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The Pacifists

The service and the struggle of Western Montana’s conscientious WWII objectors

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Before the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles take the field in Jacksonville for Super Bowl XXXIX this Sunday, millions of Americans and others around the world will watch a pregame tribute to America’s World War II veterans, commemorating the veterans’ service on the 60th anniversary of the end of “the good war.” Yet there’s another aging group of citizens who served their country during World War II who aren’t likely to be recognized Sunday: conscientious objectors.

And despite the fact that there is no draft, new conscientious objectors, or COs, continue to crop up today. The Pentagon reports that more than 5,000 troops have deserted the military forces in Iraq. Some have declared themselves conscientious objectors despite originally signing up for military service. One such soldier, Georgia’s Sgt. Kevin Benderman, told the Associated Press that “some people may be born a conscientious objector, but sometimes people realize through certain events in their lives that the path they’re on is the wrong one.”

It was 64 years ago this week, on Feb. 6, 1941, that the U.S. first made concessions to Americans who felt a moral obligation to abstain from war. At that time, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order creating the Civilian Public Service (CPS) program as a way for conscientious objectors to serve their nation without directly furthering the war effort during World War II, America’s most popular war, at least in hindsight. This acknowledgement of principled pacifism was a vastly different stance from that officially held during World War I, when conscientious objectors were either beaten, imprisoned, forced to fight, or some combination of the three. By the time World War II started, Montana hosted three conscientious objector camps: An eastern camp in Terry and two western camps, one in Missoula/Seeley Lake and another in West Glacier.

America had just been attacked at Pearl Harbor. Hitler was advancing in Europe. The forces of “good and evil” seemed more clearly defined than in any American war since. Yet, of the 35 million men registered with the Selective Service, 72,354 applied for conscientious objector status. Some failed their physicals, some accepted noncombat roles, and some went to prison to make a statement for peace. Approximately 12,000 men eventually entered the CPS program, many of them adamantly insisting that their faith demanded they take the Fifth Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” literally.

Montana Historical Society Research Historian Dave Walter, author of Montana Campfire Tales and Speaking Ill of the Dead: Jerks in Montana History, among other books, has been studying Montana’s CPS camps extensively since 1995 and plans to publish a book on the subject within three years. After more than a decade of oral history interviews and poring over historical records, Walter agreed to share some of his research with the Independent, as well as some of the conclusions that he has drawn.

“It was a tremendously unpopular stand that they took,” Walter says of WWII’s conscientious objectors. “There was a lot of ground-swell support for COs during the Vietnam War. There was nothing like that during World War II. Those guys were really out there by themselves in taking that stand.”

Walter cites General Lewis B. Hershey, director of the Selective Service in 1941, who deemed conscientious objector camps “an experiment in democracy to find out whether our democracy is big enough to preserve minority rights in a time of national emergency.”

But to the young men of Montana’s camps, CPS was a place to germinate, to learn among a more diverse community, to test one’s faith and courage. It was a life-changing experience for many, so much so that, while World War II and the CPS camps are now six decades old, some of the camp men remember it as if it was yesterday.

Looking back

“They call me Doc,” says white-haired Dr. David Kauffman, sitting at his dining room table in loafers and a green work shirt, its pockets filled with pens and a case for his glasses. “There are people here in Whitefish who don’t know me by any other name.”

Kauffman is a retired general practitioner; he delivered babies and performed surgery on Whitefish house calls for 30 years starting in 1959, but to the U.S. Army in April of 1944, he was simply “4E:” a conscientious objector. Kauffman is Mennonite, as were many in Montana’s CPS camps. Walter says that the majority of WWII COs were members of one of what he calls the historic peace churches: the Mennonites, the Brethren, the Quakers, the Amish and the Hutterites, though there were also scattered men from other religions, and even a few unaffiliated COs. The peace churches split responsibility for the CPS camps, but the Mennonite Central Committee oversaw all three in Montana,.

