CPS Unit No. 117, a Training School unit located at Exeter State Training School in Lafayette, Rhode Island and operated by Mennonite Central Committee, opened in November 1943 and closed in August 1946. The men in the unit supervised one of the buildings housing “mentally deficient” boys.
Twenty men served in the unit. Of the first group of thirteen men, four transferred from CPS Unit No. 85 at Howard, Rhode Island and nine from CPS Camp No. 45 at Luray, Virginia.
Men in Mennonite camps and units, when entering CPS reported religious affiliation with various Mennonite denominational groups.
On average they had completed 10.45 years of education when entering CPS, with fifteen percent having completed 1-3 years of college. Another seven percent had either graduated from college or completed some graduate education. Fifty-nine percent reported their occupations on entry into CPS as farming or other agriculture work. Twenty-three percent when entering CPS reported occupations in technical and professional work or business management, sales and public administration (Sibley and Jacob p. 171-72)
The chief difference between mental health units and training schools lay in the type of patient admitted. Training schools were devoted to care of those whose mental conditions derived from hereditary factors, or for whom there was little or no hope for cure. The work in training schools was very similar to that in mental hospitals.
Unit members supervised one of the buildings of “mentally deficient” boys, who would likely be described as developmentally disabled today. The COs also formed a successful boys’ club, which was greatly appreciated by the superintendent.
Abram Willems, more than fifty years later, reported on his time at the camp with his wife:
This was a school for the mentally handicapped and served all ages. Ruth was the only nurse at this institution. Their duties involved work on the wards and on the facility’s farm. This project also included some patients who were able to participate in this kind of activity. During wartime the school was attempting to grow as many of its own vegetables as they were able. The unit also maintained a dairy farm and raised pigs and poultry. (“Detour . . . Main Highway”: Our CPS Stories p. 66)
Similarly, Ruth Miller Willems recalled her experience.
I remember Exeter as a great place. It had a thousand patients in six buildings and one nurse. The nurse was leaving and I got the job.
At Exeter I had much more responsibility and a very good group of people to work with. I was responsible for a clinic to which all patients came who were injured or ill. I took simple X-Rays, ran continuous tubs, ordered all prescription drugs and dispensed them through the facility.
After we were there a short time Dr. Ladd, the hospital superintendent, called Abe and me into his office and said someone told him we had a child. He said we could have Arnie with us and moreover he would give us a good patient to care for him while we worked. It worked out very well. We continue to keep in touch with Mary McCloud who cared for Arnie.
. . . As for doing what we did I can only say that actions speak louder than words. (“Detour . . . Main Highway”: Our CPS Stories pp. 103-104)
One of the men, who visited the school years later, reflected on that experience in a 1988 survey.
A few years ago, my wife and I stopped in at the Exeter State Training School to find an institution that was completely different than it had been as we remembered it from the CPS era. Everything that we had tried to put into effect and even dreamed about was now a reality. The current chief administrator told us that the CPS unit experience had marked a major turning point in bringing about this change. (in Sareyan p. 254)
For more information on this and other Mennonite mental hospital and training school units, see Melvin Gingerich, Service for Peace: A History of Mennonite Civilian Public Service. Akron, PA: Mennonite Central Committee printed by Herald Press, Scottdale, PA 1949, Chapter XVI pp. 213-251.
For more information on women COs see Rachel Waltner Goossen, Women Against the Good War: Conscientious Objection and Gender on the American Home Front, 1941-47. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
For personal stories of CPS men, see Peace Committee and Seniors for Peace Coordinating Committee of the College Mennonite Church of Goshen, Indiana, “Detour . . . Main Highway”: Our CPS Stories. Nappanee, IN: Evangel Press, 1995, 2000.
See also Alex Sareyan, The Turning Point: How Persons of Conscience Brought About Major Change in the Care of America’s Mentally Ill. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1994.
See also Mulford Q. Sibley and Philip E. Jacob, Conscription of Conscience: The American State and the Conscientious Objector, 1940-47. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1952.
Swarthmore College Peace Collection, Camp periodicals database.
For a more in depth treatment of mental health and training school units, see Steven J. Taylor, Acts of Conscience: World War II, Mental Institutions, and Religious Objectors. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2009.