Volume 4, Number 96
15 February 2004

Conscientious Objector in World War II

Dear Friends,

Under Grand Central Station in New York City extends a vast number of offices and other space. It was there that I took my physical exam in 1943, to see if I was fit for civilian public service (CPS) as a CO (conscientious objector). Previous to that date, CPS and army inductees were examined separately. The American Friends Service Committee and other religious organizations had complained that COs would be inducted into CPS who would have been rejected by the army. The solution was to combine the induction exams, to be conducted by the army for everyone. I entered Grand Central on the very first day of that combining.

I presented my papers to the receptionist sergeant. 4-E (meaning CO) was discreetly printed in the corner. The sergeant took out a big rubber stamp and imprinted 4-E all over the front page, so no one farther down the line would fail to notice. When I reached the sergeant conducting the urine test, he purposely spilled my sample over the papers, so I had to go the rest of the way with urine-soaked papers.

I passed the hearing, sight, strength, and other physical tests with smirks of disapproval by the soldiers, and finally I reached the psychiatrist. "Why are your papers soaked with urine?" he asked, after smelling them. "I couldn't hold it back," I replied. "What does IV-E mean?" he asked. (Remember, this was the first day.) "It means I am a conscientious objector." "What's a conscientious objector?" he asked.

After I had explained to him, he asked, "You mean that if you were on a battlefield, you wouldn't shoot?" "No, I wouldn't." "Even if your life were in danger?" "I'd rather lose my own life than kill someone else," I said bravely. (I have often wondered what I would really do if put to that test.) He looked at me peculiarly, then said: "Do you like girls?

"Yes, I like girls."

"I mean," he went on, "do you date girls?" I thought of the square dance to which I had taken Rachel Pickett the night before, a lovely Young Friend, daughter of well-known Quakers Clarence and Lily Pickett. Beginning to sense what the psychiatrist was thinking, I faced my moment of truth. Should I tell him about CPS camps? Should I tell him I would not be sent to the battlefield in any event? Rightly or wrongly, I decided to play along with him. I would tell him the truth but not the whole truth.

"Yes," I said, "I had a date six months ago."

He scrutinized me carefully, "But do you like boys?" he asked.

"Oh Yes, I like boys," I answered, thinking of my many male friends from college.

The psychiatrist signed me off and sent me on my way.

At the end of the examination, I was handed my new draft card. "4F" (rejected) was printed in the corner. The sheet accompanying it carried the sentence, "Psychoneurotic severe. Not to be returned." I walked out of Grand Central a free man.

But was I really free? I asked myself. Without telling a lie, I had deceived the psychiatrist. But I did not really want to go to CPS camp. I could do more service for the world by auditing the books of businesses when auditors were scarce, I rationalized. After receiving an MBA at the University of Pennsylvania, I was working for the second largest CPA firm in the world, Haskins & Sells. Was my MBA to be wasted at a CPS camp? Years have now passed, and I have never resolved that dilemma.

I went back to work, in a client's office, and found an envelope on my desk. It was from my accounting professor at Penn. "I remember you once said you wanted to be a teacher," he had written. "We have an opening this fall. Would you like to be considered?"

Immediately, I went up to the flat roof of the building. There I delivered my first lecture, on accounting principles, to thousands of ant-like creatures who could not hear me. They were walking on the streets many floors below.

Yes, I would be a teacher.

When I arrived at Penn, I was told a successful professor needs a PhD. But Penn had no PhD in accounting; the closest was in economics.

Some months later, I hitch-hiked to Boston, to visit a girl friend at Wellesley (Yes, I did like girls). I borrowed a bicycle and was riding around my undergraduate haunts at Harvard. As I passed the Economics Department, I stopped in to see if any of my old professors were there. Sure enough, there was Edward Chamberlin sitting in the office of Chairman. I had studied economic theory under him. He welcomed me, and I told him that now I was studying for my PhD in economics at Penn.

After a pleasant conversation, he suddenly asked. "How much money do you have?" What an odd question, I thought, on a purely social visit. The only thing I could think of was that my great-aunt had just died, leaving me $600.

"That will be enough to see you through your first semester," Chamberlin replied. "If you get all A's we’ll give you a teaching fellowship, and that will see you the rest of the way." I sat there dazed, jaw dropping, since I had had no thought of transferring to Harvard, and I had never gotten all A's in my life, at any school.

