Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
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Source: April 1999 Volume 37 Number 2, Pages 49–62

Recollections of a Conscientious Objector During the Second World War

Conrad Wilson

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Although my father was a member of the Valley Friends Meeting, and I attended there while a child, I don't think that this was the sole reason I was a conscientious objector in World War II. While I consider myself a member of the Society of Friends, I had never really thought much about war and peace or taken any position on them until I was at college, away from home and away from Meeting.

At Middlebury I associated with a group of friends who were deeply pacifistic. Later, I found that many of them were actually more political paci­fists than religious pacifists. In fact, I think that quite a number of them were, probably, excited about the Russian experiment and communism.

It was a terribly difficult position to be in, to be a conscientious objector in World War II, when "black and white" were more clear cut, perhaps, than now. But it was an individual decision, one I came to after much reading of literature, a lot of it published by the American Friends Service and the Society of Friends. When it came time to be drafted, I had de­cided that I would register as a conscientious objector.

I had a very understanding Draft Board in West Chester, and I didn't have too much difficulty in establishing my viewpoints. (At first they sent me a 1-A classification, which meant I was eligible for the draft, but I called

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them and explained I was registered as a CO, and they corrected it right away to, I think, 4-E.)

During World War II alternative services were established under the administration of the traditional peace churches -- the Quakers, the Mennonites, the Brethren, and perhaps others. These churches were asked by the government to administer camps for conscientious objectors, to do worthwhile projects.

I initially shipped off to a camp in Salisbury, Maryland. The unit was engaged in clearing a swamp, draining it by providing a channel through it for the stream to flow. The people there were very poor and needed more farm land.

We were stationed in a former CCC camp. (The CCC camps were established under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, during the Depression, to provide work for men who were jobless. The barracks were all there for us to take over; perhaps our project of clearing the swamp actually had started with the CCC and we were just completing the job.)

The swamp was a beautiful spot, with enormous cypress trees, a gorgeous woods, the cypress trees with little knees, which are breathers and which come up from the roots and stick above water. I found one --I spied it from the distance - that looked like a little group of figures. When I went over and studied it, there was the Holy Family, Joseph and Mary and Infant Jesus cradled in the arms of Mary. I carefully cut it down and preserved it; ever since I get it out at every Christmas.

We were quite isolated at the camp. While we were there I don't ever remember going to a village. Each of us was thrown in with a lot of young people of extremist ideas, all conscientious objectors for different reasons. They were unusually sensitive people by nature, peculiar people, introspective. I would say that the loneliness of camp was a very real thing. There was little contact with the outside population. In fact, we were not to go to any of the towns because of the hard feelings against COs in World War II.

It was definitely a southern environment, little shacks scattered through the woods and clearings, all of them very ancient and quite dilapidated, the people desperately poor. Yet it was a nice life, and I enjoyed the work, though it seemed to us who worked there that it was made-up work. It did not seem of national importance to us and we would have

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liked to be doing work of more obvious significance. I worked at that project for almost a year.

At that time there was a call from the Middletown State Hospital in Connecticut for orderlies. Since I felt a little restless about the significance of the work I was doing, I jumped at the opportunity and was shipped up to Connecticut. There was a small unit of COs established there, as many of the orderlies in the hospital had been drafted and called into war service. So we filled a very real need there. And we were working with people. It made a huge difference in our lives; it was a very different thing.

You have no idea of the struggle we had in a typical New England town. I think the people who lived there were fairly liberal people, but feelings ran very high during these years. There was a lot of opposition to our group, especially among the old, hardened orderlies on the hospital staff.

I was assigned chiefly to a ward of old men, senile, mostly dying of syphilis. In the last stages of that dread disease, the mind just disintegrates. While they were not usually violent, when the moon was full, there were half a dozen patients who had to be put in straight jackets and kept restrained, tied down to the bed. (You think this is an "old wives' tale" that lunatics are influenced by the phases of the moon, but it's a very real thing.)

My job at nighttime, as orderly, was to go around making sure that all these people were in bed, cleaning up the dirty ones. And when they died, during the month I was on this duty, it was also my job to fix them for the undertaker.

I really don't think these unpleasant tasks were particularly given to the conscientious objectors to degrade them in any way. I imagine that the regular hospital staff had always done these things; they had to be done. I don't suppose it was retribution of any sort. The administrator of that particular camp was a director of the hospital.

