he had his share, but he always managed to stay in general favor. Bro. Hershey served under six Presidents and during his administration as Director, 14,555,000 were drafted into service.

Brother Hershey was introduced to Masonry early in life when his father took him to the local Lodge. He was raised in Northeastern Lodge No. 210 in Freemont, Indiana. Upon his retirement from the Directorship, he was honored by many organizations including the Freemasons for his many years of patriotic service.

Although Hershey advanced to the rank of General (four stars), he never left his common roots. His folksy manner endeared him to almost everyone who met him, even some of his avowed opponents.

Source: Lewis B. Hershey, Mr. Selective Service by George Q. Flynn. Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1958

Author’s note: As one who was drafted in World War II, I smiled with satisfaction when the Selective Service Act expired temporarily in March of 1947. Some 15 years later, when I received a mobilization designation assignment to Selective Service as a Reserve Officer, I gained a new perspective on the System and General Hershey. On one tour of duty in National Headquarters, I was privileged to visit with Bro. Hershey in his office. He had a knack for making everyone feel like an important person. When protesters picketed in front of his headquarters, he would frequently stop and visit with them. In his civilian clothes, they failed to recognize him. With his dry wit and folksy manner, he was able to charm everyone.

Don Lavender
served as a Secretary Registrar of the Des Moines, Iowa, Scottish Rite Bodies from 1974 to 1979. He is retired from the City of Des Moines Engineering Department. He enjoys many hobbies including instrumental music and photography.