Civilian Public Service: World War II

The Civilian Public Service (CPS) was set up to provide conscientious objectors in the United States an alternative service to military service during World War II.  CPS was operated primarily by the historic peace churches (i.e., Historic Peace Churches is a term widely used for three denominations which have for centuries held the position that the New Testament forbids Christian participation in war and violence. These three are the Brethren, the Friends (Quakers), and the Mennonites.) and the U.S. Selective Service, coordinated through the National Service Board for Religious Objectors.

From 1941 to 1947, nearly 12,000 draftees, willing to serve their country in some capacity but unwilling to do any type of military service, performed 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, social services and mental health.

The CPS men served without wages and minimal support from the federal government. The cost of maintaining the CPS camps and providing for the needs of the men was the responsibility of historic peace churches, their congregations and families. CPS men (and women) served longer than regular draftees, not being released until well past 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. CPS made significant contributions to forest fire prevention, erosion and flood control, medical science and reform of the mental health system.

Civilian Public Service In Mental Health Facilities.

View of Lapine (Oregon) Civilian Public Service camp #60 (Camp Wickiup), 1943. Former Civilian Conservation Corps facility erected in 1938. From the private collection of Clarence Leichty, used with permission and released under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 license.

View of Lapine (Oregon) Civilian Public Service camp #60 (Camp Wickiup), 1943. Former Civilian Conservation Corps facility erected in 1938.
From the private collection of Clarence Leichty, used with permission and released under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 license.

As the war progressed, a critical shortage of workers in psychiatric hospitals developed, because staff had left for better paying jobs with fewer hours and improved working conditions. For example, understaffed wards at Philadelphia State Hospital had one attendant member for 300 patients,the minimum ratio being 10:1. 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.

Eventually the men received permission to work for the mental institutions as attendants or psychiatric aides. Individuals who found jobs at the rural camps unfulfilling and meaningless, volunteered for this new type of assignment. The mental health field promised to provide the work of national importance that the program was designed to produce. By the end of 1945, more than 2000 CPS men worked in 41 institutions in 20 states. The CPS men discovered appalling conditions in the mental hospital wards. In an interview, a conscientious objector described his experience when he first entered a mental hospital in October 1942:*

“It is sort of like a perpetual bad dream. The smells, the sounds of the insane voices, the bad equipment. The long, dark corridors. I tell you, it is all very much like a medieval fairytale of the nether regions. We’d heard about how these patients had been treated by the attendants, Beat with rods, you know, do all kind of things. We took a vow before we left the camp, we decided that we would not assault or in any way, strike a patient.

“I opened one of those rooms, and there was a man lying on the floor. I leaned over to try to see what I could do to minister to him in some way, do something for him. He may have been on a mattress or he may have been on the bare floor. No he was on the bare floor, because when I tried to move him, his skin came off. His skin was bloody and stuck to the floor and when I tried to lift him up it just peeled his skin off. He was in the last stages of syphilis. He died less than a week afterwards. Now that was my first introduction to what was badly needed in that institution.”

The CPS men objected to the mistreatment and abuse of patients and determined to improve conditions in the psychiatric wards. They wanted to show other attendants alternatives to violence when dealing with patients.

Frank Olmstead, chairman of the War Resisters League observed:**

One objector assigned to a violent ward refused to take the broomstick offered by the Charge. When he entered the ward the patients crowded around asking, “Where is your broomstick?” He said he thought he would not need it. “But suppose some of us gang up on you?” The CO guessed they wouldn’t do that and started talking about other things. Within a few days the patients were seen gathering around the unarmed attendant telling him of their troubles. He felt much safer than the Charge who had only his broomstick for company.

Outraged workers surveyed CPS men in other hospitals and learned of the degree of abuse throughout the psychiatric care system. Contacting church managers and government officials, the COs begin advocating for reforms to end the abuses.

The reformers were especially active at the Byberry Hospital in Philadelphia where four Friends initiated the The Attendant magazine as a way to communicate ideas and promote reform. This periodical later became The Psychiatric Aide, a professional journal for mental health workers. 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. 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 to join her in advancing the organization’s objectives of reform and humane treatment of patients.


* “The Good War and Those Who Refused to Fight It,”  PBS, Retrieved 2008-07-07.

** Keim, Albert N. (1990). The CPS Story, Good Books. ISBN 1-56148-002-9,  pp. 69-70.

For More Information:

Alexander, Paul (2008) Peace to War: Shifting Allegiances in the Assemblies of God, Telford, PA:

Cascadia Publishing, ISBN 978-1-931038-58-4

Cottrell, Robert C. (2006) Smokejumpers of the Civilian Public Service in World War II:

Conscientious Objectors As Firefighters, Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, ISBN 0-7864-2533-4

Kniss, Lloy A. (2002) I Couldn’t Fight and Other CO Stories 1917—1960, Ephrata, PA.: Eastern Mennonite Publications

Schlabach, Mose A. (2003) Memories of CPS Camp Days, Volumes I and II, Sugarcreek, OH: Carlisle Printing

Van Dyck, Harry R. (1990) Exercise of Conscience: A World War II Objector Remembers, Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books. ISBN 0-87975-584-9

Wittlinger, Carlton (1978) Quest for Piety and Obedience: The Story of the Brethren in Christ,

Nappanee, IN: Evangel Press, ISBN 0-916035-05-0

Zahn Gordon C., Another Part of the War: The Camp Simon Story (University of Massacvhusetts Press, 1979), ISBN 978-0-870232-59-6

Source: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia,


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