“The government did not feed us,” Kauffman says as a little wooden bird announces itself from his dining room cuckoo clock. “When I went to camp, I think the [Mennonite Central Committee] gave me $5 a month for incidentals.

“One thing my father taught me was that you give a day’s work for a day’s pay. Of course, there was really no day’s pay, but you still give a day’s work,” Kauffman says.

Though he hadn’t been exposed to Quakers or Brethren prior to being shipped off to CPS camps, Kauffman says that, “What we had in common was an objection to war, because war has never settled anything. I mean, has it or hasn’t it?”

He waits, tilting his head to the side as if he’s thinking.

“No, net yet.”

Growing up in the Flathead among Creston’s Mennonite community, Kauffman labored alongside his brothers in his father’s saw mill. He watched as other local boys were shipped off to World War II and occasionally felt as though the community’s eyes were on him.

“I think the community wondered a bit about these boys who didn’t have to go to war when their boys were going to war,” Kauffman says. “There was some animosity toward conscientious objectors. Our saw mill was burned down.”

Kauffman can’t say for sure whether the burning of the family mill had anything to do with the conscientious objector stance he shared with his brothers during the war.

“It’s tough to say. Two of my brothers slept in a cabin there and there was nothing going on when they went to sleep. When they woke up, the mill was on fire. This is a suspicion that a lot of people had. A lot of people at the time said, ‘Hey, that was no accident,’ but we never pursued anything like that. That wasn’t my father’s way of doing things.”

Upon getting drafted, Kauffman was bused to a CPS camp in Idaho to supply Forest Service lookouts.

While the work was satisfying, some objectors questioned whether it was truly “work of national importance,” the benchmark CPS men were supposed to meet in order to remain on the sidelines of war. In 1943, Kauffman heard of a new camp, number 103, opening in Missoula, which would employ conscientious objectors as smokejumpers, dropping them from planes into the forest below to fight fires.

“By ’43, the labor pool was so decimated by the draft” that the Forest Service was on the verge of canceling the smokejumper program entirely, Kauffman says. “And there was a Quaker boy who wrote to the Forest Service in Missoula and said, ‘How about giving conscientious objectors a chance to become smokejumpers?’” That Quaker boy is retired Polson resident Phil Stanley, a former KGVO radio announcer in Missoula and owner of Stanley Color Lab, now Yellowstone Photo on Front Street in Missoula.

From a plush picture window-side recliner inside his modest Flathead Lake cottage, Stanley, dressed in a grandfatherly sweater-vest and thick gold-rimmed glasses, describes his role in initiating the Missoula/Seeley Lake CPS smokejumper program.

“I had written to the guy in charge of fire control in the Region I offices [of the Forest Service],” he says, his voice thick with the baritone gravel of a one-time radio announcer as he talks with the Independent during his wife’s bridge day. “The Forest Service was very interested because all of their men had been drafted. So they thought it was a great idea. We could supply them with a couple hundred eager volunteers. I just pushed a big rock that starting rolling downhill. That’s essentially all I did,” Stanley says, forsaking some of the credit Kauffman says he deserves.

Conscientious objectors served the Forest Service during three Region I fire seasons: 57 fires in ’43, 131 in ’44 and 269 in the blazing summer of ’45. Earl Cooley oversaw Forest Service smokejumper operations at the time. Cooley was one of two smokejumpers on the very first Forest Service fire jump July 12, 1940, and though he’s now an elderly man with hearing difficulties, he has maintained some of the vitality of a former smokejumper, as likely to use his cane as a pointing stick as he is to rely on it for support. With a broad smile and eyes beaming below his black baseball cap, Cooley reminisces about hearing the news that he would be sent conscientious objectors to fight fires.

“I thought I’d better get out of there,” Cooley says. “But the CPS’rs were the best crew I ever had on a fire. I was really surprised. They were better men than I had thought.”

