James Griffith was born in Los Angeles in 1915. He was drafted after completing his graduate degree in social work at the University of Chicago and subsequently registered as a conscientious objector to war based on his religion. James was first assigned to a Civilian Public Service camp called Camp Glendora in Southern California. After two years, he was transferred to the Connecticut State Hospital in Middletown to work in the violent ward of their mental health division.
After completing his CPS service, James returned to Los Angeles and worked for the California State Department of Mental Hygiene for fifteen years. He then became a Social Worker for the Los Angeles Unified School District. During his years at LAUSD, James also continued to work as a part-time therapist for the State Department of Mental Hygiene.
In this interview, James describes his decision to become a conscientious objector and the effect of Pearl Harbor on public opinion. He recalls completing clerical tasks at Camp Glendora and supervising the violent ward at Connecticut State Hospital. He further explains how medical procedures and treatments, like shock therapy and insulin use, were in experimental stages in the 1940s.
Becoming a Conscientious Objector
There was a very active peace movement through the ‘30s. I’ve always been a lifelong Methodist, and in the Methodist youth program, in those days, the leadership was very strongly pro-peace and supporting the peace movements of that day. From the religious aspect, and my experiences both as a participant and in some leadership in the youth program of the Methodist Church at that time, I came to feel that, at that time, that the answer to the threats of war which were coming up would be for a stand against war; that war would not be a solution, it would only add another problem; that it would create great devastation, harm many people; and that there were other and better solutions to the international problems of that day.
And of course, in the ‘30s, this view was widely held by many people until and even after Germany invaded and started active war. Many people felt—and I was one of them—that the United States had no business in it; that the United States could do better as a peacemaker. As a religious objector, I felt that this was the stand that I should take, to say, “This is not for me.” It was not that I was unwilling to serve my country, but that I did not feel that I could in conscience serve by joining the armed forces that were focused upon the devastation that was involved.
Well, at that time, there was a variety of Forest Service projects going on. At Glendora, the Forest Service had started with the CCC Camp, a lot of experiments in how to improve the forests, what kind of species could be best used for re-forestation, what kind of species could be encouraged for chaparral development that were more fire-resistant. And some of these were, oh, you might say low-grade scientific in nature. But a lot of the work, it was just plain old work. These experimental forests needed a lot of work and attention, and this is what was done.
Using Social Work Skills in a Mental Hospital
I was interested in what I felt would be a more meaningful service, and when we were given an opportunity to volunteer to serve in mental hospitals, I felt that this would be something I could do better. After all, I had already had my master’s in social work—not that a ward attendant is social work—but I felt this would be something that would be more useful service. I applied for transfer to the mental hospital and was accepted for that. The mental hospital paid our transportation and gave us room and board and fifteen dollars a month.
DN: Why did the mental hospitals ask for attendants?
It was a lot cheaper. They had a manpower shortage. They paid low wages. A lot of their people had been drafted, and it was hard to get enough help. They had a shortage, and it cost them a lot less to pay for the COs who came and worked there than it did for their own employees. So it was a good break for them. To be fair, there was a computation of the value of the labor that was given, and that money put into a separate fund which, eventually, after the war was over, there was a resolution that this money would be given to some program that—I forget now—that the government maintained of a welfare-and-help nature for destitute people.
DN: Now, what was the name of the hospital again?
I was at the Connecticut State Hospital in Middletown, Connecticut.
DN: So, you went to this hospital, and what did they ask you to do?
Well, we were ward attendants. They didn’t give us very much training. They just said, “Here’s your keys, sign for the keys. You go into that ward down there. And watch out, that’s the violent ward.”
Experimental Shock Therapy
The first time I saw somebody getting an electric shock, I nearly passed out. But I also saw people who were hopelessly psychotic who did make remarkable recoveries. This was still in an experimental stage. The only ones they would try the electric shock on at that time were ones that they felt were hopelessly incurable, almost saying, “Well, if they don’t make it maybe it’s better off.” Those were the only candidates. But some of them did respond.
Now, electric shock is rarely used today. It still is used sometimes for some things. But like a lot of other medical things, first they use it very gingerly, they get some good results, and then they go crazy. And then they were using it on—they were electric shocking people for this or that. They would get old seniles, and try to get—and then, of course, they said, “This is not all that hot.” It has a place, but it’s no magic cure.
From CO Service to Social Work
Out of my experience, it led me into a certain area of professional service. The social service program that existed in the ‘40s, when I first started with the state mental health, and the program today is two or three worlds different. But at that time, that was where our society was at. I have always felt that my life in those professions and as a social worker with the schools, I have felt it was a rewarding life.
DN: Do you feel that this work that you did in the Civilian Public Service was work of national importance, then?
Yes, it was, because the manpower shortage was such that we were very much needed.