Conscientious objectors 65 years ago


During the Vietnam War, I registered for the draft as a conscientious objector willing to serve in the military. Along with many other college students, that is how I protested the war in Viet Nam.

Now we're mired in the sands of Iraq -- our desert Vietnam. But this is a different time; the Iraq War is being fought by troops who have chosen to fight, either by enlisting or joining the National Guard. But even during World War II – the Good War -- there were men who refused to fight. How did this country deal with conscientious objectors who refused the draft and absolutely any connection to violent, wartime activity?

The choices were jail, civilian public service or nonviolent military service. For hundreds of young men, rejecting the draft meant fighting forest fires across the West, working in hospitals, volunteering for medical experiments or being sent to camps such as the Mancos Civilian Public Service Camp 111 in southern Colorado.

The Mancos Camp began as a 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps Camp for the Bureau of Reclamation, which was building a water supply for the Mancos Valley. The conscientious objectors lived in the former CCC barracks as they worked on the dam and reservoir that would eventually impound the West Fork of the Mancos River, irrigate 10,000 acres and provide water for the town of Mancos and Mesa Verde National Park.

Tom Vaughan, who is now retired from the National Park Service, is a self described "patriotic pacifist." Vaughan is a Quaker who has spent 14 years researching the Mancos Camp. It was the nation's first federally run Civilian Public Service Camp, he says, and the kind of place where men gathered in the mess halls to argue constitutional issues until late at night.

During its lifetime from 1943-1946, the camp included members of 54 church denominations, including one-fifth of the Jehovah's Witnesses who were in public-service camps around the nation. There were also Lutherans, Presbyterians, Native Americans, Methodists, Catholics, Mennonites, Friends, Congregationalists, Jews, Seventh-day Adventists and members of both the Church of God and Disciples of Christ.

Though the reservoir exists, nothing remains of the camp, and no interpretive plaque marks the spot. Instead, the camp survives only in archives at Swarthmore College and at the Center of Southwest Studies at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo. Tom Vaughan has worked diligently to bring the camp back to life, recreating its history through the roster of attendees and through mimeographed copies of camp newspapers from the Jane Addams Peace Collection at Swarthmore College.

The men were idealistic, he says, and, not surprisingly, stubborn. World War II, after all, was a popular war. In the camp they participated in strikes or slow-downs, civil disobedience and hunger strikes that lasted as many as 12 days. Contentious issues included mail censorship, the lack of enough books, and the fact that no one was paid a dime for working. Corbett Bishop wrote in the newsletter about his fight "for Christianity, pacifism, humanity, and all I deem proper to live for." Meanwhile, Vaughn says that locally, the COs were maligned as "those damned yellow bellies."

Though there were never more than 120 men at Mancos at one time, 364 men ultimately served time there. Deserters from the camp -- and there were a few -- received up to 18 months in federal prison. One curious fact: Unlike the military during World War II, the Mancos camp was integrated, home to both blacks and whites.

Civilian Public Service camps for conscientious objectors were also established at Magnolia, Ark.; Denison, Iowa; Cascade Locks, Ore.; Coshocton, Ohio; Belton, Mont.; Bowie, Md.; Trenton, N.D.; and four sites in California.

I wonder: Has local history forgotten about these conscientious objectors, too?  Are those camp sites as abandoned and ignored as Mancos? Why do we so rarely commemorate men who said "no" to war? Isn't peace patriotic?

Vaughan says that conscientious objectors in the Mancos camp had a sense of history. They were highly literate, he says, and when the camp disbanded they gave all their books to the Mancos Library.

Over the decades across the American West, the Civilian Public Service camps seem to have been largely forgotten. As Westerners, and as a nation, I think we need to remember wartime in its complete history -- and celebrate peace as much as we memorialize war.

Andrew Gulliford is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He is professor of Southwest Studies and History at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

C.O. 65 years ago
Sonny Morper
Sonny Morper
Nov 25, 2008 08:25 AM
Thank you for the article on C.O's at the Mancos Camp #111. Obvviously there is so much more to the story. I hope your article prompts others to contribute any family recollections from personal accounts and that you would publish them, too.
Sonny Morper
CO's 65 Years Ago
Robbi Biegler
Robbi Biegler
Apr 08, 2009 04:01 AM
This past Saturday, April 4, 2009 would have been my parents' 67th Anniversary. They were married just shy of 4 months into US involvement in WWII. My dad was 19 & my mother was 16. Tomorrow, April 9, would have been Daddy's 87th birthday. He's been gone now nearly 19 years. Mama passed away last December 7, at age 83. I assure you that the irony of that date is not lost upon me.
My folks were Jehovah's Witnesses and about four months after their marriage, my dad was sent to the camp in Magnolia, Arkansas. It was destroyed by a tornado in 1944. Daddy was allowed to go back home to Alabama for about two weeks, while they figured out what to do with him.

They sent him on to New Jersey to work as an orderly in a V.A. hospital. His specific job was to work with the patients in the psychiatric area. He was taught to give injections and cleaned up the patients and cleaned up after them.

My dad's brother was sent to California. My mother's brothers were sent to prison, at first, then, on to an "Honor Farm". At least they were together. The "boys", as my mom called them, were among the very first called up to test out this new "CO" law. The problem was, they didn't have anyplace to put them but prison. Fortunately it was a temporary thing.

I wanted to research about the camp where my dad was and about the hospital in New Jersey. I am saddened over the scarcity of information about these places. This country felt that they were at the very least, a necessary evil to contain all of these "people".

Daddy never told me that he had to pay his own way there at the camp or that the townspeople there were both scared of and angry at the men there. I did find those tid-bits of information on the 'net. I asked my mom about it and she told me that Daddy never said a word about it to her. That sounds just like him. He probably set something up with his own daddy, so as not to worry my mother about where the money was coming from.

I truly enjoyed reading your article. If you do more on the subject, I would love to read them. This World War II generation is really made from some strong stuff. Not just the ones who went to war, but those who stayed behind to run the plants and factories, as well as those who would not go, and the families THEY left behind.

I hope someday that I can find out exactly what my dad did during his 2 years at Magnolia Camp. I would love to find a photograph of him with some of the guys from there. I'd like to find out about his time at the V.A. hospital. Who knows? Maybe I'll get to visit them someday. All Daddy would say about the hospital job is that they weren't in a bad way all the time. Most of them were very smart, very nice and seemed just like everyone else. Funny, several people have told me the exact same thing about Jehovah's Witnesses.

Again, I would like to thank you for your wonderful article. I have bookmarked it for reference in doing my genealogy. Perhaps you would consider doing an a series of articles, one for each camp. I am sure they each had their own stories of joy and sadness; I believe they would be worth telling.
norman smith
norman smith
Aug 17, 2011 07:27 AM
I appreciate the article very much as I knew Corbett Bishop in Chicago as he lived in my parents house for a while. My father was a pasifist in WWII and thus spent several years in prison. My father was not a 'CO' because in those days I do not think there was such a thing. He wrote quite a few letters to the government trying to say that there should be such option for military service.

He was in CCC camp in Oregon to so it might be the same place as what you have mentioned. My mother and sister might still have some photographs of the CCC camp. Originally from Illinois, he was so impressed by Oregon that eventually later in life my mother and he moved there.
Charles Jones
Charles Jones
Feb 09, 2012 03:21 PM
I believe my Grandfather was director/head/boss of the Mancos camp during WWII. Does anyone have any info about this?