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Conscientious Objectors

Conscientious Objectors

On 27th April 1939, Parliament passed the Military Training Act. This act introduced conscription for men aged 20 and 21 who were now required to undertake six months' military training. However, lessons had been learned from the First World War. Conscientious Objection Tribunals were set up to deal with claims for exemption, but this time there were no military representatives acting as prosecutors. Most importantly, the Tribunals were willing to grant absolute exemption. Over the next six years a total of 59,192 people in Britain registered as Conscientious Objectors (COs).

On the outbreak of the Second World War, Parliament passed the National Service (Armed Forces) Act, under which all men between 18 and 41 were made liable for conscription. The registration of all men in each age group in turn began on 21st October for those aged 20 to 23. By May 1940, registration had extended only as far as men aged 27 and did not reach those aged 40 until June 1941.

In 1940, with the British government expecting a German invasion at any time, public opinion turned against Conscientious Objectors. Over 70 local councils dismissed COs who were working for them. In some places of employment workers refused to work alongside COs. In other cases, employers sacked all those registered as pacifists.

On 18th December 1941, the National Service Act was passed by Parliament. This legislation called up unmarried women aged between twenty and thirty. Later this was extended to married women, although pregnant women and mothers with young children were exempt from this work.

Provision was made in the legislation for people to object to military service on moral grounds. Of the first batch of men aged 20 to 23 and estimated 22 in every 1000 objected and went before local military tribunals. The tribunals varied greatly in their attitudes towards conscientious objection to military service and the proportions totally rejected ranged from 6 per cent to 41 per cent.

The political and moral views of the tribunal chairman was vitally important. It was very difficult to get a fair hearing in London, especially during the Blitz. On one occasion the chairman told the defendant that his appeal was rejected because "Even God is not a pacifist, for he kills us all in the end".

Conscientious objectors were supported by the Peace Pledge Union. During the Second World War members of the PPU were arrested for inciting disaffection among the armed forces. This included six members being prosecuted for publishing the poster, 'War will cease when men refuse to fight. What are you going to do about it?' Others were arrested for holding public meetings and selling the PPU newspaper, Peace News, in the streets.

As the war progressed fewer and fewer men objected to serving in the armed forces. In March 1940 only 16 in a 1000 did so. By Dunkirk this had fallen to 6 in a 1000.

Of the 6000 people to go on the conscientious objectors register, around 2000 were women. About 500 women were prosecuted for a range of offences, and more than 200 of them were imprisoned.

We all recognise that there are people who have perfectly genuine and deeply seated scruples on the subject of military service where these scruples are conscientiously held we desire that they should be respected, and that there should be no persecution.

It was while I was working in London that I had to spend six months in Wormwood Scrubs, for refusing to accept a condition. I went up to Bow Street, which was the top joint. I had a rather benign but stern little magistrate called Sir Bernard Watson. I made my statement as to why 1 thought war was incompatible with Christianity, and why I refused to accept a condition, that I felt conscience should be respected. He listened to it, and then sent me down. At both my tribunal and appeal, I felt that the authorities were going through the motions, I don't think there was any attempt to discuss my point of view with me, or probe. They just listened and said, 'Nothing doing.'

My sentence was hard labour, which was supposed to involve sleeping for the first fortnight on bare boards. But they forgot to take my mattress away, so it wasn't anything but in name. We were locked up in the early evening, about half past five, and let out again about seven in the morning. There were the usual appalling insanitary conditions, with a bucket in the cell. Slopping out in the morning was a dreadful experience, faeces and urine everywhere.

The warders on the whole were hostile to COs. People who were in for robbery with violence got much more respect from them. They made it very clear that we were regarded as the scum. There was a subdued patriotic bias. One or two of the screws were better, but by and large that was the attitude.

He was in Winson Green for two months. Wormwood Scrubs, where he was transferred to, was better, there was more communication, and it was generally easier. I don't know why, but it just was a jollier prison. But he didn't complete his

sentence; he appealed from prison, and was released. He had been in this play Pick-Up Girl, it was American, I think. It was to do with prostitution, and produced by Peter Cotes, and it got very good notices. Queen Mary was very interested in the whole question: she sent her lady-in-waiting to see it, to have a report about it. And so they wrote a letter to the appeal court saving they thought he should come out and go on with his own work. So he came out, but was ordered to go into forestry, which he was quite glad to do. When he came out he was completely grey, and he couldn't talk. He had had flu and jaundice, and he just spoke in a whisper, which was horrible.

There was a lot of stigma attached to being a CO. We lived for some of the war in Disley, just outside Manchester. A lot of the people in the village didn't talk to me, or to David when he came down. It was more the older people. There was an awfully nice man there who had been terribly injured in world war one, and who was absolutely anti-war. His son was a CO, and I tended to go and see people like that, just to be with people who were a bit sympathetic. Otherwise there were only two people in the village who had pacifist leanings, the lady who kept the confectionery shop and the postmaster's wife. They were always nice about David, but other people took the attitude, 'My son may be killed getting food for your children, what are you doing?'

I suppose my father was quite an influence on the way my thinking went. He was a cabinet-maker and he worked with the North-Eastern Railway. He had been in the trenches in France, so he knew what war was. He had had some horrible experiences. It was obvious that it had affected him greatly. He came to see that there was no good to be gained from fighting wars. Before the second world war broke out he was involved with the peace" plebiscite. I went with him when I was just a boy at school; we went from door to door handing in questionnaires. Almost unconsciously my thinking developed along the lines of pacifism.

My summons came towards the end of the spring session in 1941. I had to appear in court. It was a very short hearing. I admitted I didn't want to register, and so I was sentenced to twenty-eight days' imprisonment or a five pound fine, which I was given a certain period in which to pay. I didn't pay it. Then one day I had a visitor. He had come from the police station. He said, 'Where's the money?' I said, 'I'm not going to pay it.' So he said, 'You better come along with me.' Just like that.

I was carried off to Strangeways Prison in Manchester. I had known long in advance what I would be in for, but I hadn't known what the conditions would be like. The weather was cold, the cells were cold, and silence was the rule. Even on recreation we were not allowed to talk. We went round and round the courtyard in threes, with an officer standing on a pedestal. If we approached the three in front of us too closely, he would stop us and hold us back until they had gone on further. There was no talking in the workshop. We were locked up at about four o'clock, and remained on our own in the cell until six o'clock in the morning, when we slopped out, and then went back and cleaned our cell, and breakfast was brought to us.

The most disturbing time there was when Manchester was raided. The air-raid sirens went at night, so we were locked in, and all the lights turned off. I could hear the prison officer going round from cell to cell, looking through the spy-hole to make sure we were all there. Then there was absolute silence until the all-clear went. They had gone to their shelter, and we were all left in our cells, entirely on our own, wondering what would happen next. We could hear the planes come over and the bombs fall, and this happened five nights running, although while I was there the prison was not damaged.

There was a lot of ill feeling at the time, I remember that even at a young age. I also remember that my Sunday school teacher was a conscientious objector, and I think he was incarcerated for a short while, but then released. He was a bit of an oddball in many ways. On the whole I don't think people worried too much about him, there was no question of tarring and feathering or anything like that. I can't say he was victimized in any way, because he'd made his views very clear from the outset. There was one man who certainly was put in prison for his views. I learnt afterwards that he was an avowed communist and he spent quite a bit of time in and out of prison. He used to speak against the war at public meetings, and I think he caused a lot of resentment. I can recall that after the war, when they were starting up the urban district council again this man stood as a communist for the council, and took a pasting. I can remember that his attitude to the war was thrown in his face during the election. He got very few votes.

We were very conscious of the men on our staff, and why they weren't fighting. We had one man join the forces who we loved very much. We thought he was a great teacher, very kind and gentle, and we knew that he was going into the army.

We had another man come to the school who was labelled a CO - I don't know if he really was, this was never verified. He went through hell, and eventually left. He was really pilloried by the kids, because we thought he should be fighting. It was very vindictive, a very nasty campaign, and I was part of it. He had a terrible time. The head took it very seriously and we were given a lecture about it.

