WWII conscientious objector camp at Patapsco was first in U.S.

Sunday ceremony to commemorate 70th anniversary of service installation as observers honor tradition

May 13, 2011|By Arthur Hirsch, The Baltimore Sun

Fighting raged in Europe and Asia, and a military draft was on in the United States, but the American draftees dispatched to Patapsco Valley State Park in the spring of 1941 had their own ideas about war. They would serve, but not kill.

The group that opened this country's first government-approved civilian service camp for conscientious objectors on May 15, 1941, numbered 26 men from the East Coast. They settled into long, wooden, dark-green and gray barracks with their work clothes, overcoats, linens, shaving supplies, toothpaste, books — and their religious convictions that told them war was wrong.

Soon after they arrived, one man received a letter calling the men "Hitler's little helpers" — a foretaste of greater public hostility to come after the U.S. entered World War II. Months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, however, a national pacifist experiment had begun.

"That was progressive, that was cutting-edge," said Bill Galvin, the counseling coordinator for the Center on Conscience & War in Washington. Galvin is among the organizers of a gathering scheduled near the park at Relay Town Hall on Sunday afternoon to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the opening of the first Civilian Public Service camp at what was then called Patapsco State Forest.

For the first time, the federal government, in conjunction with three religious organizations, established a system allowing conscientious objectors to perform alternative nonmilitary service: working in hospitals, maintaining state forests, fighting forest fires, serving as subjects in scientific research, or building roads, dams and park benches. The program grew to include nearly 12,000 men at 152 camps in 34 states and in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Chungking, China.

"It's helpful to reflect on that history today, as we are now in a period of nearly continuous war," said Titus Peachey of Akron, Pa., a member of the Mennonite Central Committee who helped to organize the commemoration.

He said those gathering Sunday will share a picnic lunch and hear brief remarks from historians and other speakers. Organizers will unveil a website about the Civilian Public Service program that includes a searchable database of the camps and the men who served in this attempt to accommodate anti-war vigilance in a time of war.

Army Gen. Lewis B. Hershey, who ran the Selective Service system from 1940 through 1970, once called 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."

Not much is left of the 2- to 3-acre camp in Baltimore County that once comprised eight buildings in the southeastern corner of the park, near Elkridge. Of the structures built originally by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression, there remain one fireplace under a picnic shelter, and, as one scholar's account put it, "sidewalks wandering through the park grass, seemingly leading nowhere."

A display at the History Center near the CPS site mentions the camp, which was run and financed largely by the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization. A plaque marks the spot where about 150 men lived and worked at one time or another through September 1942, when the camp moved to Powellville, on the Eastern Shore.

Peachey and Galvin said they knew of no surviving members of the Patapsco camp crews. Accounts from the time suggest that the men may have shared common convictions, but otherwise they were a motley bunch.

A 1943 edition of "Compass," a periodical produced by the Civilian Public Service program, reported that the first contingent at Patapsco included "the fundamentalist group, the aesthetes and exponents of higher culture, the camp radicals, the vegetarians …"

Among them was John "Meat" Yeager, of Allentown, Pa., whose pacifism led him to Patapsco and away from his pursuit of professional boxing and wrestling. He told the writer, Russell Freeman, that he left the ring because he "didn't want to hurt nobody, and besides, it ain't Christian."

Freeman's report told about Tony Carnevale, "a second-generation Italian firebrand who had joined the Jehovah's Witness sect, tap-danced, scrapped, and quoted Scripture with torrential velocity in those early days."

One study of the CPS program shows that the 12,000 men who took part belonged to more than 200 religious groups. Members of the three so-called "historic peace churches" whose representatives had negotiated the program with the government — Mennonites, Friends and Brethren — together amounted to nearly 60 percent of the total.

The religious groups decided to try to create an alternative service system partly in reaction to the experience of World War I, during which many objectors were jailed and subjected to brutal treatment.

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