Here’s a fact about Civilian Public Service (CPS), a US government program that provided conscientious objectors with an alternative to military service during World War II. CPS draftees fought forest fires, helped reform an abusive mental health system, and even acted as test subjects in medical experiments.

Civilian Public Service firefighting crew at Snowline Camp near Camino, California, 1945.

The Civilian Public Service (CPS) was a program of the United States government that provided conscientious objectors with an alternative to military service during World War II.

From 1941 to 1947, nearly 12,000 draftees, willing to serve their country in some capacity but unwilling to perform any type of military service, accepted assignments in work of national importance in 152 CPS camps throughout the United States and Puerto Rico.

Draftees from the historic peace churches and other faiths worked in areas such as soil conservation, forestry, fire fighting, agriculture, under the supervision of such agencies as the U.S. Forest Service, the Soil Conservation Service, and the National Park Service.

The cost of maintaining the CPS camps and providing for the needs of the men was the responsibility of their congregations and families.

CPS men served longer than regular draftees and were not released until well after the end of the war.

Initially skeptical of the program, government agencies learned to appreciate the men’s service and requested more workers from the program.

The conscription law of World War I provided for noncombatant service for members of a religious organization whose members were forbidden from participating in war of any form.[2] This exemption effectively limited conscientious objector status to members of the historic peace churches: Mennonites (and other Anabaptist groups such as Hutterites), Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and Church of the Brethren.

Conscientious objectors who refused noncombatant service during World War I were imprisoned in military facilities such as Fort Lewis (Washington), Alcatraz Island (California) and Fort Leavenworth (Kansas).

Simultaneously the Justice Department was preparing to indict 181 Mennonite leaders for violating the espionage act because of a statement they adopted against performing military service.[3] The draftees’ refusal to put on a uniform or cooperate in any way caused difficulties for both the government and the COs. The treatment received by nearly 2000[4] of these absolute COs included short rations, solitary confinement and physical abuse so severe as to cause the deaths of two Hutterite draftees.[5]

Holding a common view that any participation in military service was not acceptable, they devised a plan of civilian alternative service, based on experience gained by American Friends Service Committee work in Europe during and after World War I and forestry service done by Russian Mennonites in lieu of military service in Tsarist Russia.[6]

As the United States prepared for another war, the historic peace churches, represented by Friends who understood inner dealings of Washington D.C. politics, attempted to influence new draft bills to ensure their men could fulfill their duty in an alternative, non-military type of service.

Camp Wickiup, CPS #60, La Pine, Oregon was a former Civilian Conservation Corps facility erected in 1938.

The historic peace churches outlined a plan that included running and maintaining CPS camps under church control.

However, President Roosevelt opposed any plan not involving military control over the draftees.[11] To save their plan and retain civilian direction of the program, the churches offered to fund the camps.

Aides convinced Roosevelt that putting the COs to work in out-of-the-way camps was preferable to repeating the difficulties of World War I.

Selective Service and the peace churches agreed to a six-month trial of church supported and funded camps for conscientious objectors and thus Civilian Public Service was born.

The responsibilities of the churches included day-to-day management of the camps, subsistence costs, meals and healthcare for the men.[13] When the young men arrived at the first camps, they started a six-month experiment that would extend to six years.

Civilian Public Service men lived in barracks-style camps, such as former Civilian Conservation Corps facilities.

A large camp such as number 57 near Hill City, South Dakota, had five dormitories and housed as many as 172 men building the Deerfield Dam.[16] Later, with projects located in urban areas, the men lived in smaller units, communal housing near their assignments.

CPS men typically worked nine hours, six days per week.

Mennonite Central Committee, American Friends Service Committee and Brethren Service Committee administered almost all of the camps.[17] The Association of Catholic Conscientious Objectors managed four camps and the Methodist World Peace Commission two.

The director managed the needs of the men, oversaw maintenance of the camp facilities, handled community relations and reported to Selective Service officials.

Later, capable men from among the CPS workers directed the camps.

The strength of instructional programs varied from camp to camp, and after nine hours of physical labor, it could be difficult to motivate the men to attend classes.