"Now if I were you I would go over to the Admissions Office immediately and fill out an application." I did what he said. Now I like to tell my friends how — after escaping the draft on a fluke — I accidentally got a PhD at Harvard.

Sincerely your friend,

Jack Powelson

Readers' Comments

Ha-ha! What a great story. As we Friends say "When one door closes, another opens."

— Cathy Wahrmund Matlock, Hill County Meeting, Kerrville (TX).

Great personal story — thanks.

— Howard Baumgartel, Oread Friends Meeting, Lawrence (KS).

I enjoyed reading your story about escaping a war and ending up at Harvard. You're a good story-teller!

— Margaret Wallace, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends.

Thank you for sharing some of your story with us.

— Cyndy Blumenthal, Gwynedd Friends Meeting, PA

Thanks for that history. I am still laughing!

— Lorna Knowlton, Boulder CO.

Good stuff - an excellent read!

— J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.

I'd say that the "way closed" at the induction center and "the way opened" at Harvard. You did your duty when you reported. It was up to the "system" to decide if you were "worthy" of the effort it would take to make you kill people you didn't hate or know. They decided (collectively) that you were not a good enough risk to be a soldier. Harvard, on the other hand, decided to risk investing in your talents.

— Free Polazzo, Anneewaukee Creek Friends Worship Group, Douglasville (GA).

If you haven't read it, I suggest you read "Making peace: telling truth," based on the Carey Lecture at Baltimore Yearly Meeting 2003 sessions (which I heard) by Paul Lacey, in the January, 2004, issue of Friends Journal. Especially poignant, of course, was the moral dilemma of Pastor André Trocme in France, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Germany, in the clutches of the Nazi Gestapo in the World War II years, were forced to lie to try to save the lives of others. What I can say is-- thank God I wasn't confronted with their or your choices.

— Maurice Boyd, Friends Meeting of Washington (DC)

Note: I knew Nelllie Trocme, André's daughter, on the student ships. — Jack

I was a combat infantry soldier in WW II. I wish we could combine Veterans Day with Yom Kippur. I have a lot of atoning to do.

— Lee B. Thomas, Jr., Louisville (KY) Friends Meeting.

Letter # 96 is even better than your other issues of The Quaker Economist. I hope that you are thinking of collecting these "personal story" gems that highlight moral dilemmas (and economic choice problems) into another book. We will all benefit from such a volume.

— Tapan Munroe, Moraga, CA.

I recently read in The Joy of Freedom: An Economist's Odyssey, that Milton Friedman---in the mid 1960s during the Vietnam War-- was one of the early proponents of eliminating the draft and replacing it with an all- volunteer armed service. He thought that the draft was an infringement on freedom and an unproductive waste and misuse of human talent. Friedman said that it was the only issue on which he had personally lobbied Congressmen. Another economist, John Kenneth Galbraith, also opposed the draft in the 1960's and stated that "the draft survives principally as a device by which we use compulsion to get young men to serve at less than the market rate of pay." Representative Charles Rangel is currently attempting to bring back the draft. To Representative Rangel, patriotism means that people should be forced to serve, rather than choosing to serve. I have seen nothing in the FCNL newsletter about Rangel's proposal to reinstitute the draft.

— John Spears, Princeton Monthly Meeting.

This week I really understood the reason why Quakers do not say the pledge of allegiance, at least for myself. Interestingly, a fundamentalist Christian friend of mine readily agreed that it is a prayer. Its a prayer with the flag as a god.

— Jim Manning, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends, now in Alaska.


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Publisher and Editorial Board

Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting

Editorial Board:

  • Chuck Fager, Director, Quaker House, Fayetteville, NC
  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting
  • Valerie Ireland, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting.
  • Asa Janney, Herndon (VA) Meeting.
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends, Principal Editor
  • Norval Reece, Newtown (PA) Friends Meeting.
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • John Spears, Princeton (NJ) Friends Meeting
  • Geoffrey Williams, Attender at New York Fifteenth Street Meeting.

Members of the Editorial Board receive Letters a week in advance for their criticisms, but they do not necessarily endorse the contents of any of them.

Copyright © 2004 by John P. Powelson. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.

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