"Work of National Importance"

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 it meant placing themselves in dangerous, life-threatening situations. Working in a violent mental health ward, volunteering for a semi-starvation experiment, and facing retaliation from the KKK for painting schoolhouses in a black neighborhood wasn’t seen as heroic as fighting fascism on the battlefields of Europe, but it required equal measures of courage and conviction. 

Wasted Talent?—James Dyer

I know that some people walked out of camp.

DN: Why?

Because they felt it was not using their talents. I mean, these are people who could’ve been used in many ways. They were college professors; they were ministerial students who could’ve been doing some good. I’m not talking about propagandizing in terms of peace, but using their talent. And the less they knew about them, the better off the Selective Service felt.

This is reflected, probably—when the program first started—why COs were to be placed anyplace. There was a shipload of them going to—I don’t recall now; this is very dim in my mind—but they were going to serve overseas. I think some of them were going to China. And the Congress passed a bill saying that the COs could not serve outside of the territorial United States. So, they turned around the ship and brought them back. Well, one of those who was on board that ship became so disgusted with the whole thing that he changed his CO status and became an Army lieutenant.

Civilian Public Service and “Made Work”—Malcolm Nichols

Now, if I had to do it over again, I don’t know whether I would’ve.

DN: Why?

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.

Using Social Work Skills in a Mental Hospital—James Griffith

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.”

The Feeling of Starvation—Robert McCullagh

Well, in starvation, I guess there was the awareness that—well, you knew you were losing weight, ‘cause you had to weigh every day on scales. You did not have as much energy. Apparently, we noticed the cold more, although fortunately we were starving in the summer.

And you didn’t concentrate as much. I recall that they had us working; they wanted us to work and do different things. And I worked in the lab as a statistician. I finally got to the point that I told them I said, “I have absolutely no confidence in what I’m doing. I don’t know whether these figures are right or not. If you want to take them, okay!” And that really was not like me, but it just was at the point where I had just lost confidence in that I was concentrating on what I was doing.

Other individuals would express it in different ways. Some individuals collected cookbooks. They got obsessed with food. They couldn’t eat it, so they would read about it. 

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.