I remember also there were some conscientious objectors living on the edge of Savernake Forest, and they were not liked at all. They used to come down fishing on the canal sometimes, and there was a great furore. They had a very bad time with the local people. There was one family of COs, they were living in a very isolated place - most of them worked for the Forestry Commission - and nobody would ever speak to them. People just said, 'Oh, they're conchies,' and if they appeared in the village people didn't seem to want to mix with them. I felt sorry for the wives really; I don't remember ever seeing them come to any of the social occasions.


Records of British conscientious objectors are varied and incomplete. Few records of conscientious objectors survive, especially after 1921. Those which do survive are generally samples .

The Military Service Act of 1916 introduced compulsory conscription to Great Britain for the first time in modern history. Before this act, the armed forces were generally made up of volunteers.

While conscientious objection was not specifically defined in the act of 1916, the government recognised those whose ‘objection genuinely rests on religious or moral convictions’.

Only a small number of conscientious objectors were exempted from service absolutely. Most were obliged to serve in non-combatant roles or faced courts martial.

Britain abolished National Service in 1960.

In 1921 the Ministry of Health decided that all papers relating to individual cases of exemption from National Service and tribunal minute books (except those of the Central Tribunal), should be destroyed. Thus the vast majority of files do not survive.


Conscientious Objectors - History

BRIEF HISTORY OF CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTION

The New York Peace Society, founded in 1815 by David Low Dodge, was the first official peace society in America, but the true story of pacifism should begin with certain Native Americans who wished to live in peace. Since then, hundreds of peace groups and thousands of individuals have worked to promote peace and work against war, violence and injustice, following the voice of their consciences -- sometimes to the point of persecution and imprisonment. This page is intended as only a brief introduction to the historical setting for the topic of conscientious objection to war. More information should be sought from the links offered on other pages, as well as secondary published sources available from many libraries.

All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second,
it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.

Schopenhauer

The first recorded conscientious objectors in America were members of religious sects whose faith principles forbade them the use of arms in warfare. The Quakers arrived first in 1656, with the Mennonites (and related groups, the Amish and the Hutterites) coming first in 1683 the Brethren (sometimes called Dunkards, Tunkers, Dunkers) arrived first in 1719. Smaller sects -- the Shakers, Christadelphians, Rogerenes -- joined them soon after. But America was not necessarily a safe haven for pacifists. At times they were considered heretics whose freethinking would be subversive to law and order.

During the years before the Revolutionary War, Quakers and Mennonites did not join in when their neighbors fought the Indians and worked on their forts. Their steadfast adherence to their stance against taking up arms eventually won them exemption from militia duty, and communities were generally content to let them stand aside, in part because they were also hard working and good neighbors who fulfilled all other civic duties.

Revolutionary War
Resistance to the Revolutionary War (1775-1783) came mostly from the groups mentioned above. According to their discipline, members who wished to remain in good standing neither fought themselves nor gave support to the war effort (of either side). The tax issue was a particular cause for much discussion and heart searching. Many Quakers refused to pay taxes, asserting that they went directly to pay for the war effort. In addition, many would not take the oath of loyalty, considering this as part of their witness for peace. The Revolutionary authorities responded by imprisoning conscientious objectors, occasionally for as long as two years. Some active opponents to the war were handled roughly. Over one hundred thousand pounds in goods and property were taken from the Quakers as penalties for their stance against war.

The witness of the German peace sects was less political (and usually less educated) than the Quakers, so that their treatment by the authorities was more lenient. Few of them saw anything wrong with paying the fines for not mustering, nor did they speak out against military recruitment, though there were exceptions by some individuals. Mennonites and Dunkards were mostly farmers who were frequently called upon to supply horses and wagons for army transportation needs, to contribute food for the consumption of the troops, timber for construction purposes, and blankets and clothing to keep the soldiers warm in the winters. On the whole they complied willingly with these demands. It is possible that they felt that the use made of their goods was the responsibility solely of the authorities. It seems that the only tenet to which they consistently held fast was against being conscripted.

Civil War
The Civil War brought with it the first national conscription act in March 1863, Congress took over from the states the entire administration of conscription. The original Act provided an exemption for anyone who could find a substitute for himself or provide a $300 commutation fee. In Feb. 1864, the Act was amended to recognize only those conscientious objectors who were members of religious denominations whose rules and articles of faith prohibited armed service. In the Confederacy, the draft law of 1862 exempted Quakers, Mennonites, Brethren and Nazarenes, with the understanding that they would either hire a substitute or pay $500. These conditions were clearly unsatisfactory, and many C.O.s could either not meet the monetary demand or would not hire someone else to go to war for them. The conscientious objector often found himself moved to camps in states where no one knew of him or his good reputation, in the hands of military officers who had little or no sympathy for his scruples. For the first time, there are records of C.O.s who were tortured, hung by their thumbs or pierced by bayonets for refusing to carry a musket many others were imprisoned. Some C.O.s joined the army as cooks and/or would shoot over the heads of the enemy rather than kill them. Others, such as Mennonites in Virginia, hid out in the hills until the war was over.

World War I
By 1917, conscientious objectors had become a larger and more diverse group. The historic peace churches mentioned above were joined by pacifist sects from the newer waves of immigrants, such as the Molokans and the Doukhobors, who had come from Russia after 1903 to escape service in the Czar's army. There were also Jehovah's Witnesses, who claimed exemption from military service, not as conscientious objectors but as ministers (each JW adult male was considered a "minister"). In addition there were political objectors such as the Socialists and members of the I.W.W. (International Workers of the World), and those who simply did not believe in war.

The C.O.s in World War I were sent to army camps where they had to convince officers & other officials that they were sincere in their conscientious objection to war, which, at times, resulted in abuse from the enlisted men. The camps were Cody (New Mexico), Custer (Michigan), Deming (New Mexico), Devens (Massachusetts), Dix (New Jersey), Dodge (Iowa), Forrest (Georgia), Fremont (California), Ft. Douglas (Utah), Ft. Jay (New York), Ft. Leavenworth (Kansas), Ft. Lewis (Washington), Ft. Riley (Kansas), Ft. Sill, Ft. Thomas, Ft. Washington, Funston (Kansas), Gordon (Atlanta, Georgia), Grant (Rockford, Illinois), Greenleaf (Georgia), Hamilton (New York), Jackson (Columbia, South Carolina), Kearny (San Diego, California), Lee (Virginia), Meade (Maryland), McArthur (Waco, Texas), Merritt, Oglethorpe (Georgia), Pike (Little Rock, Arkansas), Sevier, Sherman (Chillicothe, Ohio), Slocum (New York), Spartansburg (South Carolina), [Zachary] Taylor (Kentucky), Travis (San Antonio, Texas), Upton (New York), Wadsworth (South Carolina), and Wheeler (Macon, Georgia). Occasionally, the C.O.s were taken to prisons instead of camps. One unofficial source states that 3,989 men declared themselves to be conscientious objectors when they had reached the camps: of these, 1,300 chose noncombatant service 1,200 were given farm furloughs 99 went to Europe to do reconstruction work for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) 450 were court-martialed and sent to prison and 940 remained in camps until the Armistice was fully enacted.

The absolutist C.O.s who refused to drill or do any noncombatant service were court-martialed and sentenced to many years in federal prison at Alcatraz Island or Ft. Leavenworth U.S. Disciplinary Barracks, many suffering persecution, manacling, and solitary confinement. Most C.O.s who had been imprisoned were released by May of 1919, though some of those thought to be the most recalcitrant were kept until 1920. Some C.O.s were released in 1917-1918 from camps because of health problems or "mental" problems -- the latter were probably made up in order to get rid of these annoying men who would not cooperate. The camp psychologist at Camp Cody (____ Moore), on the other hand, seemed to go out of his way to find the C.O.s he interviewed to be unintelligent, defiant malingerers who did not deserve anything but imprisonment, and his "evidence" was used in courts-martial hearings.

