WWII conscientious objector camp at Patapsco was first in U.S.
Sunday ceremony to commemorate 70th anniversary of service installation as observers honor tradition
By Arthur Hirsch, The
Fighting raged in Europe and Asia, and a military draft was on in the
The group that opened this country's first government-approved civilian service camp for conscientious objectors on May 15, 1941, numbered 26 men from the East Coast. They settled into long, wooden, dark-green and gray barracks with their work clothes, overcoats, linens, shaving supplies, toothpaste, books — and their religious convictions that told them war was wrong.
Soon after they arrived, one man received a letter calling the men "Hitler's little helpers" — a foretaste of greater public hostility to come after the
"That was progressive, that was cutting-edge," said Bill Galvin, the counseling coordinator for the Center on Conscience & War in
For the first time, the federal government, in conjunction with three religious organizations, established a system allowing conscientious objectors to perform alternative nonmilitary service
"It's helpful to reflect on that history today, as we are now in a period of nearly continuous war," said Titus Peachey of
He said those gathering Sunday will share a picnic lunch and hear brief remarks from historians and other speakers. Organizers will unveil a website about the Civilian Public Service program that includes a searchable database of the camps and the men who served in this attempt to accommodate anti-war vigilance in a time of war.
Army Gen. Lewis B. Hershey, who ran the Selective Service system from 1940 through 1970, once called Civilian Public Service "an experiment in democracy to find out whether our democracy is big enough to preserve minority rights in a time of national emergency."
Not much is left of the 2- to 3-acre camp in
A display at the
Peachey and Galvin said they knew of no surviving members of the Patapsco camp crews. Accounts from the time suggest that the men may have shared common convictions, but otherwise they were a motley bunch.
A 1943 edition of "Compass," a periodical produced by the Civilian Public Service program, reported that the first contingent at Patapsco included "the fundamentalist group, the aesthetes and exponents of higher culture, the camp radicals, the vegetarians …"
Among them was John "Meat" Yeager, of
Freeman's report told about Tony Carnevale, "a second-generation Italian firebrand who had joined the Jehovah's Witness sect, tap-danced, scrapped, and quoted Scripture with torrential velocity in those early days."
One study of the CPS program shows that the 12,000 men who took part belonged to more than 200 religious groups. Members of the three so-called "historic peace churches" whose representatives had negotiated the program with the government — Mennonites, Friends and Brethren — together amounted to nearly 60 percent of the total.
The religious groups decided to try to create an alternative service system partly in reaction to the experience of World War I, during which many objectors were jailed and subjected to brutal treatment.
Photographs published in The
The men worked and lived in a strip of land between the
Night and day, "munitions trains rumbled by within a few feet of the barracks," wrote Edward Orser, now an emeritus professor of American studies at the
While American anti-war sentiment stemming from the experience of the First World War was prevalent in 1940 and early 1941, the attack on
A book on the CPS program by Albert N. Keim includes accounts of a camp crew member in
Peachey said a sign in a Plymouth, N.H., barbershop, near the CPS site in the town of Campton, warned
At Patapsco, the men evidently received their share of hate mail and made a practice of posting it for all to see, as was reported in a Catonsville newspaper in June 1941. The commander of the
The men themselves were not always happy with the arrangement, as many thought they would be engaged in "work of national importance," as the 1940 Selective Service Act put it. They had ideas about war relief work in hospitals and with civilian populations, perhaps clearing battlefields — getting closer to the action without taking up arms.
When the chance came to perform physically dangerous work, many of the man literally leaped into it, serving as smoke jumpers parachuting into forest fires. Some assisted with medical and scientific research by serving as subjects. Others worked in public health.
At Patapsco, Orser said in an interview, many felt they wanted to do more to give greater meaning to their stand against war.
"Increasingly they were frustrated that the war was going on and they were essentially twiddling their thumbs," said Orser, who planned to attend the Sunday ceremony. "They really wanted to make a difference. They wanted to make a contribution
The website about the Civilian Public Service, to be discussed Sunday, can be found at civilianpublicservice.org.
Copyright © 2011, The Baltimore Sun
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs