Conversations with World War II Conscientious Objectors
In late October 1998, four WWII conscientious objectors and three of their partners visited the Yakima Valley Worship Group near Mount Rainier in Washington state for four hours of taped discussions about the impact of conscientious objection on their long lives. Conversation participants were: Chuck Ludwig and Betty Haan Ludwig, Howard Scott and Ruane Scott, Julius Jahn and Hilda Skott, and Jim Hain. The audio recording and written transcript of these discussions were produced by Peter Alexander and Bruce Skarin. The following excerpts have been edited significantly.
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My name is Jim Hain. I was drafted from St. Paul, MN, in the winter of 1942-43. I was classified as a CO, classified 4E. I was willing to give my life for my country, but I was not going to kill people. The propaganda was intense, it was supposedly a very just war, and it was a difficult decision on my part. But still I felt I couldn’t do what the military required, and so I applied for 4E classification and received it.
In 1943 I was sent to Waldport, OR to work with the Forest Service – they had a camp of probably a hundred men – to build roads and plant trees. And along in the year of ’43 they were calling for volunteers for the smoke jumper project in Missoula, MT. So I volunteered and was accepted. I had nine practice jumps, twelve fire jumps, for a total of 21 jumps all told. In the fall of ’45 the war was over, and I was released in the fall of ’46. And I carried on from there. I heard that the peace churches were sending cattle, horses, cows, and pregnant heifers to Europe to help out, so I volunteered to work as a cattleman on one of the boats. I made two trips over to Gdynia, Poland with 600 horses on each boat.
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My name is Chuck Ludwig. Jim and I both probably were classified by the same draft board in St. Paul. I was going to Macalester College at the time, and there was an organization in St. Paul-Minneapolis called the Pacifist Action Fellowship. I used to go home from Macalester College to St. Louis Park on weekends, and I happened to be home on December 7, 1941, when my aunt called and said that the Japanese had bombed Hawaii. I was so stunned by that I didn’t even tell my folks. I knew what it meant for me, that the time for my final decision had come. So I applied as a conscientious objector. And first got a 1A classification, which was just the regular army classification, so I wrote to them and told them that I didn’t care for that classification. So they classified me 1A-O, which is noncombatant objector in the Army. I wrote again and told them I didn’t care for that classification either. Fortunately for me, the president of my college happened to know some people on the draft board, and although he was gung-ho for aiding the Allies, I think he wrote a letter that helped me get my 4E. And I never did see the draft board.
But that fall of 1942, about the same time Jim went to camp, I did too. I went to Walhalla, MI, first, which was a forestry camp. My first job in camp was to clean out the old septic tank from the CCC camp that had been there. It had all dried up and was full of condoms, which was sort of interesting. We had to just slurry this stuff and pump it out into the woods. And I figured that things probably wouldn’t get any worse after that. (Laughter.)
Then we had an interesting experience there. The government liked the idea that this manpower should be used in agriculture, and they had a need for people to pick apples. They wanted us to pick apples, but the trouble was, any money we made was supposed to go to the federal government, which we felt was interested mostly in the war effort. There was a fellow by the name of Hank Dyer that was just one of these smooth talkers that could talk you into anything, and he got half of us to refuse to pick apples. And of course, we were read the riot act. They told us we’d be blacklisted, but they really didn’t do much of anything.
But then they offered me an opportunity to go out to Waldport, OR. I think the main reason they wanted us there was to fight fires in case the Japanese firebombs came over.
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Well, I’m Howard Scott. I got an initiation in this whole knowledge of conscientious objection when I was one of a group of students who visited Washington, DC, at the time of the consideration of the Burke-Wadsworth bill [the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940, enacted September 16, 1940, and the first peacetime conscription in United States history]. I’d been involved with conscientious objection before, as a student at the University of Washington. When the Burke-Wadsworth bill was passed, those of us who had to register at that time realized that we must request in written form that we were considering conscientious objection, and would like to be classified as such.