World War II
During WWII, the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 dictated the terms by which more than 34 million American men, ages 18 to 44, participated in the war effort. Of the men who registered for the draft, there were 72,354 who applied for conscientious objector status. Of those, 25,000 accepted noncombatant service in the army, agreeing to work for the medical Corps or in anything that did not involve actual combat. Another 27,000 failed the basic physical examination. In the end, 6,086 C.O.s (4,441 of them Jehovah's Witnesses) went to prison for refusing to cooperate with Selective Service. Another 12,000 men entered Civilian Public Service (CPS), a program under civilian direction designed to accommodate C.O.s by having them do "work of national importance." [cf. Keim]

Some CPS camps were run by the three historic peace churches (Mennonites, Quakers, Brethren), and some were run by the government. The first camp was opened in Patapsco (MD) on May 15, 1941. By the time CPS ended in 1947, CPS men had logged over 8 million man-days of work in over 150 camps. The C.O.s were not paid and their families and churches contributed over 7 million dollars for their support. The CPSers worked at a variety of projects, including conservation, forestry, and agricultural, and as government survey teams. Others built sanitary facilities for hook-worm ridden communities, or worked with juvenile delinquents. Some wished to do more risky things (in part, to prove that they were just as courageous as the men going into combat) and volunteered as firefighters, or as human guinea pigs for medical and scientific research in jaundice (infectious hepatitis), typhus, infantile paralysis, pneumonia, influenza, starvation, sea sickness, immersion and frostbite, and fly abatement experiments. Many C.O.s volunteered to work in hospitals for the mentally ill, where their exposé of the appalling conditions that existed in many of the facilities, and their nonviolent treatment and care of the patients, helped to revolutionize the way the hospitals were run.

There were some men in CPS who found the program intensely frustrating. How could digging ditches or blowing up tree stumps be considered "work of national importance"? How did it express their pacifism and/or objection to war and militarism? Often these men ended up walking out of CPS and going to prison instead.

Click here for images from CPS camps.

Korean War
At the end of WWII, there was much debate about the efficacy of Civilian Public Service and whether there were alternatives to this that C.O.s could engage in. The I-W program [called "one-w" the first digit is a roman numeral, not the number 1 or the letter I] became official in July 1952, and it made a wide variety of service opportunities open to draftees. A number of farmers were assigned to dairy or experimental farms. Brethren Service arranged opportunities in relief and welfare work in Europe, and the Mennonites created PAX service, which employed C.O.s around the world in construction, agricultural development, and relief. Most of the I-W men accepted low-level jobs in health facilities by 1954 more than 80% of the men held hospital jobs. By the summer of 1953 Selective Service had approved more than 1200 institutions and agencies for I-W service, with over 3000 men enrolled. Overall, the Mennonites and Brethren were quite happy with the programs. Many of these C.O.s went on to careers in education and social service because of this introduction to systemic ways of helping others. Of the nearly 10,000 I-W men from 1952-1955, only about 25 men left their jobs without authorization of them, 20 were Jehovah's Witnesses.

Vietnam War
The Vietnam War, as it is popularly called although war was never officially declared by the United States, produced a very organized network of draft resisters and supporters [for more information about the history of the Vietnam War, click here]. Rejection of conscription stemmed from opposition to militarism and war itself, to disagreement with the United States' foreign policy in Indochina, and/or to the belief that the draft epitomized injustice as it was weighted heavily against African Americans, the poor, and the less educated. Whatever the reason, a sizable contingent of young men declared that this armed conflict at least had no claim on them. During this time, draft counseling services expanded sizably, and groups were formed all over the country to provide support for draft resisters. As dissent spread, it polarized new constituencies among professionals, civil rights groups, and women's organizations. Massive anti-war rallies were held, as well as rallies in which hundreds of young men turned in or burned their draft cards. GI resister groups spread, so that dissent was coming from the armed forces as well as those not yet in the military.

The language of the conscription law had specifically excluded the C.O. who did not believe in a Supreme Being thus, the agnostic and atheist had no legal basis on which to claim exemption. It also excluded selective objection, those whose objection was based on the specific war involved rather than on long-standing religious pacifism. This held true until 1965, when the Supreme Court ruled that C.O.s need not believe in a Supreme Being this was expanded in 1970 to say that any individual may object to military service on ethical and moral grounds, if such convictions "are deeply felt." A total of 170,000 men received C.O. deferments as many as 300,000 other applicants were denied deferment. Nearly 600,000 illegally evaded the draft about 200,000 were formally accused of draft offenses. Between 30,000 and 50,000 fled to Canada another 20,000 fled to other countries or lived underground in America.

Conscription stopped three years before U.S. involvement in Vietnam did (Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird announced on January 27, 1973 that the draft was to end, as of that date, in favor of voluntary enlistment). President Nixon thought that ending the draft would end the massive opposition to that war, but in this he erred.

Post-Vietnam Era / Persian Gulf War
The first years of the post-Vietnam era were dedicated by pacifists to calling for amnesty for draft resisters and draft dodgers. Draft registration was reinstituted in July 1980 from then until 1985, over 500,000 men refused or failed to register. Twenty persons were prosecuted for not registering from 1980 through 1990. Students who did not register generally could not receive federal student loans, grants or work-study money some states also denied educational financial aid. After 1986, no new cases were brought against non-registrants, and draft registration became almost a non-issue, until the Persian Gulf War.

By the time the war was launched against Iraq in Jan. 1991, several dozen men and women in the armed forces or the reserves had publicly refused orders to deploy. In Nov.-Dec. 1990, the military gave less than honorable discharges to a number of resisters, but as the war began, there were rapid trials and jail sentences imposed. The cease-fire came in March 1991, by which time about 2,500 soldiers had sought C.O. discharges in the months ahead, military courts sentenced at least 42 Marines to terms of six to 36 months in prison.

Current
The United States declared a "war on terrorism" after thousands of people were killed at the Pentagon (DC) and the World Trade Center (NY) by terrorists who flew airplanes into those buildings on Sept. 11, 2001 (also, one of their hijacked planes crashed in rural Pennsylvania). Since then, an era of fear has arisen, with much concern, among those who long for peace, over the loss of civil liberties, the build-up of national weapons systems, and the institution of such government efforts as the new Department of Homeland Security. At this time (Feb. 2003), as the President urges the United States into another war against Iraq, the threat to conscientious objectors is greater than it has been in many years. Though a great many peace groups and thousands of pacifists have been vocal in expressing their opposition to war, it seems unlikely that it is having much effect on the President and Congress. Representative Charles Rangel (D-NY) introduced a bill to the House on January 7th that, if passed, would reinstate the draft, and establish "Universal National Service." Groups such as the Center on Conscience and War are working to reintroduce the Military Conscientious Objector Act, which would broaden the legal definition of conscientious objection.

Historic Peace Churches
The roots of the historic peace churches began during the Reformation, where Christians were renewing a voluntary faith (as opposed to state-sponsored religion) that included nonparticipation in warfare. Primary among them were the Anabaptists dating from 1525 in Switzerland. The Mennonites -- named after Dutch priest Menno Simons who joined the movement in 1536 -- survive to the present, in spite of much persecution, and even martyrdom by Catholic and Protestant states throughout Europe in the first centuries of their existence. Fleeing Europe to escape this treatment, many responded to William Penn's invitation to join the migration to America where they could live in peace without being subjected to military service. Many Mennonites have come in subsequent years to the United States and Canada for similar reasons, especially from Russia and Prussia in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Amish began in Europe in the late 1600s as a protest against the Mennonites in Germany and Switzerland for their perceived failure to relinquish practices that would separate them more clearly from the world and the state. They began arriving in America in the 1700s where they settled into tight-knit, mostly agricultural, communities where they could retain their separatist way of life and their pacifism.

During the mid-17th century, George Fox led a pacifist-oriented movement against what he saw as the compromises of the Protestant majority in England, which became known as the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). Al Keim writes in his book The Politics of Conscience: "The Quaker objection to war was based as much on feeling and intuition as it was on rational arguments or scriptural authority. Fox stressed the 'Light Within' -- something not quite the same as conscience but rather 'that which shines into conscience.' Combined with this mystical understanding of the Christian faith was deep reverence for human personality of which the classic formula was Fox's: 'There is that of God in every man.' This first principle of Quakerism was to become a basic tenet from which flowed many Quaker enterprises in subsequent generations. " The development of alternative service for C.O.s in the United States and Great Britain in WWI and WWII owes much to these Quaker tenets.