“Selective Service said we had to do ‘work of national importance,’” Stanley says. “It was a common joke among the campers [at other camps] to put a Southern accent on that. It was ‘work of national impotence.’ And that was pretty true. One project I had in California was clearing Forest Service trails. Well whoopee! That’s not a substitute for war.”

Smokejumping provided a sufficient substitute for Stanley, Kauffman and others like them, and it had a further advantage over what Stanley considered “busy work.”

“It also proved that we weren’t afraid to die,” he says. “That made us feel a lot more worthwhile and valuable.”

An unpopular decision

At 77, Perry Schrock is one of the youngest CPS men still alive. Now an Oregon resident, Schrock was sent to a CPS camp in West Glacier—Belton Camp 55—in 1945 and has organized reunions for other men sent to the Glacier work camp.

While Schrock knew he wouldn’t fight, it wasn’t an easy choice.

“During the war, we were around neighbors who had sons go off and it was a sad time,” he says. “We just kind of kept to ourselves. We didn’t do a lot of things with our neighbors at that time. I never hated that but I was uncomfortable, especially with people who had a son killed in the war when I wasn’t going.”

It’s a sentiment that Phil Stanley seems to understand.

“When the draft came up and I knew I was going to be drafted, I had doubts. It was a tough time in my life,” he says. “I was 19 going on 20, and it was a pivotal moment.”

Adding complications to an already difficult decision was pressure from the American mainstream, most of which translated CO as “coward.”

“They had a lot of venom and anger pent up whenever they found out who we were, and they didn’t mind expressing it in public,” Stanley says. “You just had to harden yourself to it, I guess.”

Kauffman recalls riding to Montana on a train car full of conscientious objectors, connected to another train car brimming with soldiers.

“When I went to the bathroom there were all these guys in the room there in uniform and they wondered, ‘Why aren’t you in uniform?’ And so I told them the simplest way I could. I told them that I just don’t believe in killing people.”

Kauffman says the discussion lasted several hours but that he never felt any real animosity from them, except maybe “one or two that were kind of belligerent.”

“I just felt that I was doing the right thing,” Kauffman says. “I respected the Army boys. I didn’t judge them. So their philosophy of life was a little different than mine. We each have to answer to the Good Lord.”

Work of national importance

On a foggy Thursday, Jan. 29, Dave Walter speaks before a crowd of 30 in the warm wooden hay loft of the Seeley Lake Historical Museum and Visitor’s Center, weaving the tale of the men who wouldn’t fight, and what they did for Montana instead, to an aging audience. Indeed, even if they were frowned upon by a segment of the American populace, there’s no denying that Montana’s CPS camps got things accomplished. Camp 64 in Terry finished the Buffalo Rapids irrigation project, a New Deal soil conservation initiative which, Walter notes, effectively “put irrigation into what amounted to desert,” thereby allowing farmers to relocate to Terry after the war.

The West Glacier camp, Belton 55, which opened Sept. 7, 1942, built the Heaven’s Peak fire lookout from scratch and also erected a mammoth water tank reservoir that Glacier National Park still uses today.

The Missoula/ Seeley Lake camp was also created in the fall of 1942, and because the smokejumper program had started only a few years prior, the COs who jumped are generally credited with keeping the program from folding completely when the Forest Service still wasn’t entirely sure if smokejumping was a worthwhile pursuit. The men from Camp 103 proved it was by containing fires and saving the Forest Service $350,000 in salaries in the process, Walter says.

While smokejumping was the highest profile CO project (Kauffman says the jumpers considered themselves “like the Marine Corps of the conscientious objectors”), Walter argues that the less dangerous day-to-day work was important as well.

“They built roads, fought forest fires, constructed dams, planted trees, built farms and served as guinea pigs for medical and scientific research [in starvation experiments],” he tells his Seeley Lake audience.

In short, they kept the home fires burning. Their labor helped build and sustain the U.S. infrastructure during the war.

