Conscientious objectors still served
When World War II broke out, not everyone enlisted to fight. Even some who were drafted did not want to kill.
Many of these individuals, called conscientious objectors, still served their country — an idea promoted by the Quakers during the Civil War.
The existence of COs dates to the Revolutionary War, when they were recognized by the Continental Congress primarily on religious grounds. . Objectors could also buy their way out of military service, or have a slave take their place.
During World War I, legislation allowed members of “historic peace churches,” such as the Quakers, Mennonites, Church of the Brethren and Seventh Day Adventists, to oppose military service on religious grounds.
Personal beliefs, however, weren't enough to avoid battle in the “war to end all wars.” COs were prosecuted. Some were sentenced to death (although those sentences were not carried out) and others were harassed and beaten.
The Espionage Act of 1917, followed by The Sedition Act of 1918 (an amendment to the Espionage Act) where, made it clear: Conscientious objectors violated the law by refusing to serve.
By the time WWII broke out, COs had better options. Some could adhere to their beliefs yet still serve in the military. About 25,000 had noncombatant roles, working in roles such as medics, and didn’t carry weapons.
Others remained on the home front fighting fires, working on conservation projects and helping at mental hospitals as cooks, wardens and therapy assistants.
Some COs were involved in testing programs, including the starvation experiment in 1944. One study sought remedies for an expected post-war malnutrition; another was used to calculate how long a soldier could last without food.
Still, a CO had to register for the draft and then file papers to avoid fighting; for those who didn't register, it was straight to jail, as was the case for some 6,000 men.
One of the destinations for those who registered but gained CO status was the Civilian Public Service. This program used 151 camps left over from the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps to house 11,950 men.
Initially, camp stays were to be only a year; however, they lasted as long as the war. The objectors worked in forestry, medical testing, public health and agriculture.
The camps were located in isolated regions of the country, mainly on the coasts, including the Gulf Coast. One, in Gulfport, Mississippi, was organized by the Mennonite Central Committee.
These men worked at a Public Health Service camp and focused on improving an unincorporated area of North Gulfport. It was an all-black community with unpaved streets and no real water or sewage system.
The COs worked with hookworm control and education, did health surveys and testing. They also built, sold and installed privies.
By March, 1946, the COs had visited 1,442 homes and are credited with installing 319 privies.
They were involved in other projects, too, such as testing milk and controlling typhus by eradicating rats.
When the war came to a close, the Mennonite Central Committee worked with other churches in the community and continued to serve into the 1960s. The Gulfport unit proved to be an early model for Mennonite voluntary service projects in rural and urban areas.
Three conscientious objectors won the Medal of Honor.
The first was Desmond Doss, a WWII medic who was wounded three times. He died in 2006. Two Vietnam War medics, Thomas Bennett and Joseph G. LaPointe, received the medal posthumously after being killed in battle in 1969.