A third pacifist group to survive until today is the Church of the Brethren, founded in 1708 in the German village of Schwarzenau. It was led by Alexander Mack who also sought to bring the church back to its roots in early Christianity. Claiming no creed but the New Testament, they espoused peace as a fundamental principle. This took shape in opposition to war, no coercion in religion, and no litigation in court. The Brethren began migrating to the United States in the 18th century.

Since 1935 the three groups have been known as the "historic peace churches." In both world wars their young men constituted the large majority of C.O.s. In WWI, the Quakers designed an alternative service program by which C.O.s and others could engage in relief and reconstruction efforts in France and elsewhere. At the outset of WWII, the historic peace churches cooperated in developing an alternative service for C.O.s called Civilian Public Service (CPS). In later years, C.O.s were able to engage in similar alternative service, such as PAX and I-W service.

Because the historic peace churches have been so involved in the issues that surround conscientious objection, and because so many of their men have been C.O.s during war times, it should be no surprise that the preponderance of archival material about this subject is in the archives of the Mennonites, Brethren and Religious Society of Friends.

Women
Until recently, women who have opposed war have not been, in any legal sense, conscientious objectors. Currently, however, women who join the armed forces, and then become opposed to war, may be designated as C.O.s. Threats of drafting women have loomed over the years, particularly when there was a need to ease the "manpower" situation during WWII, but women have not yet been conscripted for service. Though their pacifist sentiments were not usually officially recorded, a limited amount of information about female conscientious objectors can be found in their memoirs, in the files of women's peace organizations such as the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom or Women Strike for Peace, and in newspaper articles and letters to the editor that relate their activities and sentiments.

Rachel Waltner Goossen writes: "In 1943, Dorothy Day, cofounder of the Catholic Worker movement, decried what she believed to be an insidious campaign enslaving women to 'work in the factories throughout the land to make the bombers, the torpedoes, the explosives, the tools of war.' Day echoed the sentiments of Jane Addams, who earlier in the century had proposed a 'moral substitute for war' and had envisioned a time when women would be coequal, enfranchised citizens engaging in building a peaceful society on the basis of volunteerism rather than coercion. U.S. Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin of Montana, a contemporary of both Addams and Day, was first elected to Congress in 1916 a year later she voted against the United States' entry to war. She lost her seat in Congress during the next campaign but was reelected in 1940 and cast the only vote against the United States' entrance into World War II." Queen Marie of Roumania wrote: "Cannot we women who in our hearts hate war and undeserved death, do something to save the future from folly more hideous even than the folly of the past?" [click here to read more]. These famous women were joined by hundreds and even thousands of women from all walks of life who opposed war publicly, or did so in their homes and work sites.

If only half the women of the United States would stand together unflinchingly in opposition to war, as conscientious objectors should war be contemplated, would they not gain the great victory of all the ages?
Lydia G. Wentworth, ca. WWI

Women have often had to bear the burden for their own and their children's upkeep while their C.O. husbands were away. At times this was a cause for divorce, especially if the wife did not support her husband in his convictions. Other women moved so that they could be close to their men and then tried to find jobs nearby. Some women made long treks to visit the men in CPS camps or in prisons as allowed by whatever travel restrictions were in place at the time (or those put in place by the prisons etc.). Other women worked with relief agencies overseas, or served alongside C.O.s in hospitals for the mentally ill, as dieticians and nurses in CPS camps, or as co-directors of CPS camps along with their husbands. Many C.O.s gained a great deal of encouragement for their stance from women friends, sisters, mothers, fiancees and wives, through their letters, telephone calls and visits. For instance, twice a month Florence Andrews traveled ten hours on two trains to visit her husband, who was a C.O. in prison at Danbury (CT) during WWII, for a half hour each visit, all that was allowed. She wrote to him every day while he was in prison, a total of 973 letters, giving him the news of the day, telling of her life at home (on a very small budget) and the office, reflecting on her beliefs about God and about peace, and using humorous stories and drawings to help keep up his spirits. Igal Roodenko and his sister, Vivian Lang (who worked at the National Committee on Conscription of the American Civil Liberties Union), exchanged dozens of letters during the years he was in prison her analysis of the C.O. situation and her encouragement helped him crystallize his own convictions that carried him into life-long peace activism.

In the 1980s, women's outrage over war and the build-up of nuclear weapons, took many to women's peace camps set up in Europe and in the United States, the most famous being the Women's Encampment for a Future of Peace & Justice at Seneca Falls (NY) and the Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp in England. These, and other camps, drew women from all walks of life to speak out together against the arms race and empowered them to find alternatives to violence.

Sources for this page:
The American Peace Movement: Ideals and Activism by Charles Chatfield (Twayne Publishers, NY, 1992), p. 127-131

Conscience in America: A Documentary History of Conscientious Objection in America, 1757-1967 ed. by Lilian Schlissel (E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., NY, 1968), p. 15-26

The CPS Story: An Illustrated History of Civilian Public Service by Albert N. Keim (Good Books, Intercourse, PA, 1990), p. 8-9, 39-40

Freedom from Violence: Sectarian Nonresistance from the Middle Ages to the Great War by Peter Brock (University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Canada, 1991), p. 191-210

The Politics of Conscience: The Historic Peace Churches and America at War, 1917-1955 by Albert N. Keim and Grant M. Stoltzfus (Herald Press, Scottdale, PA, 1988), p. 19-26, 144-146

The Roots of War Resistance: Pacifism from the Early Church to Tolstoy by Peter Brock (distributed by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Nyack, NY, 1981), p. 53-55

The Strength Not to Fight: An Oral History of Conscientious Objectors of the Vietnam War by James W. Tollefson (Little, Brown & Company, Boston, MA, 1993), p. 6-7

Swarthmore College Peace Collection: subject files on Civilian Public Service, conscientious objection, and on women and peace.

Women Against the Good War: Conscientious Objection and Gender on the American Home Front, 1941-1947 by Rachel Waltner Goossen (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC, 1997), p. 1-7


'Bad boys' of WWII-era were sent to remote U.P. camp: What we know about Germfask

A weathered roadside sign of M-77 is all that's left marking the site of Camp Germfask — a camp used during World War II to stow away conscientious objectors who were deemed troublemakers.

Visitors to the spot in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, about an hour north of the Mackinac Bridge, would never know this place holds a fascinating chapter of Michigan history.

More than 1,000 men felt so strongly against the war efforts during World War II they legally registered as conscientious objectors.

The most unruly men of the bunch were banished to the most remote region of Michigan, tasked with laborious jobs so intense many later advised their own children it was better to fight than become a conscientious objector.

In Germfask, Michigan, where the "bad boys" of the objectors were sent, tensions between the men and the township bubbled under the surface during the war. Yet decades later, the story of Camp Germfask is largely untold.

Jane Kopecky, a life-long Germfask and Schoolcraft County resident, wanted to change that. An encounter with the conscientious objectors while Kopecky was a child led to decades worth of interviews, research and writing about the camp, culminating in her recently published book, "World War II Conscientious Objectors Germfask, Michigan, The Alcatraz Camp."

Here's what to know about the camp, who occupied it and what its history means to Michigan now.

This is one of the conventional barracks at the CPScamp at Germfask. Cots and equipment conform generally to regulation.Officials say that the occupants of this barracks are among the most cooperative assignees to the camp. (Photo: Escabana Daily Press and Jane Kopecky, handout)

What are conscientious objectors?

Conscientious objector (noun) – A person who for reasons of conscience objects to complying with a particular requirement, especially serving in the armed forces. - Merriam-Webster

Many people associate conscientious objectors more closely with World War I than World War II, as it is more widely believed that the nation was more unified on the war efforts in the second world war. However, there was still a sizable population of men who claimed conscientious objector status.

Prior to America's entry into World War II, the federal government initiated the first-ever peacetime military draft, which allowed men who objected to war on religious or political grounds to register as a conscientious objector rather than fight.

