Malcolm Nichols was born in Watsonville, California, in 1913 with a congenital hearing defect. He was raised a Methodist, and was deeply influenced by looking at pictures of war in the encyclopedia and by the works of Mahatma Gandhi. As a result, he registered as a conscientious objector to war based on his religion, but was classified as 4-F during World War II.
Malcolm was sent to a Quaker-run Civilian Public Service camp in Elkton, Oregon, to do work of national importance. He served in three camps from January 1943 to May 1946, working as a carpenter, a firefighter, a tree planter, and a road builder. He was also forced to work with explosives against his preferences.
After World War II, he worked with his father as a carpenter and also built furniture. He became locally famous as an early newspaper recycler, using the money he collected to put a neighbor’s child through college, to pay for another neighbor’s chemotherapy, to give to multiple charities, and to support himself in his later years. He lived to be ninety-five and passed away in 2009.
In this interview, Malcolm recalls working at the main Civilian Public Service camps, as well as a number of branch camps in what he describes as “made work.” He speaks about working as a carpenter “after hours” and fighting an eight-day fire at one of these “spike camps.” He also remembers interacting with individuals who vocally opposed his decision to object to the war.
Learning about Pacifism
When I was a little boy, my folks had an encyclopedia of the world. And of course, I couldn’t read a lot of it, but I got in on ‘em, and I’d see the pictures, and I’d come to these pictures showing me different wars that were going on in different parts of the world. And I wondered, “How come?”
So, I became very interested in just people who would call themselves pacifists. At that time, I had never thought of it. So, I became very interested in Mahatma Gandhi when he was working for the independence of India from Great Britain. And, as you know, he helped get rid of the British government and give India its freedom.
An Unpopular Opinion
DN: How did it feel to take a position that was so unpopular in World War II?
Well, I never thought of it that way. I just thought that everyone has to take his own opinion upon the thing in war, how he thinks about it, and what he feels about it. I’d never think about what other people said. I never made fun of people who entered to the Army.
I know when my brother came out to camp to visit me, there were some boys in CPS camp that came to me and said, “Well Malcolm, I didn’t know you had a killer in your family.” And I looked at him kinda funny and wondering—at first I couldn’t catch on to what they were talking about, see? And then I told them that my brother and I, we never argued over this issue. We each took what we felt was our responsibility.
“Live for My Country”
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.”
Fighting Forest Fires
I was on one fire, we was on for eight days and eight nights, no relief at all. When did we sleep? Well, usually in the evening time or in the early morning, they don’t have any wind. It just depends upon where you’re at. Why, we would take a lack on the firefighting, we’d take a nap maybe for an hour or half hour, fifteen minutes or something like that.
And another way we did that, we took—say we had a half a mile to patrol and check, and another guy had a half a mile. Well, this one guy would trade, would sleep while this other guy would take both of our patrols. Sometimes we’d have no smoke, we’d have everything done, we thought, “Boy that’s log’s gone,” and we’d come back and here it’s blazing again.
Civilian Public Service and “Made Work”
Now, if I had to do it over again, I don’t know whether I would’ve.
Because it was made work, a lot of it was. Because many times we didn’t have the equipment and the government, CCC guys didn’t have much left for most of it. And we had a hard time getting tools. Some of the boys went home and got their own tools. I came home and got a couple of tools. I was going to send back more, but they told me not to. It was a hammer, saw, and a few things like that.
But when it comes to working with governments, I just—I’m a skeptic. You have to go in through them.