Honoring Those Who Said No to War

Photo by: courtesy of BHLA
Conscientious objectors in the dining area of the Civilian Public Service (CPS) camp in Lagro, Ind., during World War II. A photo from the collection of the Brethren Historical Library and Archives.

The following article by Howard Royer, who recently retired from the denominational staff, was written for the newsletter of Highland Avenue Church of the Brethren in Elgin, Ill.–and may provide a model for how other congregations remember and honor conscientious objectors:

In recognition of Civilian Public Service (CPS) camps and projects launched 70 years ago, the website Civilianpublicservice.org is collecting and posting stories on each of the 152 camps and projects that operated in 34 states during World War II. The camps became home to 12,000 conscientious objectors who worked in mental hospitals, maintained state forests, fought forest fires, built roads, dams, and lodges, or subjected themselves to scientific research.

As World War II dawned, the peace churches–Brethren, Friends, and Mennonites–negotiated with the government to establish a system in which conscientious objectors could perform alternative nonmilitary service. The peace churches assumed responsibility for administering and funding the program, toward which Brethren contributed more than $1.3 million plus extensive amounts of food and clothing. The program received conscientious objectors from 200 religious groups, of whom about 1,200 were Brethren.

At the outset of the program in 1940, Highland Avenue Church of the Brethren in Elgin, Ill., granted its pastor, Clyde Forney, a six-month leave with salary to organize the CPS conservation project at Lagro, Ind. In 1942, W. Harold Row was called to direct the Church of the Brethren CPS program nationally.

The Brethren headquarters in Elgin was assigned a score of young conscripts during the war. Among them were J. Aldene Ecker, Robert Greiner, and Roy Hiteshew, all of whom remained or returned to Elgin and became long-time members of the Highland Avenue church.

Two who served in CPS and are currently part of the Highland Avenue family are Merle Brown, 94, and Russell Yohn, 88. Brown served in programs in Pennsylvania and New Jersey; Yohn in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Michigan, Oregon, and Virginia. At the end of the war both men volunteered as “sea-going cowboys,” transporting relief animals to war-torn communities in Europe.

With the peacetime conscription that followed World War II, alternative service was extended, assigning 1-W draftees to Elgin to work in the state mental hospital and church headquarters as well as in tasks throughout the US and overseas.

Gen. Lewis B. Hershey, who headed Selective Service from 1940-70, described Civilian Public Service as an experiment “to find whether our democracy is big enough to preserve minority rights in a time of national emergency.” Unpopular and disparate as the conscientious objectors were, CPS as a community signified a measure of respect for conscience and a willingness for compromise by both church and state.

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