The Selective Training and Service Act, signed into law In September 1940 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, required conscientious objectors to register with the Selective Service System, through which they would be drafted to do other work deemed of national importance instead of going into war.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt broadcasts a message to the nation from the White House in Washington, Oct. 16, 1940, as millions of young men register under the Selective Service Act. "We prepare to keep the peace in this new world," he said, "which free men have built for free men to live in." (Photo: George R. Skadding, Associated Press)

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), originally organized during the Great Depression, was resurrected to give the men tasks during the war, such as forest work and fighting forest fires. The program then became known as Civilian Public Service (CPS).

Throughout the U.S., 151 camps were opened and set up like boot camps, where the objectors were sent to do work deemed equivalent to combat — working in national parks, fighting forest fires and more. Located near Seney National Wildlife Refuge, where the pulpwood and logging industry was booming, there was plenty of work to occupy the men at Camp Germfask.

A wheelbarrow brigade is shown, with men of the Civilian Conservation Corps on their way to building a new road at Camp Dix, N.J. (Photo: Associated Press file)

Most of the men in the CCC camps as objectors did not cause much trouble, a group of around 100 men were more vocal in their viewpoints and were deemed "the bad boys," according to Kopecky. That collection of men were moved throughout camps across the country and eventually sent to Germfask for their protests. Over time, the camp became a holding ground for men who did not cooperate with the system.

Where is Germfask, Michigan?

Located about six hours north of Detroit in Michigan's remote Upper Peninsula, Camp Germfask is located around an hour away from Mackinac Bridge off M-77. The CCC camp officially closed in 1945 and later became Big Cedar Campground, which it is still known as today.

Those looking to explore the former conscientious objectors camp can drive straight up north on Interstate 75 from southern Michigan until crossing the Mackinac Bridge. Turn on to U.S. 2 until reaching M-77 and take M-77 all the way into Germfask.

Camp Germfask today

Now, 75 years after the conscientious objector camp officially closed, little of the former CCC camp remains. The land, now Big Cedar Campground, has fragments of the old sidewalk that ran through the camp.

Several of the former camp dormitories were relocated to Manistique, where they are currently being used by the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), according to Kop.

Conscientious objectors and POW camps

Camp Germfask was not the only CCC camp converted for other purposes during World War. The Upper Peninsula became home to five prisoner of war (POW) camps, many of which were former CCC camps.

Members of the delegation of 36 ministers picket the White House carrying signs asking for freedom for imprisoned conscientious objectors, Oct. 16, 1946. (Photo: John Rous, Associated Press)

Those in POW camps during the war would often play each other in soccer matches. In 1944, Germans prisoners held at Camp Au Train, not far from Germfask, played a soccer match against the Germfask conscientious objectors. The locals came out, rooting for the German men, said Greg Sumner, professor of history at University of Detroit Mercy.

Camp Au Train housed around around 225 German POWs, as well as 40 U.S. troops, according to the USDA Forest Service.

The other camps located in the U.P. were Evelyn, Pori, Sidnaw, and Raco, according to UP Matters. The POW did a lot of the labor needed because so many men had gone to fight in the war, UP Matters reports. The men were typically well behaved and established in their communities and rarely tried to escape due to the harsh conditions of the U.P., according to Sumner.

Why is its story so hidden?

Aside from its sheer hidden location, Camp Germfask was purposely kept out of the public eye, Kopecky said. The 100 or so men who found themselves stowed away at Camp Germfask were intelligent men — and the government knew that, Kopecky said. Because the conscientious objectors had the power to sway public opinion, Kopecky said the government wanted them out of the public eye.

Now 75 years later, their story has stayed relatively out of the public light. The government kept the conscientious objectors story quiet during the war and the town has kept it quiet since.

Jane Kopecky, author or "World War II Conscientious Objectors Germfask, Michigan, The Alcatraz Camp", next to the Camp Germfask CCC camp sign. (Photo: Susanne Barr, handout)

"I think even the people in the community didn't want to talk about it," Kopecky said. "The war was behind them, now, Vietnam war was out so you're not considered a prisoner and criminal, so maybe it was just such emotional times that they didn't do anything about it, they didn't talk about it."

It was a chapter the town wanted to write out of its system, but it's one the men didn't openly discuss either. John Partridge, son of conscientious objector Al Partridge, said his father would share lighthearted stories of his time in the camp, but didn't speak of it in depth.

When John told his father he planned to be a conscientious objector himself, Al was not in strong support of his choice.

"They (conscientious objectors) hadn't accomplished what they wanted to accomplish," John said. "What they wanted to accomplish was to make people realize, A) that the draft was immoral and unconstitutional and B) that war was wrong. And neither of those things happened."


The History of International Conscientious Objectors' Day

International Conscientious Objectors' Day was first observed in 1982 by West European objectors to compulsory military service, as a focus both of campaigning for the right of objection to be established where it was lacking, and of support for objectors everywhere. The date 15th May was chosen simply because it happened to be mutually convenient in 1982 but was retained for renewed activity in 1983 and 1984. Then in 1985 it was formally adopted by the European Bureau of Conscientious Objectors and soon received worldwide recognition – being adopted by War Resisters' International – and changed from being European Conscientious Objectors' Day to International Conscientious Objectors' Day.

Ever since, it has been marked by vigils outside prisons or barracks where COs are held, by demonstrations at embassies of states where COs are not recognised and/or unfairly treated, by street theatre, and by ceremonies where names of conscientious objectors past or present are read out and publicly honoured.

The ambiguous word “hero” is not normally associated with conscientious objection, but it should be recalled that conscientious objectors have been executed for maintaining the right to refuse to kill. Maximilian in 295 AD resolved as a Christian not to serve in the Roman army, and was summarily beheaded with the sword his father had intended to give him on taking the oath as a soldier. More than two hundred conscientious objectors were shot by firing squad or beheaded by guillotine in Nazi Germany in the Second World War. As late as 1949 two conscientious objectors were shot by firing squad in Greece the international scandal led to a reprieve for a third.

Between the World Wars a French objector was held for twenty years on the notorious penal colony Devil's Island, off French Guiana. Three conscientious objectors have been held continuously since 1994 in Eritrea, In 1916, thirty five British conscientious objectors were formally sentenced to death by firing squad, though immediately reprieved on the other hand more than a hundred British WW1 objectors are known to have died prematurely as a result of their treatment in prison or the army.


Draft Dodgers

Draft resistance in the United States reached its peak during the Vietnam War. By late 1967, U.S. casualties in Vietnam had reached 15,058 killed and 109,527 wounded.

The Vietnam War was costing the United States approximately $25 billion per year, and disillusionment was beginning to spread beyond college campuses to greater sections of the taxpaying public. Each month, as many as 40,000 young men were drafted into service.

Some men evaded the draft by failing to register with the Selective Service System or by fleeing the country. According to Canadian immigration statistics, as many as 30,000 draft dodgers may have left the United States for Canada during the Vietnam War.

Draft evasion carried steep fines and the possibility of jail time. Nearly 210,000 men were charged with draft evasion, including boxer Muhammad Ali, whose conviction was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter pardoned all Vietnam War draft dodgers.


The “Good” Conscientious Objector Lew Ayres

After starring in the acclaimed 1930 film All Quiet on the Western Front, actor Lew Ayres began wrestling with his own views on war.

John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images

Joseph Connor
February 2018

Lew Ayres’s star was on the rise before the war, due in part to a series of popular films in which he played the idealistic and charming Dr. Kildare. (MGM/Photofest)

I n a popular war , it was an unpopular decision.

In late 1941 Hollywood leading man Lew Ayres became the first prominent American to refuse to fight. A renowned actor best known for his role as a soldier, Ayres had developed strong pacifist views and stood by those principles despite fierce public and professional backlash. The situation, coming just as the United States was readying for war, put the government in a precarious position—forcing it to take an unfamiliar stance and even bend its own rules.

BORN IN MINNEAPOLIS on December 28, 1908, Ayres had dropped out of high school to work as a musician. Discovered by a talent scout while playing the banjo and guitar at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Hollywood, he soon landed a role in the 1929 film The Kiss, opposite Greta Garbo.

