During World War I, many conscientious objectors were drafted and pressured into doing noncombatant service for the military. Others who refused were court-martialed and imprisoned. In 1940, as Congress considered draft legislation for World War II, Mennonites and others in historic peace churches asked that Congress allow for an alternative service program more sensitive to the rights of conscientious objectors.
That program became Civilian Public Service (CPS), provided under the U.S. Selective Service and Training Act of 1940 for conscientious objectors who were unwilling to perform any kind of military service.
By 1946, when the program ended, some 12,000 draft-aged men served in CPS camps in various parts of the U.S., performing work of “national importance” in forestry, fire fighting, agriculture, soil conservation, social services and mental health services.
Photo courtesy of Edgar M. Clemens
MCC administered 62 camps and units. For Mennonites and other Anabaptists, alternative service was a way of daily living out a belief in peace and nonresistance. Camp publications, including the August 1942 issue of Deep River Echo of Camp No. 22 in Henry, Illinois, reflect how camp men worked to best bring those ideals into daily life:
"Conscientious objectors are motivated by an intense conviction that war is wrong. Have we carried our conviction far enough into intense daily living; the actual practicing of the living presence of Christ in our lives? ... Are we prompt for appointments and for meals? And while there are we considerate of the one by our elbow? Are our standards of cleanliness set high? Do we show open mindedness to learning? And above all, with what enthusiasm and spirit do we tackle the little jobs we are asked to do?"
Men in CPS base camps were not paid for their work; those in special projects, such as working in institutions for people with mental illnesses, received a $15 allowance per month.
Mennonite churches contributed more than $3 million to operate the CPS program. Donations of goods and food, including home-canned fruits and vegetables, flowed into camps from Anabaptist churches.
And men in camps worked to grow and preserve their own food, reducing costs.
"During the past few weeks, every available man, including typists, carpenters, garagemen, director and business manager, has been pressed into service, as quarts of peaches and quarts of tomatoes were sealed away for a rainy day."
- Deep River Echo, publication of Camp No. 22, Henry, Illinois, August 1942
Through these photos, we invite you to explore some of the work that CPS carried out in locations from Pennsylvania farmland to Montana forests.
The first Mennonite CPS camp opened in May 1941 in the facilities of a former Civilian Conservation Corps camp near Grottoes, Virginia, with CPS men working with the Soil Conservation Service.
Eventually MCC operated 11 base camps with work under the direction of the Soil Conservation Service.
In camp newsletters, alongside articles about camp happenings, sermons and Bible studies and announcements about comings and goings, articles warn of the enemy of erosion and the damage that deforestation could bring.
"There are gullies in place that are 40 feet deep, fully as wide and half a mile long," reports The Olive Branch, the publication of CPS Camp No. 18 in Denison, Iowa, in November 1941.
The article recounts how, on land once devoted to raising livestock, dry years and hordes of grasshoppers depleted the grass, "so that farmers in desperation began to plow the slopes and rolling land and to put it to corn.
"It was a short-sighted policy for it brought better return during the first years while allowing erosion to have the best possible chance to ruin the farms in the meantime. Gullies have begun to creep up between the hills, whole hillsides have lost the topsoil and entire farms have become of one third the value."
Soil conservation was only one focus of the CPS work. In addition, MCC also administered six camps under the direction of the U.S. Forest Service; four with the National Park Service; two with the Bureau of Reclamation; and one with the Farm Security Administration.
Fighting fires in Montana
CPS Camp No. 103, near Missoula, Montana, was a Forest Service base camp operated by MCC in cooperation with Brethren and Friends service committees.
Men in the camp, which opened in May 1943 and closed in April 1946, were highly trained, parachuting into rugged country to put out forest fires; in down times they performed fire prevention work.
"The chief usefulness of the parachute fire fighter comes from his ability to reach a fire quickly and while it is yet small."
- Smoke Jumper's Load Line, publication of CPS Camp No. 103, September 1943
There was always a crew ready to respond, notes the September 1943 edition of the Smoke Jumper's Load Line, a publication of CPS Camp No. 103. "The call may come at any hour of the day or night, although jumpers are not dispatched after dark. Forest Service landing fields are not lighted, and furthermore, most fires are slowed down during the night by the coolness and dampness of the air. However, as soon as the first light appears in the morning, and long before sunrise, the plane arrives at the camp to take the jumpers to the fire."