But life was somewhat harder there for us. For instance, we ate in the general staff dining room, and if I chose a table where some of the regular staff members were already seated, often I would be rebuked -- "Don't sit at my table, go somewhere else!" - and I'd have to go to another table to eat. The people were very bitter, for two reasons. They were bitter not only over the fact that we were not soldiers "doing our patriotic duty," but they were also angry with us because we treated patients with

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love and understanding while many of the older orderlies thought the only way to keep them in line was by force and brutality. Maybe times have changed; I hope so. I soon found the job extremely difficult.

There was one minister in town, the Rev. Dr. Darr, who was quite sympathetic to us. He would invite us to his home for Sunday evening, supper sometimes, and discussion and music. That gave us our only outlet to the outside world. There was also a group of students, black students, girls, from a southern college in Tallahassee, who were there for work experience. Dr. Darr would sometimes also invite them to his house.

One Sunday one of this group and I were both going to Dr. Darr's for supper. So we went down together on the trolley car. It was reported to the authorities at the hospital, and the next day that girl was called in and fired for having the audacity to ride with one of us in a public conveyance. (Here we were fighting a war against Hitler and his racist views, and we were practicing them here at home!)

I was also called in and "chewed out." They couldn't fire me, because I was assigned there, but I was reassigned to a much more difficult job, the whole nighttime shift alone in a ward with very violent people.

The job became increasingly hard for me emotionally. I remember having terrible nightmares and losing sleep. So I went to one of the doctors in the hospital. He insisted that I go to a psychiatrist, which I did, and he suggested that I ought to get out of that place. Since the only way to get out was to apply for release as incompetent mentally, I thought very seriously about it.

I went down to New York to talk with the American Field Service, which was a volunteer ambulance service with the Allied forces. (Our American army had its own ambulance corps.) While I did not feel that I wanted to enter the army to be a medic, because that would be in uniform and directly associated with the war effort, I had a cousin, Colket Wilson, who had served in the American Field Service in the African campaign and had told me about it. At their headquarters in New York, I asked if they would accept me in the Field Service if I could be released as 4-F, which was the emotional and mental classification. They said they would.

I then went back to the hospital and explained to the director that if he would help to get a release from civilian public service I would immediately join the American Field Service and go abroad. He thought it was a good

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idea and agreed. So I went right out of the Middletown Hospital to Italy, to the British Eighth Army. It began a whole new phase of my work and activities.

The American Field Service had been established during the First World War by a group of Americans in Paris. They had gone out and bought ambulances, long before the United States got into the war, and volunteered with the French and English armies. After serving through the war, the organization kept active, mainly for reunions, so they were still in existence as an organization at the outset of World War II. Before we entered the war officially, before Pearl Harbor, they were already serving in North Africa with the British Army.

The British found a great need for them, for their army ambulances were large, cumbersome, top-heavy vehicles -- Austin's, I believe. They held only four patients, but they looked as big as a horse van, difficult to maneuver, especially in Italy where it is hilly and the roads are narrow. The Americans had Dodge ambulances, much smaller vehicles, four wheel drive - they could go any where a Jeep could go -- and they still held four patients. I don't know how the American Field Service raised the money to buy them. A number were also donated by organizations.

I arrived in Naples in one of the largest convoys in World War II, 115 cargo ships and an escort of thirty destroyers. The ship I was on was carrying Dodge vehicles, trucks, and only two passengers. We had the run of the ship and got to know all the crew members, who were British.

We had no trouble crossing the Atlantic, but after we entered the Mediterranean, through the Straits of Gibraltar, we were raided each night by German planes. One night, off Algiers, we were raided by only one plane, or maybe two, but they must have had excellent information. They knew just what to hit. We were going through the Mediterranean in six lanes. The ship I was on was in the lane nearest to the African shore. The ship immediately ahead of us was hit; and the ship immediately behind us was hit; and both of them had more valuable cargo than ours on them.