The next year’s widely acclaimed film, All Quiet on the Western Front, launched Ayres into stardom. He portrayed Paul Bäumer—a sensitive and doomed German infantryman increasingly disillusioned with the horrors of trench warfare—in an earnest performance that, said the New York Times, made a “riveting impression on the moviegoing public.” The film packed a strong antiwar punch, and the entertainment journal Variety proclaimed: “The League of Nations could make no better investment than to buy the master print, reproduce it in every language for every nation to be shown every year until the word War shall have been taken out of the dictionaries.”

As a box-office attraction, Ayres hit stride in the late 1930s with his role as Dr. James Kildare in nine “B movies” that sometimes earned more than the studio’s major productions. Playing an idealistic young physician, Ayres became what the Los Angeles Times called “a household symbol across the nation, embodying everything that was good and decent and upstanding—and American.”

Despite his screen popularity, the reserved Ayres was an outlier in Hollywood circles. He admitted he was “never a great one for mixing with people” and, despite his profession, felt that movies were trivial in the grand scheme of things. “He’s a strange man, very strange,” fan magazine Photoplay proclaimed. His interests, too, were not standard Hollywood fare. He spent his time at his mountain retreat near Laurel Canyon, reading philosophy and religion, composing and playing music, and dabbling in astronomy and meteorology.

Once an avid hunter, Ayres abandoned the sport and became a vegetarian after a trip to Catalina Island, where a sow’s dying screams deeply disturbed him. They sounded almost human, he recalled. That experience, coupled with his study of many philosophies, including Christianity and Buddhism, as well as what he called “profound thinking,” led him to pacifism. “To me, war was the greatest sin,” he said. “I couldn’t bring myself to kill other men.”

But in late 1941, with war looming on the horizon, Selective Service Board No. 246 in Beverly Hills called on Ayres. The actor was willing to serve, but only in a noncombat role, and so he sought classification as a conscientious objector (CO). Requesting to go into the Army Medical Corps, Ayres, a certified first-aid instructor and active with the American Red Cross, wanted to help heal the wounds of war. “Don’t think I am trying to save my neck,” Ayres told the draft board. “I would like to be of service to my country in a constructive way and not a destructive way.”

But a CO classification was no sure thing. Draft board members, often World War I veterans, were notoriously unsympathetic to these claims, and Ayres’s views did not fit neatly within the legal definition. A CO’s objections to war had to have a religious basis. The courts and the Selective Service agreed that objections to “the futility or stupidity of war or on grounds of a social or merely humanitarian character” did not suffice.

For Ayres, who belonged to no organized religion and had no formal religious training, the stakes were high. Without a CO classification, he could be drafted and assigned to combat duty. To remain true to his principles, he would have had no choice but to refuse induction and face a five-year prison term.

The government quickly recognized that as a noncombatant, Ayres could inspire others to enlist for service. After reporting for duty in Portland, Oregon, he entered the system like the other inductees, which included getting the requisite vaccinations. (Photo by J. R. Eyerman/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

After months of official deliberation—during which time the United States entered the war—Board No. 246 finally approved Ayres’s application in early 1942. Impressed by his sincerity, board member A. H. Pier described him as “quite a philosopher” who had “a kind of religion of his own.”

The board then had to decide which CO category was right for Ayres. Those classified as “I-A-O” were eligible for noncombatant military service, which would include the Medical Corps role Ayres had requested. Instead, the board inexplicably classified him “IV-E”—meant for those who objected to all military service—and assigned him to a civilian work camp in Wyeth, Oregon.

The public did not learn of Ayres’s classification until March 30, 1942, the day before he left for Oregon. With Hollywood stars like Clark Gable, James Stewart, and Henry Fonda already in uniform or soon to be, and others like John Wayne flying below the radar with draft deferments, the Ayres story made front-page news. Although he told the press he had asked to go into the Army Medical Corps, people focused on the actor’s refusal to take up arms and his IV-E classification. The blowback was immediate and fierce.

Variety labeled Ayres “a disgrace to the industry,” and Nicholas Schenck, president of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, declared him “washed up.” More than 100 theaters in Illinois refused to show his films, while the Fox Theatre in Hacksensack, New Jersey, stopped showing them after dozens of calls from angry patrons threatened a boycott. The army banned his movies from military bases, stating that soldiers “were not particularly interested in seeing the current pictures in which Lew Ayres appears.”

The general public reacted just as harshly. “I have a son in the Army as a private. Can you tell me why a ‘yellow dog’ like Ayres is any better than my son?” asked one angry draftee’s father. Businessman G. W. Mingus seethed, saying that when compared with Ayres, “Benedict Arnold was a Sunday school teacher.” Even the German-born Erich Maria Remarque, combat veteran and author of All Quiet on the Western Front, weighed in, albeit reservedly, saying, “I think we all should fight against Hitlerism.”

Others took a more sympathetic or neutral view. Wrote Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper: “It took courage—far greater courage—to do what he did than to wheedle and pull strings to get an officer’s uniform, as many, without the courage and ability to measure up to it, have done.” Director John Huston and actors Humphrey Bogart and Olivia de Havilland took out an ad in Variety to deny that the film community was ashamed of Ayres—although they were careful to repudiate his pacifism by calling it “the sad result of a sadder misconception.” An editorial in the New York Times called the whole Ayres controversy overblown. Pacifism, it said, “is a doctrine for the other-worldly and for saints, and there will never be enough of those to interfere with our war efforts.”

Ironically, it was a soldier, Private Eugene B. Crowe, who offered the staunchest support in a letter to Time magazine, writing: “Lew Ayres, instead of being detrimental to our public good, is indicative of what the American people wrote into their Bill of Rights and what we fight our wars about—the right to freedom in a democracy.”

THIS PUBLICITY CAUSED A STIR in Washington because the local board had obviously erred badly with their IV-E classification. Since Ayres was willing to serve in the Medical Corps, he should have been stamped I-A-O and sent to the army. To Selective Service director Lewis B. Hershey, it was essential to properly classify COs: every objector inducted into uniform freed a non-CO for combat duty, while every erroneous IV-E classification did the opposite.

But if the government could play the story the right way—painting Ayres as a “good CO”— it could encourage other objectors to serve as I-A-O uniformed noncombatants instead of in IV-E civilian work camps. Hershey immediately ordered the California board to consider reclassifying Ayres, and his office told the local board that the “widest possible publicity by you would have great morale effect on nation.”

The actor built a positive reputation throughout his service after doing lumber work at a camp in Wyeth, Oregon. (G etty Images)

While the draft board reassessed his classification, Ayres reached the camp at Wyeth, Oregon, on April 1, 1942. Most of the 170 men in the camp did lumber work, clearing brush, felling trees, and cutting fire breaks. Ayres was assigned to first-aid work and was popular with the other men. The camp newsletter described him as “always friendly, often dogmatic, sometimes stagy,” while Chaplain Mark Schrock called Ayres “one of the boys.”

California Board No. 246 soon corrected its error and reclassified Ayres as I-A-O. On May 18, 1942, Ayres, “grinning and bronzed by the sun and wind,” as an AP story had it, was sworn in as a soldier in Portland, Oregon.

Like the Selective Service’s Hershey, the army recognized the publicity value of a celebrity CO serving in uniform and made sure the event got plenty of exposure and ink. Ayres told reporters that he was still a conscientious objector, but stressed that the Army Medical Corps was “the place I want to be—to be able to do some useful work.” Sent to Camp Barkley, Texas, for training, he told the press, “I hope they put me in a non-combat unit, but I can’t be sure they will.”

Actually, a Medical Corps assignment was a fait accompli, and Ayres knew it. The army could assign I-A-O soldiers to a variety of noncombatant jobs, not just medical ones. And although a soldier could not dictate where he would be assigned, Ayres had insisted that “the medical corps alone is the only branch of the service which could be commensurate with my ideas of conscientious approval.” With the government intent on selling him as the good CO, Ayres accepted his own brand of special celebrity treatment: a wink-and-nod assurance before induction that he would get the assignment he wanted.

Ayres finished his training on August 15, 1942, and the army gushed over him accordingly. Brigadier General Roy C. Helfebower, commander of the medical training center, called him an “excellent soldier” and said he felt confident Ayres would “render valuable service before his army career ends.” An unnamed officer added, “I wish I had a whole battalion of men just like him.”