Within a half hour of the fire call, "the jumpers are usually at the flying strip beginning to suit up. This involves donning the heavily padded clothing especially designed to protect them in making landings and for absorbing the various shocks the parachutist may encounter."
It wasn't just parachutists or pilots responding. When the fire was reported, a packer, a skilled woodsman with a team of pack mules and his horse, began traveling to the scene.
MCC photo/Edgar Nafziger
The mule train provided additional supplies and rations and helped transport chutes and jumping equipment out of the woods.
As the mule train traveled toward the fire, the plane and its crew flew toward the scene. Once the fire was spotted, a drift chute made of muslin and weighted with three pounds of sand or rocks was thrown out to determine how air currents were moving.
Soon, the first man to jump was on one knee with a foot out the door on a specially constructed step. As the Smoke Jumper's Load Line describes, "The pilot cuts the motor, the signal comes, the muscles in the jumper’s arms and shoulders tighten, he pulls himself out of the door and starts falling through space, down, down – and then a terrific jerk, as his parachute opens over him. After that he floats gently (he hopes) to the ground."
In the June 1943 edition of the Smoke Jumper's Load Line, a camp publication, Bert Oline reflected on his first jump:
"'So you want to be a parachutist?' were the encouraging words of Frank Derry as we neared our objective. The air seemed rarified; my breathing increased, my heart pounded, shaking my entire body like a jackhammer. Reason said, 'You're crazy!'
Too late now; we're over the spot; I'll be out in a minute – and I was – out like a light! A little rag doll being swung around in space on the end of a string, opening shock over, and I'm still in one piece."
- Bert Oline, June 1943
As the jumper descended, he worked to dodge logs, rocks and trees, sometimes successfully, sometimes less so. Landing in trees was not uncommon, and jumpers had equipment and training to make their way down.
When the jumper reached the ground, he gathered tools dropped at the same time and determined how close to, or far from, the fire he was. Sometimes jumpers faced a long hike. Other times, they could begin working quickly to chop, rake and dig fire lines to control the fire.
"Very often the job consists (of) working continously for 15 or 20 hours," reported the Smoke Jumper's Load Line. "When the last smoldering stick is cold the jumper feels that the job has been done properly and prepares to leave."
But the jumper still had to hike, often for miles to leave the fire.
An unusual injury
Smoke-jumping came with its share of hazards and injuries, often sprained ankles or, more seriously, broken bones in the foot.
But the September 1943 monthly accident report, in addition to one injury from falling objects and one from hand tools, logged two injuries under the category of animals, with a footnote reading simply, "Ran into Bear."
As reported in the October 1943 issue of the Smoke Jumper's Load Line:
"It seems that a cook, Glen Corney, and a jumper, Weir Stone, had gone for the mail one evening on the latter's motorcycle. When they were returning to the station it became dark. Stone put on a little speed to negotiate the slight hill near the camp and suddenly collided with something.
"When Weir regained consciousness, lo and behold, the motorcycle was lying off of the road, and Corney and a bear were piled together in the middle of the highway. Luckily both man and bear came to at the same moment. The bear staggered away into the woods and Glen limped into camp to discover that he had cracked a rib."
Tornados and floods
In addition to fighting forest fires, CPS teams responded to other needs and disasters in the communities where they worked.
Take CPS Camp No. 22 in Henry, Illinois. At 6 p.m. Monday, March 16, 1942, just as men were leaving the dining hall from their evening meal, word came that a tornado had struck Lacon, Illinois.
"An hour and 15 minutes later, 55 CPS campees, fully equipped to clean the streets of all kinds of debris, entered the stricken town," writes Ralph Hernley in the March 25, 1942 edition of the camp publication Deep River Echo.
Men worked through the night. "The flashing of axes, buzzing of saws, beams of flashlights, glare of portable electric lights mingled with the shrieking of ambulance sirens and the piercing gleam of searchlights told onlookers that men were busy alleviating the suffering of others.
"At 5 p.m. on Tuesday, a task which some had said was impossible – clear the streets in 24 hours – had been completed ... In the first 22 hours until the streets were cleared, a total of 144 eight-hour days were put in on this emergency call."
The call for help came to the CPS Camp No. 18 in Denison, Iowa, in April 1943.
CPS men from the camp, who were working in soil conservation, joined U.S. Army troops to protect the city of Council Bluff from the rising waters of the Missouri River.
They worked to fill sandbags (shown in the background of the photo) to protect the city's pumping station — the sole source of water for the 40,000 residents.
