During World War II, thousands of conscientious objectors worked to restore and preserve our national parks and other federal lands.
By Kevin Grange
Standing at the airplane door in a canvas jumpsuit and leather football helmet, soaring above a remote southwestern section of Glacier National Park in 1945, Luke Birky checked the ripcord on his emergency chute, wiped the sweat from his brow, and took a deep breath.
“Let’s go!” yelled the spotter, pointing to the door.
One by one, the members of Birky’s crew shuffled forward. As they leapt from the “tin goose,” an old Ford Trimotor, the static line deployed their chutes, which burst open in the smoky afternoon sky like fluffy white pieces of popcorn. Below, Mount Saint Nicholas exploded out of the earth like a massive arrowhead and snake-like smoke plumes rose from two fires, wedged between a group of pine trees.
Birky stepped up to the plane door, steadying himself with his arms at his side. A conscientious objector, Birky didn’t believe in killing another human being, but he did believe in serving his country. As he stood at the plane door, the wind whistling through his helmet, Birky didn’t know that this would be his last jump. He didn’t know then that a downdraft—traveling 1,500 feet per minute—waited for him unseen in the sky, and that this angry torrent of air would slam him into the earth a half-mile from his intended landing site, badly injuring his right heel but miraculously sparing his life. Instead, Birky only knew that a fire threatened a national park he had loved since his first visit at age 12. He remembered family drives up the famous Going to the Sun Road, hikes to the Garden Wall, and magnificent glaciers. By jumping, he would be protecting these special memories, as well as the future visits that families would make over the ensuing years. Glacier held a special place in Birky’s heart, so when the spotter tapped his shoulder, signaling his turn, he leapt without hesitation.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Selective Training and Service Act in 1940, our nation’s first peacetime draft, he agreed to exempt any man who, “by reason of religious training and belief, is conscientiously opposed to participation in war in any form.” Such a conscientious objector clause was nothing new in the United States. When George Washington was recruiting soldiers for the Continental Army during the American Revolution, he exempted “those with conscientious scruples against war.” Since 1789, the choice to abstain from fighting for moral or philosophical reasons has always been an enduring First Amendment right. Yet, despite this privilege, conscientious objectors (COs) historically have been persecuted for their pacifist beliefs. During the Civil War, some COs were starved to death and hung by their thumbs. During World War I, COs could be sentenced to death or to prison sentences that stretched from 20 years to life.
As Hitler’s shadow descended over Europe and FDR assembled an army, however, it was clear the conscientious objectors deserved a solution that didn’t compromise their human rights. Rather than make COs prisoners, Roosevelt and the Selective Service offered them legal ways to serve their country.
More than 72,000 men applied for conscientious objector status during WWII, but only 37,000 were accepted. As opposed to the thousands of citizens who initially protested U.S. involvement in Europe in 1939—most famously Charles Lindbergh—or the young men who refused to register, the men who received IV-E status (conscientious objector) had to prove their objection to all wars. Once accepted, the COs had two options: They could serve as noncombatants in the Armed Forces or join the Civilian Public Service (CPS). At least 25,000 COs chose noncombatant work, going on to serve as medics or clerics in Asia or Europe. The remaining 12,000 joined the CPS, doing work of “national importance under civilian direction” for the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, or Bureau of Reclamation or working in one of 41 mental institutions spread throughout the United States.
The first CPS camp opened on May 15, 1941, in Patapsco, Maryland; the program quickly spread to 152 locations across the country. The CPS moved into facilities that had been vacated by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and, like the workers in Roosevelt’s public-relief work program, they shared the goal of developing and protecting our nation’s natural resources. Although the majority of the men were from the “peace churches”—Quakers, Mennonites, and the Church of Brethren—more than 200 religious organizations were represented, along with COs unaffiliated with a particular church who opposed war on philosophical and moral grounds. Rather than earning an entry-level GI salary, the COs had to pay the government $35 a month for their room and board, which put them in debt pretty quickly. If conscientious objectors couldn’t pay, which was common after the Great Depression, their churches often stepped in to sponsor them, adding an additional $2.50 monthly stipend for the COs and contributing more than $7 million over the course of the war to help fund the CPS program.
Adorned in spruce green trousers, T-shirts, sack coats, and caps, the men at CPS 108 at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee worked nine-hour days six days a week, repairing roads, fixing telephone lines, planting nurseries, clearing trails, managing fire strikes, and eradicating white pine blister rust, a destructive disease that is lethal if allowed to spread from branch to trunk. Some COs rose before their 6:15 a.m. wake-up call to attend matins (early morning prayer service), practiced an evening prayer service of vespers, and held a church service on Sunday.