Ayres, too, continued to play his part. “I have fallen in love with the medical department,” he said. “Everyone has been swell to me.” He was soon promoted to sergeant and made first-aid instructor at the camp. Army chow even added six pounds to his five-foot-10, 138-pound frame. But, growing restless with teaching and wanting to get his hands dirty, Ayres applied to go overseas. An opportunity arose that required a reduction in rank as a chaplain’s assistant he took it.

Ayres volunteered as a chaplain’s assistant in the Pacific, where he treated wounded and sick soldiers—both Allied and Japanese. (Photo by W. Eugene Smith/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

In May 1944, Ayres landed in New Guinea. Assigned to an evacuation hospital, he counseled and comforted sick and wounded GIs. Two months later, Yank magazine reported finding a changed man. Sporting a mustache and graying hair, with his face lined and yellow from antimalarial medication, Ayres said that “it’s taken war to give me understanding of men and to find myself.”

His refusal to fight may have been a hot topic at home, but not overseas. “It was gratifying to have heard not one soldier say anything against what I chose to do,” Ayres said. His politeness, calmness, and willingness to help seemed to have won them over. Sam Dirienzo, a wounded GI with whom Ayres had worked, never forgot his kindness. “In your hour of need like that,” Dirienzo said, “it just reminded you so much of home.”

When American troops landed on Leyte in the Philippines on October 20, 1944, Ayres was with them and experienced the full horror of war. Leyte was a populated island, and civilian casualties were inevitable. The army set up an evacuation hospital in a centuries-old cathedral in Palo, near the site of the initial landings. The cathedral was soon flooded with wounded GIs and civilians. Cots for the injured reached as far as the altar rail the baptistery became an operating room.

Ayres pitched in, and what he saw chilled him to the core. “I had imagined that war was a horrible thing. But it actually surpassed anything I’d dreamed of,” he said. “It’s bad enough in the field, where soldiers expect cruelty and death but in cities, among helpless civilians, the picture is far worse.” He spoke of “what a bombed city looks like or what it feels like to hold a child in your arms while it bleeds to death or to stand by while kids watch their parents being dumped into a mass grave.” The most difficult task, he said, “is taking care of little kids with bullet holes in them.”

Ayres did his best, and he impressed all as “serious and helpful and friendly with everyone he meets,” a Life correspondent observed. “Everybody, including the Filipino children, calls him ‘Lew.’” Many Filipinos were avid moviegoers and were tickled to meet the “real Dr. Kildare.” Ayres got more of a thrill being recognized by the Filipinos than by people back home, he said.

When the fighting moved north to Luzon in January 1945, Ayres followed, but he contracted dengue fever, a serious tropical illness. His recovery was slow, and he finished the war as a staff announcer for the Armed Forces’ Radio Service station in Manila.

Ayres returned from
his wartime service
a changed man outside and in, but retained his pacifist views for the remainder of his life. (AP Photo)

IN THE FALL OF 1945, Ayres returned home to a public that was starkly different than it had been three years earlier. Americans were sick of war and its end was a relief to the country. The army’s favorable coverage of Ayres had likely had an impact, too gone was the public vitriol of his refusal to take up arms. “Considerably thinner and much more mature in appearance,” noted the New York Times, Ayres “came back a hero in Hollywood’s eyes after meritorious service in the Pacific,” his more than three years in the army having “won the respect and admiration of his former detractors.”

Ayres, too, was changed. Military life had altered his world view. “I thought I could find my answer in books. The army changed that,” he said. “Mingling with men and seeing so much of reality, I got my head out of the clouds.”

He even developed a new appreciation for the power of cinema. “Why, I even became a fan myself,” he joked. Before the war, he had felt that filmmaking was “a silly business.” But while overseas, he saw the ability of movies to provide a distraction and even emotional support to war-torn minds films could be a contribution, in their own way, to the war effort. “Stretch a screen across of couple of coconut palms, throw a picture upon it, and you get the whole gang out. That gave the boys what they needed—rest and a chance to get out of themselves. I think the same thing applies to the civilian world.”

Ayres returned to acting, but he never regained the leading-man status or box-office popularity he had enjoyed before the war. And he retained his antiwar views, but with a twist. Noting how much he learned “from associating with soldiers, of sharing a common lot and working toward a common end,” he felt that “other American youngsters might benefit in the same manner by serving a short hitch in a peacetime army.” He began to think that peacetime conscription might be a good idea.

“Fellowship among soldiers, with each man sharing his part of a common burden, is a wonderful thing to experience,” Ayres said. “Imagine what could be accomplished with such a singleness of mind and purpose in the civilian world.”

Lew Ayres died on December 30, 1996—best remembered for the soldier he played on screen and the one he refused to play in real life. ✯


Mennonite Conscientious Objectors (COs) During World War Two

We had just come from visiting my grandfather and I now stood in the park next to a newly built memorial wall in Winkler, Manitoba. The wall was in an arc about 40 feet long and 4 feet high.

“What is this wall doing here?” my ten-year-old son asked. I took my son, perched him on top of the wall and looked him in the eye. “This is a special wall,” I said. “It is made of 3,021 bricks, one for each Manitoba conscientious objector [CO], including your great-grandpa. As a young man, he had a very important decision to make. The country asked him to go to war, but he believed God was telling him not to go.”

CMBS, Winnipeg: John M. Schmidt collection

WWII COs building road in Jasper (Alberta) national park.

This was the situation that thousands faced as the US and Canada became involved in WWII. Each nation turned to their young men and women to defend national interests. The communities in the historic peace church tradition (Mennonites, Quakers, Brethren in Christ, Hutterites) were faced with a difficult decision: continue following the admonition of Jesus to love all people, even enemies, or follow the directives of political leaders, intent on advocating national interests. Frank C. Peters, Canadian Mennonite Brethren church leader, chose to register as a CO. He said, “From the beginning to the end of his life, Jesus grappled with the problem of force . . . I can come to no other conclusions than that Jesus was the first Christian pacifist.”

Canada and the United States have long histories, reaching back to colonial days, of making provisions for people who cannot “take up arms” on the basis of conscience. Given this history, Mennonites met to discuss a response to the escalating conflict. Some believed the government should honor earlier promises and allow full exemption of all Mennonites from military service. Others believed the historic peace churches should offer other, non-military service to their countries. Delegations were sent to Ottawa and Washington.

At one of the meetings in 1940, a Canadian general and war veteran asked the Mennoniteled delegation: “What will you do if we shoot you?” Jacob H. Janzen of Ontario, who had survived several desperate situations in the Soviet Union, replied: “You can’t scare us like that. I’ve looked down too many rifle barrels in my time to be scared in that way. This thing is in our blood for 400 years and you can’t take it away from us like you’d crack a piece of kindling over your knee. I was before a firing squad twice. We believe in this.”

In the United States, delegations made proposals to President Roosevelt in 1935 and again in 1940, which led to a bill that defined COs and established the Civilian Public Service (CPS) as an alternative to military service. In both countries, men opting for alternative service were individually assessed, opening CO status to all citizens. Most men appeared before a judge who decided on their commitment to non-violence. In Canada, judges hearing CO cases varied in their opinion of COs. Judges in Saskatchewan and Manitoba personally saw their duty as diverting as many men as possible from claiming CO status. In the end, almost 11,000 Canadians from 33 cultural backgrounds and almost 12,000 Americans from 231 religious denominations served as COs during WWII.

The choice to opt for CO status resulted in strained relationships. In Alberta, two Mennonite churches were burned to the ground on the same day in 1940. In Ontario, a minister’s house was searched by police, and a church was ransacked. In Oklahoma, a house was egged and the church was used for target practice by a sniper. Like a “fugitive in society, all propaganda, radio, press, billboards pointed a finger at you – why are you not in the army doing your duty?”

When CO status was granted, the young men served in various roles. Some volunteered for medical experiments. Others worked in the forestry service, firefighting and tree-planting. On Vancouver Island, COs planted 17 million trees. In the medical corps, they tended to the medical needs of military personnel. COs served in hospitals and institutions for the mentally ill, helping care for some of the most vulnerable in society. Others worked in national parks or on farms producing food for the country.