Even after the war, many of the CPS men showed a continuing commitment to public service. Perry Schrock went to work in a veteran’s hospital in Roseburg, Ore., after his stint in West Glacier. CPS men are often credited with bringing the appalling conditions of the nation’s mental hospitals and veterans’ hospitals to the American public’s attention in the years following World War II.

“CPS revolutionized the hospitals,” Schrock says. “It wasn’t always pleasant work and not everybody could do that work, but it was for guys who were very much in need, and a lot of them were just left sittin’ there. They could depend on the CPS guys.”

The majority of the men in the CPS camps went about their work with little complaint and less fanfare, according to records assembled during over a decade’s research by Walter.

“One of the things the government was afraid of was, ‘What if we get troublemakers in these camps? Here we are trying to fight a war on two fronts, we’re spread as thin as we can possibly be and we’ve got troublemaking CPS’rs in our camps making a lot of anti-war noise?’ That’s bad for public relations,” Walter says. “So the idea was to find old New Deal [Civilian Conservation Corps] camps that were relatively isolated,” which helps to explain how Montana wound up hosting three camps.

Yet, while the CPS system did have its rebels—mostly artists and writers sent to a “troublemakers camp” in Oregon—Walter says, “It turns out of course that most of these guys were pretty quiet. They weren’t rabble rousers. They were religiously committed peace advocates.”

As he finishes up his hay loft history, Walter opens the floor to questions. A local woman in a pink vest, Addrien Marx, decides to make a statement instead, and in doing so, she builds a neat conclusion on the foundation Walter’s talk had been building.

“It wasn’t until recently that we’ve seen these men as heroes,” she says. “At the time, they were yellow-bellies. They were bad people and we didn’t want to have anything to do with them. That’s what’s rather tragic.”

Still, for men like Schrock, Kauffman and Stanley, CPS was never about receiving credit or praise, nor was it about assigning blame for their situation.

“They never told a story on anybody,” Walter says. “No one was ever a villain. They could find reasons for peoples’ actions when I would have just blamed them.”

“It’s just something you had to do,” Kauffman says. “You were drafted; that’s where the government wanted you. So you go and make the most of what you got. I kind of welcomed it, actually,” he says. “It sounds kind of crude, but it gave me a chance to break away from some of the family ties. There’s nothing wrong with [family ties]. It’s just that I’m a very independent sort of person.”

New horizons

Most of the men in CPS camps came from isolated religious communities, and while they shared upbringings that prized hard work, being transplanted among men with different religions and points of view was a new experience, particularly in the Missoula/Seeley Lake camp, which was roughly one-third Mennonite, one-third Brethren and one-third Quaker.

Lillian Wenger was married to Roy Wenger, the Mennonite director of the Missoula camp, prior to his passing two months ago. Roy went on to teach at Kent State after the war, serving as an informal conscientious objector counselor, and he was primarily responsible for starting the university’s Center for Applied Conflict Management, a direct response to the killing of four Vietnam War protesters by the Ohio National Guard on May 4, 1970. Lillian and Roy often spoke of his time as camp director, and Lillian says her husband was pleased with the way men from strict religious communities learned to coexist.

“He thought it would be very hard to coordinate a camp with these men who were from all different groups,” Lillian says, “but as it turned out, he said that while these men were independent thinkers, they worked hard together to accomplish what they were asked to do.”

It’s an anecdote familiar to Walter.

“A recurring theme in my oral history interviews was guys saying, ‘One of the greatest benefits of the camp was that the population was so diverse that I had to learn to get along with other people,’” he says.

The impact of new blood on Doc Kauffman was dramatic. Kauffman had never gone to high school (other than “in the front door and right out the back”), but somehow managed the second highest score out of a group of 150 on an entrance exam to Eastern Mennonite College. When the dean asked how he’d done it without a high school education, Kauffman replied, “Well, I’ve hob-nobbed with people with a lot of education in CPS, so a lot of it probably rubbed off.”

The exposure to different viewpoints made an impression on Stanley as well.

