Recollections of a World War II Conscientious Objector

During World War II, 12,000 men from as many as 200 religious groups received the conscientious objector classification, “4-E,” under the Selective Service System, and served all over the United States in Civilian Public Service units administered by agencies of the three “historic peace churches”—the Brethren, Quakers, and Mennonites. In addition, there were 1,700 COs, some of them ministers who were exempt from the draft, who refused to cooperate with the conscription system and were imprisoned. There were 4,400 Jehovah’s Witnesses who regarded themselves as ministers, and were imprisoned because they were denied the ministerial exemption.

The models for alternative service for conscientious objectors came from the late 19th century arrangement that Mennonites in Russia made with the government, the World War I experience of U.S. Quakers, and the workcamp idea of Swiss Quaker Pierre Ceresol. When Russia established universal military conscription in the 1870s, Mennonites were allowed to create the Mennonite Forestry Service for their young men. Government district foresters supervised their work, and the Mennonite church housed them in camps. During World War I, American Friends Service Committee placed Quaker relief workers in France, directly helping the victims of war. And all through the 1920s and 1930s, hundreds of young people in the United States served voluntarily in workcamps at home and abroad, seeking to address the “seeds of war.”

There was nothing in my growing up that pointed to, or prepared me for, the conscientious objector position I took in World War II. Quite to the contrary, I have a great-grandfather who was a general in the Civil War. My favorite uncle was the engineer and copilot of the U.S. Navy plane, the NC-4, that in 1919 made the historic first transatlantic flight. Then in the First World War, my father, having been turned down for officer training because of poor eyesight, welcomed being drafted as a private. With minimal basic training at Camp Upton on Long Island, in no time at all he shipped out to France and was promptly sent to the front. Later, wounded from mustard gas, he was hospitalized and then, through the interventions of a personal friend, became attached to General Pershing’s headquarters.

Now, in the Second World War, he was wounded again, this time by my stand as a conscientious objector. He couldn’t explain my CO position to his friends. He sought the advice of Bishop William Appleton Lawrence (“Appy,” he called him) a Harvard classmate who had officiated at my parents’ wedding. But the bishop had become a staunch Christian pacifist, and, in a letter to my father, strongly defended my position.

It was typical of draft boards in World War II to turn down the request for CO status from those men who were not members of the historic peace churches. I had not yet joined Friends. As an Episcopalian I was in a weak position to exert my claim. Consequently, my request to be classified 4-E was denied by the draft board. Thus began the long process of appeal, which brought FBI investigations into the lives of friends and relatives to determine my sincerity. After a year of investigation, and an appearance before the United States attorney in Dayton, Ohio, I was finally classified 4-E, and my file was transferred to a draft board in New York City, my place of residence.

In August 1942, I was ordered by Selective Service, at its expense, to travel to Plymouth, New Hampshire, the rail-head for Civilian Public Service (CPS) camp No. 32 in nearby West Campton. A camp member, an artist from Boston, met me. He grabbed my two small suitcases and tossed them into the U.S. Forest Service pickup truck. I had been sent a list of the essential personal belongings I would need, and forewarned that I would have minimal space in the bunkhouse. Indeed, the floor space consisted of little more than the dimensions of a piece of 4×8 plywood, enough for a standard steel cot and a cupboard.

The camp was administered by the AFSC. The director was a Friend with a doctorate in Philosophy and Religion, and a keen interest in administering what was—for the United States—a pioneering way of enabling COs to serve in wartime. He, his wife, and two young children had separate living quarters. It was refreshing to have a family on our little campus.

With the exception of men assigned to kitchen, office, and building maintenance duties (some men much preferred these jobs), COs in Camp Campton worked for the U.S. Forest Service under its local personnel. We maintained National Forest trails and roads, built or repaired fire towers, constructed massive picnic tables in the carpentry shop, and drove and serviced Forest Service vehicles. One man managed a camp vegetable farm.

My first work assignment related to the new fire tower under construction on Mt. Osceola and is recorded in my journal: “To carry to the summit a seven-foot-long iron pipe weighing 35 pounds. As we ascended, the views got progressively finer, and the pipe progressively heavier.”