While these activities were of valuable service to the country, the impact of the CO experience lasted much longer than the war. The CO work camps enabled men to make friendships across ethnic and denominational lines, building trust and reducing barriers. They gained new skills. Marvin Hein, American Mennonite Brethren church leader, said, “I shall never be sorry I spent those years in CPS. Much of what I am today is a result of those 33 months in CPS.”

After WWII, many COs continued a life of service to others as teachers, doctors, nurses, and pastors. The CO experience paved the way for a new era of cooperation among the various Mennonite denominations through the work of Mennonite Central Committee, Mennonite Voluntary Service, and Mennonite Disaster Service.

While COs were at times ridiculed, their role in mental health care especially has over time softened these attitudes. In 2011, at that same park in Winkler, a veterans’ memorial was also dedicated. Brian Minnaker spoke of his father’s experience: “Dad was a D-Day Veteran . . . he had choice words for COs. ‘How could the God of justice possibly be with the likes of them?’ That was his opinion until some of his buddies began to have mental troubles . . . Dad would realize that, yes, God was truly with the group of people that gave up so much to improve the medical and psychiatric care in our country.”


Conscientious Objectors: World War II

Editor’s Note: For additional information about the contributions of conscientious objectors in the area of mental health visit: Training Schools – And Civilian Public Service: 1944.

HYDE PARK, Monday—Ever since I answered in a magazine a question about the rights of the families of conscientious objectors, I have been getting innumerable letters from the conscientious objectors themselves and their friends and relatives. I think there should be a clearer understanding of their point of view and what has been done by the government as I understand it.

At the beginning of Selective Service, the Federal Government took cognizance of the rights of these men and I am now quoting from a document which some of the religious groups have sent me:

“On May 15, 1944, the United States completed its third year of moral and legal recognition of the right of drafted men to register conscientious objection to war and to perform, in lieu of military service, designated work of national importance. (Editor’s Note: Civilian Public Service) During these three years, this wartime minority of less than 8,000 drafted men has worked without pay to render to our country more than $25,000,000 in public service. Except for the cost of transportation and technical supervision, this work was done without cost to the Federal Government. In most cases, the men themselves, their families and their churches pay for their living costs, which amounts to nearly $2,000,000 a year.

“The ‘work of national importance’ which Selective Service assigns these conscientious objectors (classified 4-E under the draft law) to perform, consists of helping to protect and conserve our homefront resources—both our natural and human resources. To this end, Civilian Public Service camps and units have been set up across the country in areas where conservation needs are great and the war effort has seriously reduced the supply of essential personnel. For instance, 2800 men in 35 camps are engaged in fighting forest fires, draining swamps, building dams, maintaining national parks, and wildlife resources, and in reclaiming sub-marginal land. Nearly an equal number of men are performing essential work in 120 small special units throughout the country. They serve as attendants in state hospitals, as dairy men on farms, as ‘teachers’ in state training schools, as farm hands and technicians at state agriculture stations, as human ‘guinea pigs’ in medical research experiments, and as ‘sanitation engineers’ in rural public health projects.”

This is certainly a good record of work and it is work which is of national importance. It is, however, not the work which the country really requires of these young men. They would not have been drafted had they previously been working in jobs which the Selective Service Board considered important to the war effort. Many of them feel that in doing the work assigned to them, they are not using their capacities to the limit and that they could be more useful in other ways. However, the work in which they could be more useful is work in which their conscientious objection prevents their taking part.


Mennonite Conscientious Objectors (COs) During World War Two

We had just come from visiting my grandfather and I now stood in the park next to a newly built memorial wall in Winkler, Manitoba. The wall was in an arc about 40 feet long and 4 feet high.

“What is this wall doing here?” my ten-year-old son asked. I took my son, perched him on top of the wall and looked him in the eye. “This is a special wall,” I said. “It is made of 3,021 bricks, one for each Manitoba conscientious objector [CO], including your great-grandpa. As a young man, he had a very important decision to make. The country asked him to go to war, but he believed God was telling him not to go.”

CMBS, Winnipeg: John M. Schmidt collection

WWII COs building road in Jasper (Alberta) national park.

This was the situation that thousands faced as the US and Canada became involved in WWII. Each nation turned to their young men and women to defend national interests. The communities in the historic peace church tradition (Mennonites, Quakers, Brethren in Christ, Hutterites) were faced with a difficult decision: continue following the admonition of Jesus to love all people, even enemies, or follow the directives of political leaders, intent on advocating national interests. Frank C. Peters, Canadian Mennonite Brethren church leader, chose to register as a CO. He said, “From the beginning to the end of his life, Jesus grappled with the problem of force . . . I can come to no other conclusions than that Jesus was the first Christian pacifist.”

Canada and the United States have long histories, reaching back to colonial days, of making provisions for people who cannot “take up arms” on the basis of conscience. Given this history, Mennonites met to discuss a response to the escalating conflict. Some believed the government should honor earlier promises and allow full exemption of all Mennonites from military service. Others believed the historic peace churches should offer other, non-military service to their countries. Delegations were sent to Ottawa and Washington.

At one of the meetings in 1940, a Canadian general and war veteran asked the Mennoniteled delegation: “What will you do if we shoot you?” Jacob H. Janzen of Ontario, who had survived several desperate situations in the Soviet Union, replied: “You can’t scare us like that. I’ve looked down too many rifle barrels in my time to be scared in that way. This thing is in our blood for 400 years and you can’t take it away from us like you’d crack a piece of kindling over your knee. I was before a firing squad twice. We believe in this.”

In the United States, delegations made proposals to President Roosevelt in 1935 and again in 1940, which led to a bill that defined COs and established the Civilian Public Service (CPS) as an alternative to military service. In both countries, men opting for alternative service were individually assessed, opening CO status to all citizens. Most men appeared before a judge who decided on their commitment to non-violence. In Canada, judges hearing CO cases varied in their opinion of COs. Judges in Saskatchewan and Manitoba personally saw their duty as diverting as many men as possible from claiming CO status. In the end, almost 11,000 Canadians from 33 cultural backgrounds and almost 12,000 Americans from 231 religious denominations served as COs during WWII.

The choice to opt for CO status resulted in strained relationships. In Alberta, two Mennonite churches were burned to the ground on the same day in 1940. In Ontario, a minister’s house was searched by police, and a church was ransacked. In Oklahoma, a house was egged and the church was used for target practice by a sniper. Like a “fugitive in society, all propaganda, radio, press, billboards pointed a finger at you – why are you not in the army doing your duty?”

When CO status was granted, the young men served in various roles. Some volunteered for medical experiments. Others worked in the forestry service, firefighting and tree-planting. On Vancouver Island, COs planted 17 million trees. In the medical corps, they tended to the medical needs of military personnel. COs served in hospitals and institutions for the mentally ill, helping care for some of the most vulnerable in society. Others worked in national parks or on farms producing food for the country.

While these activities were of valuable service to the country, the impact of the CO experience lasted much longer than the war. The CO work camps enabled men to make friendships across ethnic and denominational lines, building trust and reducing barriers. They gained new skills. Marvin Hein, American Mennonite Brethren church leader, said, “I shall never be sorry I spent those years in CPS. Much of what I am today is a result of those 33 months in CPS.”

After WWII, many COs continued a life of service to others as teachers, doctors, nurses, and pastors. The CO experience paved the way for a new era of cooperation among the various Mennonite denominations through the work of Mennonite Central Committee, Mennonite Voluntary Service, and Mennonite Disaster Service.

While COs were at times ridiculed, their role in mental health care especially has over time softened these attitudes. In 2011, at that same park in Winkler, a veterans’ memorial was also dedicated. Brian Minnaker spoke of his father’s experience: “Dad was a D-Day Veteran . . . he had choice words for COs. ‘How could the God of justice possibly be with the likes of them?’ That was his opinion until some of his buddies began to have mental troubles . . . Dad would realize that, yes, God was truly with the group of people that gave up so much to improve the medical and psychiatric care in our country.”


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