In the lane to the left of us was a troop ship, 500 troops on an ammunition ship. (Can you imagine it?) It had a direct hit. I was below deck in the sailors' mess, and I thought our ship had been hit. We rocked and everything fell off the tables and there was a general yell, "We've been hit." The two of us dashed up to our room to get our helmets and life jackets. I put on my helmet and we went out on deck. We weren't hit,

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of course - but where that troop ship had been there was just a cloud in the sky and not a trace of anything. It was the largest single loss in World War II by a direct hit on a troop ship - a great tragedy. Although the ships ahead of us and behind us were damaged, they weren't destroyed, and they were able to limp into shore.

There was also a big raid on Naples the night we arrived, so I got right into the thick of things early. But believe it or not, after my experiences in civilian public service, this was a relief; I had a feeling that I was head­ing for something significant, that I was saving lives directly.

When I arrived in Italy -- it was in March of 1944, just after the Anzio beachhead was established -- the battle was raging around Cassino. I was assigned, within a few days, to a station just north of there.

The first night I arrived, the war was going on in full force. We dug trenches, and I remember the flares out there made things bright as day. So we tried to dig our trenches even deeper and get down as low as we could! The shells kept coming over.

We were attached to the British Eighth Army. It was composed of units from all around the British Empire. We served with the New Zealanders, Australians, Canadians, a group from Nepal, and even a Polish regiment of former prisoners from the Russian-German front who had been released after Russia joined with the Allies. Those who were able-bodied enough formed a regiment, and came through the Near East from Russia to join with the British. I also served with them for a while. Some others of our men were with units of the Indian Army.

I was assigned fairly early on to a London regiment; in wartime it was called the 12th Royal Horse Artillery, but in peacetime it was the Honor­able Artillery Company of London. I think it was the oldest, or second oldest, regiment in the British Army. Col. John Barstow, the son of Lord Barstow, was our commanding officer. The officers invited me to eat with them in the officers' mess.

We had an American Field Service uniform, with a legend on the shoulder -- it was British issue, the soldiers' issue -- but as we also had the privilege of wearing clothes from the officers' supply depot we had their battle jackets. We often wore the regimental insignia, too, but it was basically the British soldier's uniform, olive green, with the beret.

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I drove the only ambulance in this artillery unit. I carried their wounded, first into their regimental aid post from the field, and then, as soon as they had been given some first aid treatment and the wounds at least bandaged a little, I took them back to a main dressing station. From the main dressing station, after a day or two, they were sent farther back to a military hospital. Most of the time I served with this 12th Horse Artil­lery. They followed right after the tanks.

After the Battle of Cassino, we moved north, up through the center of Italy. I remember passing through Arezzo and Perugia, near Florence. Of course, we weren't allowed to tell in letters where we were. I wrote home regularly to my family, and my mother copied all my letters into a little black book, in her handwriting (which wasn't as legible as mine!). The book has turned out to be very handy, because there the letters are all together. I was very enthusiastic about the work, and it wasn't as big a strain emotionally as my work back in this country as a conscientious objector had been.

But never once did I hear a soldier - British or American - criticize a conscientious objector. They pretty much admired our stand, and what we were doing was a very necessary and very worthwhile work. They were terribly grateful for everything we did.

We were in the thick of it most of the time in the Italian campaign. Fre­quently I had long drives to get back to the medical station -- the army was on the move, moving ahead, so that sometimes we had to go fifty miles back. Often it was at night, and we had to use blackout lights. I can remember terrible dirt roads, full of bomb craters, sometimes so bad that my orderly, who was a British soldier, had to get out and guide me around the potholes.

I remember one particularly strenuous run, back maybe 70 miles, all at night. Much of the time, the orderly had to get out and walk and guide me; there was no moonlight, we weren't close enough to the actual battle front to have any flares to light up the sky.

I had four men in my ambulance. It took most of the night to get back, although we wanted to go as fast as we could to get the wounded men back. It was urgent to try to get back as fast as possible, and yet we knew they could feel every little bump in the road, and we had to try to make it as easy a trip as possible.

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When the regiment was pulled out for a rest, we who drove the ambulances would be assigned to a different type of service, carrying the wounded back from the main dressing station to a general hospital. Or, if there wasn't much going on, we might go back to headquarters for a few days rest.

