In a grassy clearing on the forested grounds of Patapsco Valley State Park in suburban Baltimore are a couple stone staircase supports that go nowhere. Men once trudged down these steps on their way to a long day’s work. These steps–what’s left of them anyway–are among the few remaining monuments to thousands of men who took a principled stand when the rest of the country was beating drums of war.
Patapsco State Park, as it was known then, was the first camp for conscientious objectors who refused military service during World War II. Congress passed a draft act ahead of the U.S.’s entry into the war allowing people who opposed induction into the armed forces to instead engage in “work of national importance.” There were 67 sites on the U.S. mainland and abroad where conscientious objectors were sent to serve their country.
Many of the 12,000 young men who chose the Civilian Public Service (instead of noncombat military service or prison) soon began grumbling, however, that their work regimen was anything but vital to the country. Early on, many dug drainage ditches, felled trees, pulled weeds, or cleared brush.
At Patapsco State Park the enrollees performed routine maintenance and fought fires. The men took up residence in an abandoned camp of the Civilian Conservation Corps, a Great Depression-era relief program that gave jobless young men room, board and a paycheck. The ruins of the stone staircase are small testament to the hundreds of men who served there during economic crisis or war.
Scenes from abandoned CCC and conscientious objector camp at Patapsco Valley State Park
Many conscientious objectors yearned for sacrifice even though they were unwilling to wear a military uniform. They were separated from their families and society, they weren’t paid for their labor (unlike military draftees), and the work they did was sometimes backbreaking and tedious. Their refusal to take up arms also carried a stigma that reached all the way home; some families and sweethearts had a tough time explaining why their son or husband refused the military when so many others were overseas fighting what many regarded as a good and necessary war. Still, conscientious objectors felt like they could do more.
As everything from farmhands to Ivy League professors, conscientious objectors wanted to utilize their range of skills. They wanted to demonstrate their patriotism, work ethic and courage. After all, they were young men, eager for adventure and camaraderie, but their steadfast nonviolence kept them from showing that on the battlefield.
Top: Civilian Public Service worker at a dairy research station near Beltsville, MD
Bottom: Civilian Public Service workers on a farm near Hagerstown, MD
Courtesy of the Mennonite Central Committee Photo Archive
Some volunteered to be smokejumpers, parachuting into remote mountain regions in the west to extinguish forest fires. Others agreed to be guinea pigs for harrowing medical experiments, allowing themselves to be starved or drinking feces-infested water (literally), all to help find cures for pressing medical problems.
For William Channel, a conscientious objector from Ohio, pulling weeds and working in the kitchen at a Civilian Public Service camp in Big Flats, New York didn’t cut it. In an interview transcription in We Have Just Begun to Not Fight; An Oral History of Conscientious Objectors in Civilian Public Service during World War II edited by Heather T. Frazer and John O’Sullivan, Channel describes his frustration: “Well, the main issue, I think, was, we weren’t doing work of national importance, that there was a danger of our being isolated in comfort with good food, we were out of the way.”
Channel applied for, and was granted, a transfer to Cheltenham School for Boys in Maryland. The facility was a home for for about 400 delinquent African American boys ages six to nineteen. The men served as counselors and performed other necessary tasks around the school.
Old buildings at Cheltenham Youth Facility
That more meaningful work had a distinct impression on Channel and fellow conscientious objectors who mentored the young men there. “So it was interesting to see there how nonviolence faded away when you were faced with 60 kids you were alone with and you had all kinds of discipline problems,” he recalled. “Corporal punishment became acceptable to a lot of people.”
Although Channel and other conscientious objectors were supposed to be working eight-hour days, their workload often went far beyond what was expected of them. “I worked from six o’clock in the morning until ten o’clock at night, seven days a week for seven weeks,” he recalled.
Today, Cheltenham School for Boys still exists, as the state-run Cheltenham Youth Facility. On the restricted grounds there is no mention, none that’s publicly accessible at any rate, of the conscientious objectors who served there during World War II. This was the fate of nearly all the camps where conscientious objectors labored. The sites transitioned into postwar roles, some repurposed, others abandoned, with scant acknowledgement of the work of national importance performed there.
Cheltenham Youth Facility today
However, the Civilian Public Service, thanks to the Internet and the hard work of the program’s veterans, is beginning to garner some recognition. Individuals’ stories and profiles of the camps are told on The Civilian Public Service Story; Living Peace in a Time of War. There it’s possible to get a sense for the depth of the commitment that conscientious objectors made during the twentieth century’s greatest crisis.
Though many might not have felt that way at the time, the Civilian Public Service had lasting positive effects on the country, especially for one pitiable segment of American society. Next week: the profound influence of Civilian Public Service on the nation’s vulnerable outcasts.