The personal beliefs of some healthy men kept them from using weapons. Some men objected on religious and moral grounds to participating in violence. Some belonged to churches that have historically objected to war. In World War I, these conscientious objectors (COs) were jailed.
But as World War II developed, Congress, for the first time in history, recognized "CO Status" as a reasonable moral stand. Under the law, objectors had two choices. They could go into the military but serve in the medical corps or other non-combat duties. Or, they were required to do "alternative service" here at home that was "work of national importance."
Nationwide during World War II, there were 34.5 million men who registered for the draft. Of those, 72,354 applied for conscientious objector status. Of those COs, 25,000 served in non-combatant roles and 27,000 failed to pass the physical exam and were exempted. There were over 6,000 men who rejected the draft outright and chose to go to jail instead of serving the war effort. And then there were 12,000 men who chose to perform alternative service. Their work was supervised by the Civilian Public Service (CPS) program.
At the University of Minnesota, Dr. Ansel Keyes — the inventor of K-ration meals for GIs — was commissioned to find out how millions of starving refugees in Europe and Asia could be brought back to health after the war.
He asked for volunteers from CPS conscientious objector units. The volunteers would be starved, studied, and then fed back to health. Two-hundred COs volunteered, and 36 were chosen for the project. The results of the research have been used by relief workers in hunger crises ever since.
Conscientious objectors volunteered to be starved and studied so that refugees and prisoners of war could be effectively fed back to health after World War II.
In Nebraska, the former Civilian Conservation Corps camp (one of FDR’s programs during the Great Depression) at Weeping Water served as a conscientious objector camp for 150 men during the war, mostly Mennonites. The men were put to work on various conservation projects, which helped local farmers raise more crops to feed fighting men. The Weeping Water camp was open for about a year in the middle of the war.
There were also camps at North Platte and Waterloo, Nebraska, later in the war. Other COs served as fire fighters or as orderlies at public institutions, like mental hospitals. All told, there over 150 units set up where conscientious objectors could complete their alternative service.
"I was alone, I did not know any other conscientious objectors in my community. I don’t think there were any others. I was a naïve young man, and I thought to myself, ‘What if I’m wrong and all these millions of other men are right? What if I’m wrong about conscientious objection?’ So in that respect I compromised and agreed to be drafted into the military, as long as I wasn’t required to bear arms."
— K. Roy Bailey, Schuyler Rural school teacher who later served as a U.S. Army medic in the Pacific theater.
"There wasn’t any question that we were going to be in the war. We had a lot of friends who were pacifists. There was a lot of agitation not to go into the war. A great many people felt that with Europe we had gotten hooked once. We were concerned with the European scene mostly. A great many people — I suppose today we would call them isolationists and certainly pacifists — vowed that they were not going to go over there and mess around again. . . I had one friend, one very close friend in particular, who vowed he would never go to war. I remember wondering that day in December what he was going to do. Well, he went. I mean, it changed a lot of people’s minds."
— Helen Winter Stauffer, Grand Island student.