Civilian Public Service—An Experiment in Democracy

During WWI the only provision made for men who refused to take up arms was to place them in quartermaster and other non-combat units. Although this eased the scruples of some, many folks rejected not only killing but also the whole military structure. Traditional peace church adherents such as the Mennonites, Brethren and Quakers felt that any assistance in the war effort would violate their faith.


Wayne Yoder of Fresno remembers his father’s stories from that time. In 1917, John J. Yoder, a 25-year old Amish man, was taken off his farm in Geauga County for placement at Camp Meade in Maryland. The military felt no sympathy for “conchies,” (conscientious objectors) whom they sent to camps as a means to coerce them into service. Disciplinary tactics included shortened rations, solitary confinement, physical abuse and many court-martials. Wayne’s father recalled being at Camp Meade with a Quaker and a Methodist. They did various jobs around the camp but refused to wear a uniform so were severely caned. John Yoder’s injuries from the caning caused him pain in his hip for the rest of his life. These men were also put in sweatboxes, small boxes that were placed outside in the heat of the day. A man had to scrunch up inside and stay in it until he passed out. John was punished this way more than once. He remained at the camp for six months before being sent to a farm to produce food that was needed for the war effort.

Because of stories like Yoder’s, a number of WWII military advisors sought a different process to accommodate conscientious objectors (COs). Punishing them with imprisonment and beatings did not change the COs’ position. General Lewis Hershey was instrumental in creating the new Selective Training and Service Act, signed by President Roosevelt in 1940, that allowed for conscientious objectors to be assigned to noncombatant service or to “work of national importance” under civilian direction. One year later, the Civilian Public Service was established, creating a unique church-state partnership. A board staffed by members of historic peace churches (Church of the Brethren, Mennonite, Quaker) administered it over its seven-year duration. A diversity of people & traditions were represented in the camps. Over 200 religious groups were involved and 400 men claimed no religious identity at all.

The first Civilian Public Service camp opened on May 15, 1941. When it ended six years later, 12,000 CPS men had logged over 8 million man-days of work for their country. They received no compensation for their service, even though German prisoners of war received 80 cents a day for their labor. When the Civilian Public Service (CPS) was being formed, military advisors knew better than to include a provision for payment for work. Conscientious objects were scorned for their religious and moral stance that killing is wrong. For President Roosevelt and most Americans, COs were disloyal citizens who deserved punishment.

General Lewis Hershey, who served as the Director of Selective Service for 29 years, was a proponent of the Civilian Public Service because it solved the conscientious objector problem with the least amount of trouble. He had a reputation as an adept negotiator, particularly when dealing with “the demands of over-heated wartime patriots… and the stubborn resistance of conscientious objectors.” After the war, the draft continued and some COs were sent to Europe and Greece to rebuild cities as alternative service. While Wayne Yoder was working in Vienna from 1959-1961, General Hershey visited his work site. Hershey told the men that they were America’s best ambassadors abroad. Wayne’s group helped with refugee resettlement and rebuilt a Lutheran school that had been demolished during the war. (Wayne visited the school in 2004. It had 600 children enrolled.) The German government was so impressed with the COs who were building houses in Germany that they adopted the option of alternative service in their draft legislation.

General Hershey called the Civilian Public Service an “experiment in democracy to find out whether our democracy is big enough to preserve minority rights in a time of national emergency.” As national and international politics and conflicts continue to threaten issues of justice and freedom, this challenge stays constant.

To learn more about WWII and the Civilian Public Service, visit the Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum during its special exhibit, Produce for Victory. (Also, The CPS Story: An illustrated History of Civilian Public Service by Albert N. Keim was a key source for the information in this article.) My next column will deal with Coshocton’s CPS camp at the Soil Conservation Station.


Part 2:

Civilian Public Service in Coshocton County

Of 34,506,923 men who registered for the draft during WWII, only 72,354 applied for conscientious objector status. Of those, 25,000 accepted non-combatant service in the army; that is, they were soldiers who agreed to work in the Medical Corps or in any military work that did not involve actual combat. Another 27,000 failed the basic physical health examination. A total of 6,086 were imprisoned for their refusal to participate in any form of service whatsoever. 12,000 conscientious objectors (COs) chose to engage in “work of national importance” under civilian direction, the Civilian Public Service program.

Like the men in the service, a CPS worker was not given a choice of location or job. He was accountable to the Director of Selective Service 24 hours/day, in camp and out. The 152 units worked on a variety of projects: conservation and forestry camps, hospitals and training schools, university labs, agricultural experiment stations and farms, and as government survey crews. They built contour strips on farms, served as guinea pigs for medical and scientific research, built sanitary facilities for hookworm-ridden communities and cared for the mentally ill and juvenile delinquents.

In January 1942, the Coshocton County Commissioners voted against setting up a Civilian Public Service (CPS) camp in its soon to be discontinued Soil Conservation Station located near Fresno. Like many Civilian Conservation Corps camps around the country, it would no longer be run unless a CPS camp could be placed there to provide labor.

After a group of Coshocton County farm and municipal leaders rallied to support a CPS camp, the commissioners reversed their decision. As the head of the station, W.D. Ellison had swayed their vote by making three points: 1) the Soil Conservation Station urgently needed the labor force; 2) a CPS camp would bring money into the county; and 3) Having a CPS camp in the county would not reflect poorly on Coshocton County since Congress had provided for conscientious objectors to have an alternative way to serve.

Coshocton’s soil conservation experiments were some of the most sophisticated CPS projects. Researchers studied soil samples from all over the state of Ohio to ascertain the relationships between soil type, humidity and plants. Its professional biologists, mathematicians and researchers generated a comprehensive study of plant life in Ohio and designed technical equipment for use in experiments.

According to Albert N. Keim’s book, The CPS Story, Coshocton was one of the camps that practiced interesting religious experiments as well.

At the Coshocton camp, seven men engaged in a routine of meditation which led to “A Way of Life” commitment—through “active desire, expectant receptivity and resolute action one’s life may be advanced toward that greatest of all goals: making the most of one’s potentialities as a son of God.” Another story about our local CPS camp surfaced in the book, Quakers Are Funny! By Chuck Fager.

One World War II Quaker conscientious objector had been a professional wrestler. When he and some other inmates of the Coshocton CPS camp in Ohio made a trip into town, they were hassled about their pacifism by some local youths, who insisted that only force could change the Germans’ views.

In response, the ex-wrestler took off his coat, challenged one of the local boys to a match, and promptly threw the townie across the room. He then asked the youth, “Now do you believe that force won’t change people’s views?”

“Heck, no!” the local boy hollered back.

“That’s exactly my point,” said the Quaker, who put on his coat and left.

Although the Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum’s Produce for Victory exhibit doesn’t have the live footage of this tussle, which perhaps took place on Main Street some hot summer evening, it does show photos of the Coshocton CPS unit working, eating and singing hymns. Produce for Victory will be on display through September 18th from noon to 5:00 P.M. daily.

Johnson Humrickhouse Museum
300 N. Whitewoman Street
Coshocton, OH 43812
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