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for people who care about the West

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 (hcn.org). 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 [email protected].