I remember well my arrival at the summit. Near the top of Breadtray Ridge, with its views of Mt. Tecumseh and Mt. Sandwich to the south, the trail turns sharply right, and leads up to a level approach through summit spruces and on to the ledges and the fire tower. Exhausted, I stretched out in the sun on the dry moss beds that flanked the bare rocks, pleased that this raw recruit from Manhattan had successfully completed his first “work of national importance,” as Selective Service generously described all CO assignments.

The idea of conscientious objectors voluntarily participating in human guinea pig experiments captured the interest of many men. During the wartime years hundreds of COs served in frostbite,
jaundice, life raft, starvation, and malaria experiments. Shortly after arriving in camp there was an opportunity for me to volunteer in the third of a series of experiments conducted by the Rockefeller Foundation and the National Research Council.

For three weeks, 30 of us lived in tents in a side camp, appropriately named “the Louse Camp” or “the Lyceum,” serving as subjects for the testing of powders designed to eradicate lice from the body. Long underwear was issued to us: each set had a cloth patch with a hundred lice and eggs sewn into the pants at the small of the back. The lice were counted every other day by Foundation personnel. We were putting in a full day’s work repairing a washed-out road.

The testing was important, because the deadly disease of typhus, carried by lice, was rampant in Europe at the time. One powder concocted by the Rockefeller Foundation, DDT, became particularly effective. I had the dubious honor of breeding the most lice before the doctors dusted the magic powder into my clothing and on my body. The results of the experiment were published in the American Journal of Hygiene. Participants were overjoyed to see that Time magazine picked up the story and ran an article entitled, “They Also Serve Who Stand and Scratch.”

The long winter months severely tested the commitment of CPS men. While occasionally the Forest Service parceled out interesting assignments—such as bringing down unneeded equipment from fire towers on toboggans, or harvesting 400-pound cakes of ice from the Pemigewasset River for the camp ice house—we spent much of our time in the woods felling and cutting trees for firewood. In temperatures as low as ten degrees below zero, we worked in crews of three, with axes and long crosscut saws. The chain saw had not yet been invented. I personally thrived on the outdoor work. Other men greatly preferred indoor assignments. Some had to keep the wood stoves in the camp buildings going through the night.

Many men, regardless of their assignment, were bitter about the fact that the government, after drafting them through Selective Service, delegated administrative powers to agencies of the peace churches. They saw this as an unholy alliance.

Tensions developed between men of differing views.

The hardships of CPS life were real, and unequal. Each man received $2.50 per month for incidental expenses. Government agencies, such as the Forest Service, paid nothing to either the men or the AFSC for the work CPS men performed. The monthly stipend was not adequate for single men; for those who were married with children, it was grossly inadequate and unfair.

In the summer of 1943, I volunteered for another guinea pig experiment, this one in the main camp under the Harvard Fatigue Laboratory. The doctors and dietitians from the laboratory wished to monitor the effects upon working men of three different diets: a protein-rich diet, a protein-starved diet, and a diet totally lacking in Vitamin C. I became a participant in the Vitamin C experiment, with everything going in and out of my body in weight and quantity strictly recorded, and with frequent physical examinations and stress tests.

The final weeks of my first year in Civilian Public Service were demoralizing, largely because of the restriction placed upon all conscripted conscientious objectors by the Stearns Amendment to an appropriation bill that included funds for the Selective Service System. Stearns, a congressman from Alabama, had heard of the plan to train COs for relief and rehabilitation work abroad, and his carefully-worded rider completely prohibited COs from serving outside of the United States. I had been one of the men selected for such training.

With the closing of Camp Campton, in part so that men could be sent to California to fight forest fires, I was transferred, in the early autumn of 1943, to a new CPS unit in central Florida. Twenty-five COs served in this unit, also administered by AFSC. Our work was under the direction of the Orange County Health Department; our principal purpose, hookworm control. This involved building privies on a mass-production basis and installing them on the properties of families who had little or no sanitary facilities.