The camp dietitian, with the help of men assigned as cooks, prepared all of the meals.

Sunday worship services were organized by the camp director if he was a pastor, by a visiting pastor, or by the CPS men themselves.

While the historic peace churches organized the CPS, 38% of the men came from other denominations and 4% claimed no religious affiliation.[20]

Men who became uncooperative with the CPS system and were unable to adjust to the church-managed camps were reassigned to a few camps managed by the Selective Service System.[23] These camps tended to be the least productive and most difficult to administer.

Churches were primarily responsible for financing Civilian Public Service, providing for the men’s food, clothes, and other material needs.

Men who worked for farmers or psychiatric hospitals received regular wages, which they were required to give to the federal government.[26] Objections to this practice developed immediately because the men felt they were helping to fund the war.

The first Civilian Public Service projects were in rural areas where the men performed tasks related to soil conservation, agriculture and forestry.

Later men were assigned to projects in cities where they worked in hospitals, psychiatric wards, and university research centers.

Anticipating the rural background of most men, the initial camps provided soil conservation and farming-related projects.

Members of Conscientious Objectors camp demonstrating “one-lick method” of fire line building for Forest Service Reserves.

At Forest Service and National Park Service camps, CPS men were responsible for fire control.

From base camps scattered through the forests of Montana, Idaho and Oregon, the men were flown as many as 200 miles to fire sites, carrying firefighting tools and a two-day supply of K-rations.

Up to 240 CPS men served in this specialized program.[30] One of the smokejumping schools was at Camp Paxson in Montana.[31]

The government balked at initial requests that CPS workers have these positions, believing it better to keep the men segregated in the rural camps to prevent the spread of their philosophy.

By the end of 1945, more than 2000 CPS men worked in 41 institutions in 20 states.[33]

The CPS men discovered appalling conditions in the mental hospital wards.

On May 6, 1946 Life Magazine printed an exposé of the mental healthcare system based on the reports of COs. Another effort of CPS, Mental Hygiene Project became the National Mental Health Foundation.[37] Initially skeptical about the value of Civilian Public Service, Eleanor Roosevelt, impressed by the changes introduced by COs in the mental health system, became a sponsor of the National Mental Health Foundation and actively inspired other prominent citizens including Owen J.

Draftees in Civilian Public Service became medical and scientific research test subjects in human medical experiments under the direction of the Office of Scientific Research and Development and the Surgeon General at medical institutions such as Harvard Medical School, Yale and Stanford Universities, and Massachusetts General Hospital.

The test subjects allowed themselves to be bitten by malarial mosquitoes and when the fever reached its peak in three to four days, were given experimental treatments.[43][44] At the University of Minnesota, twelve CPS men underwent tests to determine the recovery period for those infected with malaria.

From 1945 to 1947 the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration and the Brethren Service Committee of the Church of the Brethren sent livestock to war-torn countries.

Civilian Public Service men were released from their assignments and the camps closed during March 1947, nineteen months after the end of the war in the Pacific.[56] Reforms in the mental health system continued after the war.

Men from the historic peace churches volunteered for relief and reconstruction after their release from CPS.

The 1947 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to American and British Friends Service Committees for their relief work in Europe after the war.[59] Mennonite Central Committee redirected its effort from camp administration to relief and reconstruction in Europe after the war.

Civilian Public Service created a precedent for the Alternative Service Program for conscientious objectors in the United States during the Korean and Vietnam Wars.[60] Although the CPS program was not duplicated, the idea of offering men an opportunity to do “work of national importance” instead of military service was established.

Boxing was common in high school physical education classes of the 1930s and 1940s and a popular form of recreation in Civilian Public Service camps.

(2006) Smokejumpers of the Civilian Public Service in World War II: Conscientious Objectors As Firefighters, Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, ISBN 0-7864-2533-4

National Service Board for Religious Objectors (1947) Directory of Civilian Public Service: May, 1941 to March, 1947, Washington, D.C., 167 pages, ASIN: B000KI7H1C.

Civilian Public Service, Searchable database of all 12,000 draftees who served in CPS, plus descriptions of the work in more than 150 camps.


Source: Civilian Public Service