“We had discussions every night about religion and politics,” he says. “It was the greatest growing up and maturing process in your life to be involved in discussions like that. You could define your beliefs pretty succinctly after a couple of years of those discussions.”

Kauffman, Stanley and Schrock all agree that what left the deepest impression on them was not the imposition of the U.S. government’s demand that they leave their families as young men, but the friendship and camaraderie that flourished throughout their CO experience. It’s that friendship that has kept them going to biennial reunions at or near their original CPS camps in much the same way a combat unit might. That fraternal bond makes perfect sense to Helena-based conscientious objector counselor Wayne Yankoff, himself a CO during the Vietnam War.

“Every young man wants to be involved in some noble endeavor with his peers,” Yankoff says. “I think that’s why we’re so enamored with the tale of Arthur and the knights of the round table.”

Yankoff became a firefighter after his objection to the Vietnam War, in part due to economic necessity and in part to prove to himself that his objection was about more than just fear of death. Yankoff gets a bit heated when he hears—as he says he all too often does—Americans defining “serving one’s country” in a narrowly focused military sense.

“Conscientious objectors have a commitment to this country that goes unrecognized because the idea is that we didn’t ‘serve,’” Yankoff says. “Well I call ‘bullshit’ to that because if you look at people, very few of them have not served their fellow man in some way, and served them ardently. The adamancy of most men who choose to be conscientious objectors never falters away from wanting to do something noble for this country.”

The (almost) forgotten

It’s not just the Super Bowl pregame show that will overlook the men of the CPS camps during its lead-in to America’s most-watched television event. Not many children learn about conscientious objectors to World War II in their history classes; it’s certainly not the easiest subject to sculpt into a lesson plan. Protesters of military action in Vietnam and now Iraq have found footing for their anti-war arguments in the fact that the reasons for going to war were never clearly defined or justified. But in World War II, a vast majority of the American public could subscribe to the basic “good vs. evil” paradigm that George W. Bush has not yet been able to sell to a majority of the U.S. population (A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll from Jan. 14-16 found 52 percent of Americans believe sending troops to Iraq was a mistake).

In light of their war’s popularity, the men of Montana’s CPS camps were immensely unpopular. Still, with little recognition for their work or understanding of their position, most of the CPS men continue to stick to their guns—or lack thereof—today.

“Overwhelmingly, in the interviews I’ve done, the men have said, ‘I’m proud of what I did and this is an important thing for me,’” Dave Walter says. “But I’ve also run into the other side of that. I’ve run into one guy who said, ‘This was all a waste of time. I made the wrong choices. I should have carried a gun and gone into the Army.’ But he was easily the exception.”

There are questions that will always linger for objectors to “the good war,” and one in particular that Phil Stanley admits “bothers [him] deeply:” How does a pacifist reply when presented with the possibility that had the U.S. not fought in World War II, Hitler might have succeeded in continental or global domination, not to mention wiping the entire Jewish population off the planet?

It’s a question without an answer, and one to which Stanley freely admits he has no response.

In the end, the U.S. government eventually convinced Stanley to drop bombs—water bombs, an integral part of aerial firefighting. Stanley stayed on with the Forest Service in ’47 to fight fires. After selling off his photo business and moving from Missoula to Polson, Stanley, now 85, says that unanswerable question is coming back for another round as the U.S. finds itself in yet another war.

“A guy I spoke with recently said that if we didn’t go to Iraq with our military forces, Saddam Hussein would be sitting in the middle of the street in Iraq right now,” he says. “How do you answer that? I don’t know. I really have no answer except to shrug it off and walk away.”

But then, a moment later, he ventures an answer, at least in part, after all: “Of course, if everybody were a pacifist…” he says, his gravelly voice not finishing the sentence—not needing to—as he shifts ever so slightly in his recliner, his eyes swiveling toward the picture window and the majesty of Flathead Lake on the horizon.

mike@missoulanews.com

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