Service and Sacrifice of Conscientious Objectors to World War II
World War II has been called the “good war,” one pitting the Allies—champions of freedom, peace, and democracy—against the fascist and evil Axis powers. Popular images of the war—Allied troops storming the beaches of Normandy, Uncle Sam imploring American men to join the fight, Rosie the Riveter rolling up her sleeves—celebrate wartime service as brave, patriotic, and heroic. But what about those whose religious convictions called them to reject war and violence as solutions to the world’s problems? These individuals were conscientious objectors, whose pacifist beliefs led them to oppose conscription and perform alternate work in non-combative roles or through civil service projects during the war.
Opting to abstain from military service was not a popular opinion, and conscientious objectors frequently faced disapproval from both their families and the public who questioned why they weren’t in uniform. Students will listen to the experiences of five of these conscientious objectors, who explain their reasons for serving, the kinds of work they performed, and the consequences of opposing conscription. Through service and sacrifice in a number of roles—including work for the Forest Service, volunteering for semi-starvation experiments, or caring for patients on a mental health ward—conscientious objectors made unique and noteworthy contributions to the World War II Homefront.
The four narrators below were all practicing Methodists, a Protestant denomination whose church leadership in the 1940’s strongly supported a pro-peace agenda and used annual National Methodist Youth Conferences across the country to organize and vocally campaign against a war they believed would create more problems than it would solve. Three men each describe the […]
The first step to becoming a conscientious objector was registering with the local draft board as a “4-E.” This designation was difficult to obtain and easily denied, requiring an additional appeals process through the Department of Justice. Securing the 4-E was only half of the battle. Especially after the attack on Pearl Harbor, conscientious objection […]
For James Dyer and Malcolm Nichols, forestry labor at Civilian Public Service camps—service typical for many conscientious objectors—was merely “made work” that kept men from utilizing their varied talents. James Griffith, Robert McCullagh, and Lawrence Miller deliberately sought work that reflected their interests and desire to serve their county in a meaningful capacity, even if […]
Conscientious objectors occupied a precarious position during the wartime years, tasked with carving out a space to engage in public service work that benefited their country without contributing to the violence of war they believed was inimical to solving the world’s problems. At a time when service in the armed forces was seen as the […]
A Vision of Christ—James Dyer
My age brought me into the early ‘30s as a person out of work during the Depression. And I thought quite a bit about going into the Marines. A friend of mine with whom I played basketball was going into the Marines. But I never got around to signing up or anything like that.
Then, in November of 1935, I went to a conference of Methodist youth, with the western region of the Methodist church—that was the old Methodist Episcopal church at Fresno. At that time, I had been leading singing in a lot of groups, so I was leading singing up there, and one of the songs that we sang was “I Ain’t Gonna Study War No More.”
Then, on the Sunday while we marched down to the park, Dr. Roy L. Smith was the preacher, and he certainly challenged us as to the meaning of war and what it does to people. Also, it was very impressive, during this sermon of his, there was an overflight of B-17s—I think it was anyway, it was Army airplanes—flew over the park. In fact, he had to stop the sermon because of the noise. I didn’t think much about it. There was a group of us that had gone up together from Whittier to Fresno, and my feeling was that, “Okay, so what? That’s an idea.”
But coming back south of Bakersfield—now, this may seem very strange, and it’s still strange to me. I have no explanation for it; I do not believe that it was a mirage. But sitting in the front seat of the car, of Cliff Smith’s car, I said to the fellas, “I’ve come to the decision that I must be a CO.” And I didn’t say why, but as we were going up the grade on old [Route] 99 up towards the Grapevine, on top of Mount Pinos, I saw a vision of the head of Christ. Nobody else saw it. But this made an impression on me, and led to my making that statement to those other five fellas in the car with us.
Trouble with the Draft Board—Robert McCullagh
The board really did not want to classify me as a conscientious objector, and they didn’t. They told me that I wouldn’t be able to find a Methodist minister who would support me in my position. I was somewhat surprised at that statement because I thought that the pastor of the church would. And I was quite sure that I could have gotten at least a hundred ministers in the conference who knew me when I was president of the Conference Youth Organization, who would have at least said a good word for me.
But the local board did turn me down, and I had to appeal it. I went through an appeal process, ultimately going before, I think it was a Department of Justice hearing agent. And I had about an hour, hour-and-a-half conversation with him, and subsequently he apparently recommended that I be granted the 4-E classification.
Racial Tensions in Orlando—Lawrence Miller
Some of the men were also working on helping paint some of the schoolhouses in the black districts. Seemingly the community was willing to tolerate conscientious objectors, but they were not willing to tolerate men who saw African Americans as equals. And we got into some real trouble, and there were Ku Klux Klan threats. It was especially hard on a black school principal, who with his wife came to have a meal with us, which these days seems like such an innocuous thing to have done, but was a great crime at that time. I honestly don’t know whether he lost his job, but if he didn’t, he was severely reprimanded.
Honestly, I was worried about the Ku Klux Klan coming down and just beating us up. There would have been nothing to prevent them. And this then became something of a motivation for me and some of the other men to volunteer for still another guinea pig experiment.
“Live for My Country”—Malcolm Nichols
DN: So, did people do anything to show that they were unhappy that you were a conscientious objector? I mean, some of the stories say that some people spit and, you know, were really rude.
Well, they never said nothing too much about me. Only this one time I was washing windows, and this lady asked me when I was going to get drafted. She didn’t realize I’d been hard of hearing all my life, see. But I was foreman in this company, a window washing company, and she asked me, “When are you gonna go?”
And I said, “Well, I haven’t been called.” “But if you go, where will you go?” And I said, “Civilian Public Service.” She didn’t even know what that meant. And when I explained to her, “It’s for conscientious objectors to war.” “Oh, you won’t fight for your country?” I said, “I’m trying to live for my country.”