Once, on a week's rest after a campaign, I went to Florence. We had a small villa we had taken over as the A. F. S. headquarters, and there I spent a very pleasant week seeing Florence. I fell in love with it. It's the most beautiful city in the world, in my opinion; I loved every street there. I spent much of my time not in sight-seeing but in getting to know the people. Italian came easy to me -- it's a beautiful language -- and within a very few weeks I was able to get along in it. (For some reason, the aver­age English soldier refused to learn foreign languages, though, oddly enough, Italian came easily to the Welsh soldier.) I also got to know a wonderful family, half English and half Italian, named Giuffrida-Ruggieri, who had a beautiful villa just off the Piazza Angelo, overlooking the city of Florence, where I stayed.

After the week's rest was over, I of course went back to my regiment, the Honorable Artillery Company. I had a lovely time with them and was very fond of the soldiers.

The winter of 1944 we were holed up in the mountains north of Florence, just south of the Po River valley. The campaign had come to sort of a standstill in the mountains, and the regiment I was with was stationed in a small mountain village that had been completely bombed out. There were ruins of houses, and cellars in which we could find shelter, but I usually slept in my ambulance. The native people were still there, living around and in and among the ruins.

This was towards the end of the Italian campaign. There was one Italian regiment of mountain troops already formed. It was stationed very close to us, just up the hill from the little village I was in. One night a shell came over and killed one of the mules in the mule trains they used to carry their ammunition. So they carved it up and invited some of the officers and me up to dinner. The soldiers got the meat of the mule and the officers got the liver and the heart, sauteed in olive oil in a can over the coals of a fire in a fireplace. You wouldn't believe how good mule liver is, tender (you can cut it with a fork) and delicious.

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During these winter months, the war was a farce. The Germans would shell us each evening at five o'clock, directly on the stroke of five - a token effort to make it appear that the war was still going on -- and we would return the fire at some other hour. So at a quarter to five every­one would stay close to the trenches, and when we heard the first shell coming over we'd be under cover. No one was ever hurt, there was no calling of the wounded, and I had very little work. In fact, I do remember it as a beautiful scene in the mountains of Italy, lit up at night-time by the great cannon firing and flares in the sky and tracer bullets -- the ruined village, a few stark trees silhouetted against the sky -- a very moving scene.

At Christmas time I was able to get permission to drive down to Florence to visit my friends and spend Christmas Eve with them. I had to get back the next morning, but I arrived by six o'clock in the evening for the festivities with a German-Italian family with whom I had become friendly. Eckart Peterich was a poet, and his wife, Costanza, was a literary critic, a friend of Aldous Huxley, a friend of David Lawrence. They had three daughters, named "Coccolo", Susi and Mimi -- I'm afraid one of my first loves was Coccolo. Every time after that I made Florence and their home my headquarters. It was a beautiful 12th century villa, with gardens of cypress trees, a dream garden, and on the hill of Santa Margherita a Montici, overlooking the city of Florence. You could look down and see the Ponte Vecchio and the Campanile and all the famous buildings throughout the city.

Later in the winter or early spring we went to Forli. The Germans were retreating and my last service in Italy was there. After the Italian campaign ended my unit was reassigned to Germany. We moved from Livorno, a port near Florence at the mouth of the Arno, and, across to Marseille. (On the way across to Marseille, a news flash came over the radio that President Roosevelt had died, and I remember all that day the most beautiful music. It was a great tragedy.)

While I never was injured by the enemy during the Italian campaign, three times I was injured by one of our own men!

The first was at Perugia. I had been teaching a group of Italians to square dance; we were doing the Virginia Reel in the public square and all the Italians were gathered around, lovely looking Italian girls and boys. A British soldier who had been drinking too much came up to one girl he thought had snubbed him and said he was "going to teach her a lesson."

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Speaking in Italian, I told her she had to get away. As I was boosting her up through the window of her house to her family, he let out with a fist on my jaw. I went right over backwards and hit my head on the wall. (And that's the first bump on the back of my head today.)

The second time was by one of our own Field Service men, a hillbilly from Kentucky. He was a fanatic on guns; he had a collection of German guns, including a kind of light machine gun. He too had been drinking heavily one night, and decided he was going to shoot up and down the street. I was afraid that someone would be injured, so I took the magazine of bullets and hid it under the lieutenant's bed. (Incidentally, Livingston Biddle, of Philadelphia, was our platoon lieutenant then.) Just as I was hiding it, I looked up just in time to see a heavy empty magazine coming down over my head. Fortunately, I got a glancing blow, about an eight­inch cut down the back of my head. (And that's the second bump, a considerable dent.)

