Service in the Friends Ambulance Unit

In October 1944, it was my privilege to be one of the Canadian conscientious objectors who had volunteered for service with Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU) in China. I had come to Pendle Hill for training, which included study of the Chinese language and culture under the tutelage of a charming Chinese woman. It was augmented by the experiences of Peter Tennant, a young Englishman who had recently returned from work with FAU in China. We were privileged to have sessions with Howard and Anna Brinton, who gave us a challenging and inspiring introduction to Quaker thought and values.

All but one of the ten of us had grown up with other religious affiliations, and Quaker silent worship was a new experience. I, the son of a dedicated Anglican minister, had been steered to follow in his footsteps. During my final year in secondary school, I chanced to read an article by a pacifist Anglican cleric, Canon Raven, by which I was persuaded that Christianity had strayed far from the teachings of Jesus in its sanctioning of resorting to the violence of war. In 1935, I went on to university as a convinced CO, and five years of study in philosophy and theology only confirmed my pacifist stand. At this point I came to understand that I would find a more fulfilling life as a doctor than as a cleric. I decided that if I could earn enough during summer vacation to cover tuition fees for the first year, I would register in medicine. Delivering ice to customers of the Belle Ewart Ice Company earned the modest but necessary fees.

It so happened that when I was writing the required Medical Aptitude Test I sat behind Vivien, a charming young woman with braided hair who was to play an important role in my future life. By the time I was in my third year of the course, the seat beside her was respected as reserved. I earned the tuition fees for the second and third years during vacations, first in the smelter and then underground at the Falconbridge nickel mine near Sudbury, Ontario. Shortly before the third-year examinations, it came to the attention of the university authorities that there were two men in our class who had not participated in the Canadian Officer Training Corps. They passed a regulation that all able-bodied male students must enroll in the armed forces and continue their course in uniform, with the army paying fees and maintenance. The two of us could not so identify with the military. We were called before the registrar, and he queried, "Abbott, what religion are you?" To my reply, "Church of England, sir." He almost exploded, "What right have you to be a conscientious objector?" The names of the two of us were given to the military, and we were called out and sent to an alternate service camp to do pick and shovel work on a new road in Northern Ontario. As I traveled north, leaving the course just when clinical sessions were making it most interesting, and not knowing if I would ever get back to it, I nevertheless had a feeling of elation that I had been given strength to stand by my leadings.

In the camp, about 150 young men (most of whom came from Mennonite farm homes) were crowded into log bunkhouses. Among a scattering from other denominations was a university grad, Walter Alexander, a member of the United Church of Canada, with whom I found much in common. He was receiving publications of the Wider Quaker Fellowship. Through this contact we learned of the Quaker initiative to seek volunteer COs for service with FAU in China. Walter and I applied for this service.

After considerable delay the government approved our release, and we joined eight others being outfitted. It was early October of 1944 before all was ready. While waiting, I found temporary remunerative work that enabled me to purchase a small engagement ring to put on Vivien’s finger before our departure. After a send-off meeting in the Friends meetinghouse in Toronto, we left by train for Philadelphia and Pendle Hill for the training. By mid-December, information came that passage to India was available for three of us.

Walter Alexander, Jack Dodds, and I were selected and told to prepare to leave. I telegraphed Vivien and she immediately came by train to spend three precious days (which Anna Brinton kindly arranged for us) at the lovely old farm of some people by the name of Bailey. Then, after an emotional farewell at the Philadelphia station, we left for Galveston, Texas. The day after arriving, we embarked on a freighter loaded with 600 crated jeeps. So started some of the most memorable experiences of a life that seldom followed the beaten track. We crossed the Atlantic in a convoy of about 40 freighters escorted by two destroyers. After brief stops at Cairo, Aden, and Madras, the cargo of jeeps was offloaded at Vishakhapatnam, and we proceeded north to the muddy discharge of the Ganges River, where we disembarked at Calcutta’s Howrah dock.

For over a month, as we waited for a flight to China, the sights, sounds, and smells of this crowded metropolis intrigued us while the contrasts of wealth and poverty shocked us. Finally, wearing our woolen "battle dress" and overcoats in Calcutta’s steamy heat so they would not count as part of our 80- pound baggage allowance, six FAU volunteers weighed in at Dum Dum airport to fly to Assam. There, we waited five more days for suitable weather to take the last hop over the Himalayas to land in Kunming, China. Once again new sights, sounds, and smells assailed our senses as we got acclimated to its mile-above-sea-level atmosphere. Next, we traveled in the back of one of the unit’s charcoal-fueled trucks to Kutsing, where the FAU hostel was located, along with the main workshops, and a hospital that the unit had taken over when a mission could not staff it. We were then assigned to our spheres of work: transport, administration, or medical.

What a joy it was to me to be back in medical work! First in the Kutsing hospital, then with medical relief teams on the Indochina border, and later on the Burma border—in all these settings, I was with like-minded co-workers who proved to be the best of mentors and some lifelong friends. As my second year in China was drawing to a close, the war being over, the staff at headquarters saw it fit to release me to return to Canada to finish my interrupted medical studies.

I landed in San Francisco on August 25, 1946. A letter from Vivien awaited me that read, "We get married on September 6 and you go back to medical school on September 9." We did, and I did. I had every intention of returning to China after graduation, but by then China was closed to foreigners. In 1952, we were accepted for similar challenges in leading the medical work of the Quaker Barpali Village Development Project in Orissa, India. At a send-off gathering at Friends House in Toronto, Fred Haslam, secretary of Canadian Friends Service Committee, approached us with the query, "Have you ever thought of applying for membership?" Unversed in membership protocol, I replied, "We consider ourselves one with you." The following First Day, my sister Helen heard it announced at the close of meeting that Ed and Vivien Abbott had been accepted into membership. I suppose it might be said we got in by the back door, as there was no time for any of the usual procedures.

In January 2011, Vivien and I celebrated our 90th and 94th birthdays. We are thankful for the fellowship and inspiration we have found in the Religious Society of Friends that all began at Pendle Hill in 1944.

Edwin V. Abbott

Edwin V. Abbott, a member of Simcoe-Muskoka Meeting in Ontario, Canada, is a retired physician.