Although some locals around Gatlinburg called the COs cowards or “yellow bellies” and occasionally beat them up, Camp Director John Ferguson had no doubts about their contribution. “There is a big satisfaction in watching the men respond to the opportunity to help,” he wrote to the American Friends Service Committee, the Quaker organization that had partnered with the Selective Service on the CPS program. “Considering that none of the CCC units stationed in this area are left and that the present ranger and warden staff are only half as large as they should be, it can be seen that the camp is indispensable to the maintenance of the park.” In addition to the work outside, COs also assisted with the park administration by managing oil and gas records. A few men even volunteered for the “pest house,” an isolated barrack in Pinehurst, North Carolina, where they were infected with influenza and pneumonia as “guinea pigs” for scientific research on respiratory diseases.
Hugh Bustin worked for the CPS in 1943 and remembers his time at Camp 108 fondly. “The Smokies were a beautiful place to be,” he says. “I was surrounded by good people and hard workers.” Bustin initially handled maintenance and laundry duties around camp, but with abundant wildlife, four seasons of blooming flowers, and cascading waterfalls at his doorstep, the call of the wild soon prompted him to request trail work. Before his time with the CPS, Bustin had done some hiking around Whalen, Massachusetts, but nothing prepared him for the rigorous job of swinging double-bit axes and working cross-cut saws to maintain the 800 miles of trails that weave through the Smokies. “They’d drop us off at one end of the trail in the morning, and there was no going back,” Bustin recalls. “If we wanted to get home, we had miles of hard work ahead of us.” Yet despite the tough labor conditions that led to calloused hands, the position deepened Bustin’s appreciation of the outdoors. “I got to see wildlife, and it made me aware of what mountains and trees and nature gives us,” he said. “It is a great gift.”
Birky had a similar experience working—and smoke jumping—in Glacier National Park. “Before working with the CPS, I simply enjoyed the park,” he said, “but being on the inside taught me a whole new way to think about ecology and gave me an awareness of the value and purpose in preserving land and beauty.”
Despite the pristine setting of camps scattered around the Badlands, Blue Ridge Parkway, Glacier, Shenandoah, Sequoia, and the Smokies, the CPS program had its difficulties. Just like the white pine blister rust, many conscientious objectors felt that they, too, were an invasive species in America, sent to the camps to be removed from the public eye lest they compromise the wartime spirit. “The CO, by my theory, is best handled if no one hears of him,” General Lewis Hershey, Selective Service director, told the Senate Military Affairs Committee in 1943. Difficulties even arose within the camps themselves—religious tensions, regional rivalries, and more than a few cases of late-night filching of food. In addition, some COs complained of what they viewed as inefficient administration, resented the fact they weren’t paid for their work, and questioned whether hauling boulders, surveying land, and clearing leaves qualified as work of national importance. These objections eventually prompted some COs to enlist in the Army so they could earn a decent wage and support their families; others simply quit working and chose prison over the militaristic CPS camps. But for those who stayed in the camps and were committed to the work, this transitional moment in American history became a catalyst for personal transformations.
“The CPS has been a great experience,” George Hogle wrote in Calumet, a newsletter published twice a month by CPS Camp 108. “It opened up new vistas of religion which were unexplored territory for me… and I realize only too well the importance of having spiritual companionship and an environment where the world cannot press in so hard on all sides.”
“I believe the search for God is the search for life itself, in its fullest and most abundant form,” Reed Smith wrote on his application to spend more time in the Smokies. “It is my desire to make this my central aim and adjust all my interests and activities about this central purpose.” Reading these letters years later, it’s hard to imagine that Great Smoky Mountains National Park, with its tumbling mountains, sublime sunsets, and 1,660 flowering plants, didn’t have a little something to do with it.
Along with spiritual progress, the camps also allowed the men to grow socially. With more than 200 religions represented, the CPS squeezed the diversity of a big city into the small, wooded confines of a camp. Muslims slept in dormitory cots beside Jews; Catholics cooked at the same kitchen stove with Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“I certainly got experiences I wouldn’t have gotten at home,” recalls Earl Schmidt, a Kansas native who worked for the CPS for four years and also volunteered for the daring work of smoke jumping. “I remember lots of interesting discussions with the guys. We didn’t always agree, but you always learned a different slant.”
“It was a brotherhood,” adds Bustin. “I learned more as a 19-year-old at the CPS camp than if I’d been at college. I discovered you don’t have to share the same faith to be friends.”
Even after WWII came to an end in 1945, the government demanded that some COs continue working in the camps; men were eventually released based on accumulated service, marital status, and family size. This slow process not only kept COs from their families but gave returning servicemen the first shot at post-war jobs and educational opportunities. When the CPS program finally ended in 1947, the men returned to college, farming, factory jobs, and office work.
In the years that followed, America became an increasingly mobile and prosperous nation with a renewed emphasis on family life and appreciation for the outdoors. Park visitation boomed—by 1950, more than 32 million people were visiting our national parks each year.
During their time in the camps, the smoke jumpers bonded with their fellow COs so much that they continue to reunite and relive those memories. “I enjoyed the outdoors and the heavy work of the CPS,” says Dick Flaharty, a CO from Chicago who worked for both a soil-conservation unit and smoke jumper unit during his tenure. “And I am proud of the fact I gave my country four years of service in the manner I did.”