The third time was in an accident on our way from Marseille to Germany. After we landed at Marseille, we drove straight up the Rhone valley. Each ambulance had two men assigned to it; driving north from Marseille we took turns driving, mile after mile of monotonous straight road on a sort of dike, raised above the fields, with trees equally spaced -- flick, flick, flick, as you drove by. I was sleeping in the back on a stretcher when the other driver fell asleep and drove off the road. We turned over and over and over again, down the bank. The ambulance was completely torn to smithereens. My head was split open. (And that is the third bump on the back of my head -- three knobs and three wartime injuries.)

The other driver was a dear old person from New York but much too old to be a soldier --1 think he was in his 60's and of an age to be a grandfather - but he managed to get into the American Field Service. He drank like a fish, straight gin before breakfast, and was always drunk, an alcoholic. But he always took the most daring jobs and if there was a particu­larly hot spot he volunteered to go. As long as he was drinking he was a "happy-go-lucky", fearless person, perfectly charming to everybody, a general favorite everybody adored. But when I met him again after the war in New York, he had joined Alcoholics Anonymous, and he was absolutely dreadful, a stuffy person, wearing a derby hat and spats!

After the accident I was sent on ahead to an American hospital at Lyon, with instructions not to tell what unit I was with, that I was an American, and certainly not where we were headed. I was also told that as soon as I

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would be released I would catch up with my group. They kept me there for a week, stitched up my head (without any anaesthetic), and I remember I wore a bandage like a turban. I hadn't written home for awhile -- we weren't allowed to write any letters for fear it would get out that we were on the move to Germany -- so I found an American soldier who offered to write a letter home saying that I was all right.

I caught up with the group again in Eindhoven, a beautiful medieval town, cobbled streets, old-time Netherlands. It was a small town. The women still scrubbed their front steps every morning and scrubbed their sidewalks, and everyone wore wooden shoes.

Shortly thereafter, I was assigned to help evacuate Belsen concentration camp. There had been a call for another group of ambulances, and our whole platoon was ultimately assigned there. It had just been occupied by the British army.

Belsen was one of the worst of the concentration camps, in level of starvation, although it wasn't a camp known for extermination. It was a camp in which all the gypsies of Europe had been gathered, to which villages of Poles had been sent, and also all political internees from Germany, so there were Germans in the camp as well. Towards the end of the war -­we were getting very close to the end of the war in Europe -- the Allied bombers had destroyed transportation to such an extent that no supplies came through to the camp. The whole camp had gradually starved.

When the British army occupied the camp, it found thousands of people dead and unburied, with everybody else just on the verge of death. There were barracks, very similar to the CCC barracks where I had started out, jammed with hundreds and hundreds of people in each building, thick layers of people.

It was a terribly tragic thing. The experience almost changed me from being a conscientious objector. Everyone was shocked at the aspect. It was such a terrible thing.

Someone else drove my ambulance, and my job was to clear a building. We tried to take out those that we thought would be most able to survive. We took out all the living people first. We stripped them, left the clothes in the building, wrapped them in a blanket covering, and sent them by ambulance to a human laundry that we had set up in the camp. Oddly enough, the only people we could get to run this human laundry

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were German nurses; we went to Lubeck and brought back carloads of them to help us in this job. The internees would be taken into the bath house at one end, shaved from head to foot, sprayed, and scrubbed. If they survived that -- many died during the process -- they were taken to a tent hospital which had been set up outside the walls of the camp.

We worked all day every day until the camp was completely cleared.remember that as we entered the camp we had to go into a room and put on camp clothing for our work during the day. Then, when we came out at night, we had to go through the showers, be sprayed with various powders, and then go into the next room and put on our outside clothes.

We also had to gather up all the dead -- and they still were dying at the rate of 500 a day. The stench was terrible. Some did survive Belsen, but of all the camps in Germany its physical conditions were the lowest, I think. The gypsies actually survived better than most of the others; maybe they were used to cunning ways and scrounging food!