Well, I was given a low lottery number, and I was called up in August of 1941, which was even before Pearl Harbor, before war had been declared. I was sent to San Dimas, CA, near Glendora, and a number of us were assigned there to help conduct research in watershed management. Over a period of months, many of us became concerned about the fact that we had not received any remuneration for our work. The thing kind of got under our skin. A few of us began to feel like we needed to make a statement of some kind. Anyway, I was one of those who walked out of camp in protest. And then there was a succession of incidents where I was sentenced to prison, the first time for six months, the second time a little later on, for two years. One of the things that had happened from this, from the prison sentences, was some reverberations in my life later on.
After I’d been working as a teacher and a school psychologist in Pierce county for a few years, I was to be elected by the administrators there as assistant superintendent of the schools in Pierce County. Anyway that board, the board of the intermediate school district, refused to hire me. I found that what they’d gotten a hold of is the position that I’d taken in World War II. I discussed it with them and discussed it with legal support at the time, and we found that under the law there was no way that I could contest this and come out on top. That it just wasn’t a worthwhile thing to pursue. So we let it go. We didn’t continue to pursue my being the assistant superintendent of the schools in Pierce County.
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I’m Julius Jahn. Before the war I was working toward a Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota. I had a low draft number but I got a deferral until the end of 1942. I could not say that the rest of the country was wrong, but I basically knew that I personally would not participate. I just decided for myself. I was not really part of the so-called anti-war movement. Before I actually registered, I didn’t have any idea what classification I wanted, I just filled out the form. In my academic research, I had been training myself and other interviewers to answer questions correctly, to put down what the situation was. So to my surprise, when I filled out the draft form and I checked what the classification was, it was 1A-O. The professor I was working for, when he heard that I was going to register 1A-O, advised me against it saying that it would ruin my professional career if I was known to be a conscientious objector. Rather than registering as a conscientious objector, I could just register as a 1A and then sneak into some non-combat job, which he could help me do. But true to my research principles, I had to answer correctly, and I submitted it.
This was Minnesota, and I think I was the only conscientious objector the draft board there ran into. But fortunately, the clerk there was a woman who had read the instructions. The board said, “Well, what church do you belong to, what religion?” And I said, “I’m a member of the Evangelical Synod of North America.” “Is that a pacifist one?” “No.” “And your minister, is he pacifist?” “No, but he knows that I’m registering and he basically supports it. But it’s not a pacifist church.” “Well then,” they said, “We can’t give it to you.” Well, the clerk spoke up and said that according to the regulations, you just have to believe in certain principles to qualify. She said, since he answered these questions, and from his comments he answered them correctly and truthfully, then we’re obligated to give him the classification that is consistent with his filling out the form. So I didn’t have to appeal it. They just went along with the clerk’s read on it.
Because of my classification, I finally ended up assigned to a hospital in Tampa, Florida, because they didn’t know what else to do with me. I had achieved the rank of T-5, which is the equivalent of a corporal, and I was called an administrative assistant of some kind.
I worked in the medical wards, and then in psychiatric wards, and then in the mental hygiene clinic, and essentially what I did, apart from doing the basic bedpan thing and like that, I really, I really think I saved many men’s … not their lives, but their sanity. If a person wasn’t mentally ill when they got in there, the way they were treated would create mental illness. So, much of what I did was to overcome the tendencies of the military to reduce people to a state of passive acceptance or a state of mental illness.
My life was changed as a result of this in a generally favorable way because I discovered that if you’re open about your difference, then essentially you’re going to get away with it. If you conceal it, then not only yourself but others eventually will catch up on it. So being open was one thing I learned. The other thing I learned was that I’m alive. If I had gone into the army and spent three and a half years there, and if I’d been out it Alaska or some other place in a radar, I’d be dead probably. So that’s one repercussion. (General laughter.)
When I got back in the academic world I discovered that I ran into many situations which . . . For example, the research in sociology after World War II was subsidized by the military. And if I had gone into that research supported by the military, the research would have to come out in such a way that it would support what the military wanted. So I refused. I did not participate in that. I participated in research on welfare and the WPA and things like that. As a result, I decided to get out of academic sociology and do social work. So my career was in research, but in the field of social work. And the academic world of sociology, if I had stayed in there, I would look back at my life and say, “What a waste of my life.” Eventually if you live according to your conscience, it’s not so much like a sacrifice. Probably your life will be better for it. ♦