To thank them, the city engineer, Jack Boyne, offered "a show at the theatre, then cigarettes, then beer," notes The Civilian Public Service Story, a website created by CPS alumni.
All were refused by the CPS men, who instead requested two new aprons and four dish towels for the cooks at their CPS camp; the items were promptly provided, the website notes.
Into a new land
One of the lasting impacts of CPS is that it brought men, often from Mennonite communities that had a tradition of sticking close to home, into states and landscapes totally unfamiliar to them. And, as CPS men lived and served in places like Lapine, Oregon, their views of the remote country where they had been brought were also changing.
"It seemed rather depressing to us at first when we began to realize that we were in a wild frontier region and far removed from civilization," wrote Herman Nightengale in a January 1943 article in New Horizons, a publication of CPS Camp No. 60 in Lapine. "Now that we have learned more about our environment we are finding that this is a real wonderland and not just a wilderness to be shunned."
"It seemed rather depressing to us at first when we began to realize that we were in a wild frontier region and far removed from civilization. Now that we have learned more about our environment we are finding that this is a real wonderland and not just a wilderness to be shunned."
- Herman Nightengale, January 1943
He went on to note:
"If one tramped along the Deschutes River for a day, one would see large numbers of deer. Wild ducks are plentiful ... Occasionally one may spy a coyote sneaking into the forest ... Large water fowls swim and fish along the shores of the river. The beaver proves that he is at home by the knaved marks he leaves on trees. Trout try to hide in holes and under the ledges, but the water is so crystal clear that they can be spied easily ... Late at night the owls can be heard talking in low undertones as the black and bear and the mountain lion (cougar) steal forward from their lairs.
"Thus, as we trod back home, we realize that we have seen more than the human eye can perceive. God has taken some of us across the entire nation so that we might behold the workings of his creation."
In that same issue of New Horizons, Waldo Loewen wrote:
"As we look about us, all we can see is an endless lake of trees hemmed in by a range of mountains. Coming from the plains of the Midwest, it is rather hard to comprehend such a sight. The change from a home atmosphere to camp life is probably a difficult task for every camper. We may wonder if we can find the God we worship at home.
"Let us go among the trees and over the hills, among the clear mountain streams and try to find our God."
- Waldo Loewen
"Let us go among the trees and over the hills, among the clear mountain streams and try to find our God. We see the tall, straight pines ever pointing toward heaven. Although they may be tested by wind or storm, they will ever pierce the blue sky. We allow our eyes to be lifted to the mountains and be spellbound by their quiet, stable beauty...As our eyes drop, they are drawn by intangible elements of the mysterious mountain stream as it ever rushes seaward. Thus we have watched nature work. We have been held by the hour to see the works of our creator.
"As we are walking home, our thoughts are turned to the greatness of God. We have seen him produce wheat from the kernel and have seen him reproduce life. But until we came to Oregon and watched His handiwork firsthand, we had only a one half of the picture painted. We now know that God is with us wherever we go."
Expanding horizons for service
Beginning in 1943, many CPS men transferred from base camps to various special projects.
By December 1945, more than 1,500 men in 26 units were serving in mental institutions, notes the book Hungry, Thirsty, a Stranger: The MCC Experience. What they saw there would lead to calls for better mental health care throughout the U.S. Other men served with hookworm control projects with the Public Health Service or in projects of the Office of Scientific Research and Development where they offered themselves up as guinea pigs for experiments, including one on infectious hepatitis.
The CPS program, which had started in 1941, closed in 1946. Some of those who took part in CPS soon set out for MCC assignments in Europe or Asia. Others lived out their call to service in communities here in U.S.
Want to know more about CPS? Explore The Civilian Public Service Story, a website created by CPS alumni with the support of MCC. Or see photos from MCC-administered camps working in mental health care.
"The Civilian Public Service Story." Mennonite Central Committee. 2015. http://civilianpublicservice.org/
"Deep River Echo." CPS Camp No. 22 (Henry, Illinois).
Hungry, Thirsty, a Stranger: The MCC Experience, by Robert S. Kreider and Rachel Waltner Goossen, Herald Press, 1988
"New Horizons." CPS Camp No. 60 (Lapine, Oregon).
"The Olive Branch." CPS Camp No. 18 (Denison, Iowa).
"Smoke Jumper's Load Line." CPS Camp No. 103 (Huson, Montana).