But the most shocking thing to me was the reaction of the army that occupied the camp, an army that was fighting against Hitler's Germany, to the guards. Each building was in charge of one of the prisoner guards, prisoners who maybe had done favors, maybe got more food because they worked in the camp. They took these guards, who were themselves prisoners (mostly from the Balkans -- Roumanians, Hungarians, Bulgarians, and people like that) and worked them around the clock, twenty-four hours at a stretch, burying the dead. And then they executed them. This was a horror that I hadn't anticipated.

Without a doubt, my experience at Belsen was the most significant work that I did during World War II. It took about a month to clear the camp, as I remember. After that, I came back to this country. The war in Europe was over, though it was still going on in the Far East. I came back to the farm in the valley, back to my Quaker environment.

But after a short while I went into Philadelphia to the American Friends Service Committee and volunteered my services again, for reconstruction work in Italy. (The American Friends Service Committee is different from the American Field Service; it is the Quaker organization for world relief.)

Everything in Italy had been at a standstill. Nobody had any money, the government was broke, nobody could finance rebuilding. A major problem was transportation; they had no way of getting raw materials to the

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factories or the products of the factories to the people. No one had the money to buy materials to rebuild.

In the Aventino Valley the villages had been purposely bombed as the Germans withdrew to the north. They didn't want the Allied army coming north to have winter quarters in the villages, so they took everybody out on the hillside and blew up the villages all along the valley, from Chieti all the way back to the head of the valley at a place called Palena.

In a very small way, with a few trucks purchased from the British army, we found we could set up a direct barter system to get things started. We would get villagers in the devastated Aventino River Valley in the Abruzzi area of Italy to go up into the mountains and cut trees. We would then haul them out, to the brick and tile factories along the sea coast near Ortona a Mare and places like that, for use as fuel which was needed to stoke the furnaces. They would produce the bricks and stuff, which we would then trade for more raw materials. We would also get a percentage as payment for the wood and we would take this back and give it to the people who cut the wood.

At first the people thought there might be some "gimmick" to it, that it was going to cost them a lot of money. We had a hard time persuading even one person to take us up on this offer. But finally, some one got up the courage and did it. The moment the rest saw that he got this free material for his labor of cutting wood, everybody jumped on the band­wagon, and everyone came clamoring for materials.

At this point, UNRRA, the United Nations organization, became very inter­ested in our experiment, and sent observers to see how it was going. They decided it was so successful that they would repeat it -- if we would split up and go to different parts of Italy and each take charge of a team. They could, of course, provide more men -- and money, and trucks, and equipment. So our group went out of existence and we became employees of the United Nations.

We went up north into the Pennine Alps, to a place near Carrara. Up there in the mountains there were also a number of destroyed villages, and we set up the same system. There were two or three other places where we also did this.

When this was working smoothly, a lot of people became interested in restoring their homes and villages. The new Italian government, which

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had been in operation since the collapse of the Fascists, sent observers to see what UNRRA was doing. As a result, it was decided to set up an agency of the government, to continue this work on a still larger scale. Again, we split up, and now went to work for the Italian government on a very much larger scale, all over Italy. This agency was called "CASAS", which spelled out the word for "houses" but was also an acronym for the program. It went very well.

So an experiment that started out with just a few men and a few trucks grew until it encompassed all of a country - based on helping people to help themselves. The Quakers never spent much money; they tried to do experimental things to show people how they could do it themselves -­and they were eminently successful!

So I came back and went on with my education, which had been interrupted for five years. I had no money! Conscientious objectors were not entitled to the G. I. Bill of Rights. The civilian public service was unpaid work, the American Field Service was unpaid work, and the American Friends Service Committee was unpaid work - though when I was with the American Field Service with the British army we had all sorts of privileges; we could buy things pretty cheaply at the exchange.

All in all, my wartime experiences were an important part of my life. For a few years after the war I was in a period of doubt as to whether or not I had done the right thing. But then came the other wars -- The Korean war, the Vietnamese war -- and gradually I swung around to feeling that my life had been with purpose and that I had done the right thing.

I'm glad that we live in a country where it was allowed to be a conscientious objector even at a time when it was a very unpopular cause. And I'm satisfied that what I did was right. I think I would do it again the same way if I had to make that choice.

This article was transcribed by the late Bob Goshorn from a tape-recorded interview filed in the late 1970s as a part of the Oral History Project of the Chester County Library.


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