Opinion: Intrusion of dissenters

On the eve of World War II, 100 young COs joined a unique experiment

Jul 6, 2015 by

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Seventy-four years ago, I was part of a national experiment unlikely to be repeated.



On June 5, 1941, a camp for conscientious objectors to war opened at Templeton Gap on the northwest edge of Colorado Springs, Colo. The U.S. was not yet at war. Ours was the first Civilian Public Service camp west of the Mississippi. It occupied 10 Army-style barracks that had been evacuated by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The site commanded a majestic view of Pikes Peak.

On the morning of Aug. 15, 1941, 25 of us arrived by train from Kansas. Meeting us at the station was the camp director, Albert Gaeddert, a 30-year-old Mennonite pastor, fresh from seminary.

Dividing the task of administering CPS 151 camps and units were the three historic peace churches: Church of the Breth­ren, Quakers and Mennonites. A total of 12,000 drafted COs served nationwide. This compared to the 12 million drafted into the military. In addition, nearly 6,000 were imprisoned in 24 federal penitentiaries and correctional institutions for refusing any form of military service. The men in CPS received no pay; church agencies paid program costs.

Back in 1917, the U.S. entered a world war with no provision for pacifist dissenters; COs were simply segregated off in detention camps, a few threatened with lynching, some imprisoned. Two Hutterite COs died at Leavenworth, Kan., their bodies shipped home in Army uniforms. Only late in the war were farm furloughs arranged.

As a Mennonite, I knew that, in the event of war, I would not fight. Confronted by Nazi aggression, I did feel my pacifism challenged. After serious thought, I registered as a CO.

Having just finished a master’s degree, I was eager for a break from school. In a year, I thought, I could return to doctoral studies. But then came Pearl Harbor and four years of total war.

A regular guy?

Could I cut it in this unique gang of men? I wanted to be just “Bob,” not an academic.

Forty hours a week we worked, transported by truck to farms in the Fountain River Valley for pick-and-shovel crews digging dams and diversion ditches, building fences for the Soil Conservation Service. It was menial work for men accustomed to using tractors on the farm. A few planted trees and cleared trails in Pike National Forest. Our most unusual project was shingling the roof of the Pikes Peak Summit House: “the most lofty CPS project in the nation.”

After less than a month in camp, I faced a decision that threatened my hope of blending in as a regular guy: I was asked to be assistant camp director. I stalled in answering. A visiting church executive counseled, “When the church asks you to serve, let your answer be yes unless there is a good reason to say no.” A fellow camper was appointed business manager. Both of us 22-year-olds, we accepted — the first CPS conscripts to be administrators.

I was intrigued by the diversity among the 100 campers, a total that soon grew to 160. Forty-three had only finished eighth grade. Three had master’s degrees. I reported 92 Mennonites from eight groups, plus 18 from other denominations. There were three Hutterites from South Dakota, four Old Order Amish in plain dress.

We felt a bond, a camaraderie. Only a handful are now living.

A dozen men dropped out of CPS for the military. Their reasons differed: influence of girlfriend, indifferent pacifist commitment, home pressures.

Object of curiosity

Apprehensive as to our reception in Colorado Springs, we were pleased to be received hospitably. On Sunday mornings campers piled into pickup trucks to attend services in local churches, a United Brethren most popular. It was a time to escape male society into a normal world, including, especially, women. Many found girlfriends, several leading to marriage.

On the Sunday night of Pearl Harbor, a group of us were guests of a mainline Colorado Springs congregation. Speaking that evening to an audience of 200, I treaded ever so carefully, aware that on the next day our nation would be at war.

One of the first CPS camps, we drew wide interest from home communities in Kansas and beyond. Visitors came to observe this experiment in pacifist communal living. Favorable articles appeared in the Colo­rado press. Our camp paper, the Pikes Peak Peace News, quickly acquired 800 subscribers.

Central for me was the educational program I coordinated. We launched a variety of classes for our evenings, attendance voluntary: accounting, welding, livestock management, woodworking, first aid, music appreciation.

The centerpiece was the Core Course, which integrated peacemaking with the several faith traditions of campers — an attempt at ecumenical education, including biblical study, ethics of peace and war, Tolstoy, Gandhi, St. Francis of Assisi.

A tongue-lashing

The Soil Conservation staff had problems coping with our diverse assortment of COs, most with farm skills and competent with power equipment, a third with some college, men impatient with petty routines.

One day when camp director Gaeddert was absent, leaving me in charge, the men returned from work distressed that they had been shifted into publicized “war work” in sugar beet fields. I carried the men’s protest to the Soil Conservation staff. Indignant at being confronted by a 23-year-old draftee, they gave me a tongue-lashing. Fortunately, the National Service Board backed me up, and the Soil Conservation staff retreated.

When an official who hated COs was to be transferred, campers staged a farewell dinner in his honor and spoke of him appreciatively. Overcome with tears, he broke down and couldn’t speak.

Eager to do more

Reading the war news, we grew restless for work with risk, sacrifice, challenge. In 1942, opportunities began to open: public health and hookworm control in Florida, ward attendants in a mental hospital in Denver, operating bulldozers to build dams in Montana, hospital and community service in Puerto Rico, “guinea pigs” in starvation experiments, dairy testing, training for overseas relief.

Notably challenging was work in mental hospitals depleted of staff — 1,400 men in the 22 units administered by Mennonites. All this was welcomed.

In September 1943 I was in Durban, South Africa, with a team of eight en route to open relief work in China. But Congress canceled the program.

After six years of CPS, Gen. Lewis B. Hershey, director of Selective Service, concluded: “[CPS] was an experiment to find whether our democracy is big enough to preserve minority rights in a national emergency.” It was an experiment never repeated. Wars there would be, but never universal conscription.

At Templeton Gap a collection of COs from varied backgrounds formed an instant community. With its flaws, CPS was our college without tuition, grades or degrees. We were on a road less traveled, with no map, no instructions, all learners — a wartime experiment.

Robert S. Kreider, of North Newton, Kan., presented a longer version of this article on June 6 in Colorado Springs at a Pikes Peak History Symposium on “Military Matters: Defense, Development and Dissent in the Pikes Peak Region.”

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