During World War II, 43,000 young men chose not to serve in the military due to religious reasons, identifying themselves as conscientious objectors (COs).
These COs, mainly from traditional “Peace Churches” like the Quakers, Brethren, and Mennonites, faced limited options: joining the armed forces in non-combat roles, participating in the Civilian Public Service (CPS) program, or facing imprisonment.
About 6,000 COs took most extreme of these three option. They refused to cooperate with Selective Service and went to jail instead of registering for the Draft. Around 25,000 more enlisted or were drafted and served in non-combat positions, primarily as medics, chaplains, or in other support roles. Desmond Doss, an army medic and Medal of Honor recipient, became one of the most famous COs.
The Civilian Public Service program, established under the 1940 Selective Service and Training Act, provided alternative “work of national importance” for conscientious objectors. Operated by the Peace Churches in collaboration with government agencies, around 150 CPS camps were activated across the United States and Puerto Rico from 1941 to 1947. The work performed by COs varied, ranging from forest fire prevention and trail building to dairy industry work and irrigation projects.
COs participated in scientific studies during the war, volunteering as human subjects for experiments on the effects of medicines, pesticides, and the limits of the human body. In one notable study, 36 COs were subjected to a semi-starvation diet to understand the physiological and psychological effects of near starvation. The study provided valuable insights for rehabilitating starved individuals globally.
Bob von Bargen of the Armed Forces Heritage Museum in New Jersey recently shared with us a remarkable interview the museum conducted with two Quaker COs who volunteered to be human guinea pigs for scientific studies.
During the 1940 peacetime Draft, Warren Sawyer registered and requested a 4-E classification as a conscientious objector. This classification allowed him to fulfill his service obligations in non-combatant roles. Neil Hartmann, who was already working as a teacher in Ohio, registered in 1941 and also requested CO status. However, he faced resistance from the draft board in Greene County, Ohio, who were against conscientious objectors. Neil had to appeal to the state and eventually gained 4-E status from the National Service Board for Religious Objectors.
Warren volunteered to work at the Byberry State Hospital, a mental health institution in Pennsylvania. He describes the deplorable conditions and the lack of proper care for the patients. Neil, on the other hand, was involved in various medical experiments as a CO. He volunteered to be injected with hepatitis and ingested sewage, putting his own life at risk to aid in medical research.
The interview exposes the challenges faced by conscientious objectors during World War II. While they were deemed cowards, they showed the strength of character to maintain their integrity and convictions during a time of war. Their stories serve as a reminder that patriotism can take many forms and that there are different ways to serve one’s country.
Thank you to Bob and the Armed Forces Heritage Museum for preserving, honoring, and educating the public on the diverse history of service during war and peace.