Mass production of the one-holers was made possible by using wooden forms for fabricating the two cement components—the slab floor of the house and the “riser” that supported the seat—and a template system for the wooden sections. Only four man-days were needed to complete an entire unit, including its installation. The concrete pieces, the various prefabricated wood sections, accessories, and tools were loaded onto a flatbed truck. Privies were installed throughout Orange County, with most installations in the poorer, “colored” sections.

In the spring of 1944, I volunteered for still another guinea pig project. Incongruously, the experiment was under the office of the Surgeon General of the United States Army, and its purpose was to study atypical pneumonia. For the experiment, a large, deluxe hotel—the Holly Inn, in Pinehurst, North Carolina—was requisitioned by the Army and made into a hospital. Each of two successive experiments involved 50 conscientious objectors.

Upon arrival, I was ushered into a private room with bath. During the first few weeks the medical staff conducted examinations to determine that I had not brought any illness into my room. I spent my time studying to complete my final year of college. I could talk with other volunteers and family members on the house phone.

In the fourth week, volunteers were given throat sprays of either atypical pneumonia or a placebo. The volunteer did not know to which spray he had been subjected. However, it soon became obvious that I had been sprayed with pneumonia. I became very sick. Army doctors and nurses gave me every needed attention, but there was no medication for the type of pneumonia I had. I stayed isolated in my room 24 hours a day for the full 7 weeks of the experiment.

Following a period of convalescence at home, I traveled to a camp in northwest North Dakota, in the little village of Trenton, largely inhabited by Native Americans. The Great Northern Railroad’s “Empire Builder” had on its schedule a flag stop at Trenton. The camp, close to the banks of the Missouri River, was one of the most coveted assignments for men wishing to perform work of obvious national importance. Under the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and the Bureau of Reclamation, the overall goal of the project was to stabilize the agricultural economy in western North Dakota.

The Buford-Trenton project itself called for the irrigation of some 15,000 acres of semi-arid land. CPS men found that the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) had preceded them, and had virtually completed the main canal and the pumping station at Buford. The tasks before us included completing lateral canals and farm ditches, leveling land to allow for a proper flow of water, and constructing building units planned for the farms. To accomplish these tasks, the Bureau of Reclamation trained CPS men to operate D-8 Caterpillar tractors and LeTourneau carryalls, and to build the farmhouses and outbuildings.

From late spring until early autumn, there were two work shifts in the field, one beginning at 4:00 a.m. and a second at noon. The night watchman woke me up at 3:00 a.m. to have breakfast and be transported to the field. As the light of day appeared, I started up an auxiliary gasoline motor on my tractor, similar to cranking up a lawnmower with a pull rope. This motor, when warmed up, was then used to start the huge diesel motor. I thrilled to see my “Cat” fire up. The earth-moving machinery, attached to and pulled by the tractor, could pick up or lay down huge quantities of dirt. Measurements on surveyors’ stakes indicated how many inches of dirt to scoop up or how much to spread out. I operated the carryall by twisting around to grab two handles, one that lowered and elevated the “bucket,” and another that worked the baffle that disgorged the dirt.

Notwithstanding the national importance of the Trenton project, there was a draining of staying power and personal resources in the life of such an isolated camp. Winter winds blew through the old CCC barracks, heated only by lignite stoves. Temperatures of 25 degrees below zero were not uncommon. Summers were blisteringly hot.

As in all the camps and units, strict Selective Service regulations framed work hours, leaves, and furloughs. With the ending of the war on August 14, 1945, every man chafed for immediate discharge, but the government policy for discharging COs was the same gradual one as for men in the armed forces. Therefore, I served through most of a second winter in that barren corner of North Dakota, helping to close down camp operations as men were finally discharged or transferred to other units.

I was released from Civilian Public Service in February 1946. Free at last to join my fiancée in Philadelphia, I felt that I had stayed the course. What is now clear to me, over a half century later, is that my conscientious objection in World War II served as a prelude to a life of commitment to Quaker service and witness. Questions about war and peace were hammered out and brought into maturer form on the anvil of my experiences in Civilian Public Service.

Larry Miller

Larry Miller, a member of Doylestown (Pa.) Meeting, is a former general secretary of Friends General Conference and has served on the staff of American Friends Service Committee in various capacities over several decades.