Interview with Robert Lam

Interview with Robert Lam

The following are excerpts from an interview with Robert Lam:


On a day to day basis during the work week, we were not supposed to leave the area of the camp so that we could be reached in case a call came in, for instance, from Washington State or somewhere else in Oregon. Our sixteen or eighteen man fire crew was supposed to be available to go on a very short notice. Now, this might change from week to week depending on the weather and so forth. But by and large, we were supposed to be on call. If we could operate around those conditions, we did. We would hitchhike into Corvallis, maybe to see a movie or something like that. I can remember at least one time. It was late at night. I guess we’d gone, I and another fellow, had gone to a movie in Corvallis. It was easy to hitchhike from Corvallis to Philomath, but from Philomath to Mary’s Peak was about fourteen miles. Late at night, number one, there was not much traffic. Number two, many of the local people knew that anybody hitchhiking on that stretch of road in civilian clothes was probably a conscientious objector. They were not always willing to pick us up. So one night I remember I and my friend, we had to walk most of the fourteen miles from Philomath to Mary’s Peak. We probably got there about three o’clock in the morning. We weren’t very active for work the next day. Mary’s Peak was located real, real close to the altitude divide on the highway from Alsea to Philomath. Logging trucks coming up from the west, when they go just almost to Mary’s Peak, that was where they would stop and rest and get ready to set their brakes and go downgrade toward Philomath. But sometimes logging trucks would pick up COs there as hitchhikers. One time I remember a truck driver had stopped and two of us went over because we thought he was going to offer us a ride. We opened the door. He said, "I don’t pick up Conchies." So, that took care of that. That was kind of a general thing. You never could tell how the local people’s attitude was. I think there were some of the people who were thankful that we were working for the Forest Service for whatever fire protection we provided. But just like the general public, different people had different attitudes.

I’d be interested in your definition of “work of national importance.”

Well, my definition obviously was different than Selective Service definition. My “work of national importance” would be anything that was necessary. In civilian life I guess most of us felt that whatever we were doing, being a farmer or whatever, was work of national importance. But that wasn’t the sticking part. It was “under civilian direction” that was the sticking part. The system of conscientious objectors for World War II was partly the result of not having a system in World War I. In World War I, there were many conscientious objectors who ended up in federal prison under sometimes harsh conditions. Both the churches and Selective Service wanted to avoid some of the bad aspects of that. As a result of that kind of negotiation, the Selective Service and the military officers running Selective Service had the advantage. They knew that if the churches agreed to do this, they would probably keep their word and keep raising money to pay for the food and the expense of running the camps. The men in camps were divided in opinion because they kind of felt at the beginning that it was the best system that could be devised. But they disputed it as time went on and it did not turn out to be what had been anticipated in 1940. There was not the flexibility to improve it. Many of the improvements had to be approved by Congress. There was very little chance of Congress approving anything that would make it more attractive in the eyes of the public, except for work being made available in mental hospitals and things like that. Consequently, there was very little improvement ever done. I later became more disillusioned with the whole system of the way conscientious objectors were handled. I later decided I was not interested in, through my church, of being involved in that sort of thing. So after that, I made as much movement as I could to have as little to do with the cooperation of the churches and the Selective Service as possible. Later, and this is quite a while afterwards, I later was discharged and returned home to Illinois. I later went on a cattle boat trip to Europe by taking bred dairy heifers on a trip to Italy that were distributed to the people in Europe who had lost livestock during the war. So, to sum it up very briefly, the Pennsylvania, Waldport and mental hospital part were the main parts of the conscientious objector program that I was actively engaged in.

Did you spend some time in McNeil Island?

Yes, I did.

And how did that come about?

It came about because I left the mental hospital without permission. The churches that were keeping records at Ft. Steilacoom had to report to Selective Service that I was no longer a cooperating member of the Civilian Public Service.

Were there specific things that happened that caused this change for you?

I think it was a gradual accumulation. In the first part of 1945 it looked as though after World War II there was going to be continued conscription. The problem of what to do with conscientious objectors was going to continue. I guess there were many people in CPS who did not want the sort of thing that CPS turned into to continue. Down in Portland and in the different camps at the Cascade Locks, Waldport, Elkton and La Pine, there were many people who, as the term was used, “walked out” of CPS. The judges in Portland, Oregon, especially in the first part of 1945, said we do not appreciate being the enforcement area of Selective Service. What they would do when a case would come in front of them would say, “who signed your last transfer?” If you were in Waldport and you walked out without permission and you came before a federal judge in Portland, they asked who signed your last transfer to transfer you to Waldport. According to those federal judges, if the last transfer had been signed by a military officer of Selective Service, they said you were not under civilian control, which was what the 1940 law specified. Therefore, if you left the place where you were illegally assigned, then you didn’t break any law. Although this opinion did not make its knowledge known to many of the people that were still in the camps, it was a factor. It wasn’t recognized by all federal courts, but it was what many of the people in the camps had maintained all along. That if the real rules and regulations are set by Selective Service who is controlled by General Hershey, Colonel McLean, Colonel Kosch, it is not, therefore, under civilian control. Therefore, who is breaking the law? The young man at these camps where he had supposedly illegally been sent? Or the people in the churches’ administration who were reporting that absence to the Selective Service? So, it becomes a rather abstruse philosophical thing. The more you know about the system, the more it is perhaps a matter of discussion and difference of opinion.


--Taken from Siuslaw National Forest and Portland State University History Department. "Camp 56: An Oral History Project." p130-5.

For more of the interview see <>