Timeline of Advocacy Efforts to Obtain Military Conscientious Objector Discharges, 1949-1960
Introduction: In the aftermath of WWII, concerns related to conscience against war continued to percolate, particularly in the 1950s. These concerns came from conscientious objectors whose claims were denied by local draft boards, from military non-combatants whose status was not honored, and from military inductees whose central beliefs changed, leading them to seek a discharge. Religious organizations and peace groups became the natural advocates for these cases.
Thus long before there was a GI Rights Hotline or provision for conscientious objector discharges from the military, a number of different organizations interceded with government and military officials on behalf of distraught soldiers who sought to follow their consciences. Despite the passage of more than 50 years and numerous accommodations in military regulations, the concerns of conscientious objectors in the military then are remarkably similar to what some Hotline callers express today.
The following excerpts from just one agency’s files, the National Service Board for Religious Objectors (NSBRO, now the Center on Conscience & War) paint a picture of strong efforts by religious and peace groups to urge the military to grant conscientious objector discharges.
National Service Board for Religious Objectors board meeting, November 22 1960. Seated (Left to right): Dr. Charles F. Boss, Lt. Gen. Lewis B. Hershey, M.R. Zigler, W. Harold Row, Orie O. Miller, Colonel Daniel O. Omer, Ora Huston. From left to right standing: Helen Wiens, Dale Drews, J. Harold Sherk, William T. Snyder, E.J. Clelland, Robert Myers, J.S. Noffsinger, E. Raymond Wilson, Ellis J. Shenk, William C. Gray, Girven H. Culley, and J. Rodney Davis (IX-13-2.5 Box 2 Folder 102, Mennonite Central Committee Peace Section photographs 1954-1970, Mennonite Church USA Archives, Goshen, Indiana). Photo by Ellis J. Shenk
March 30, 1949: We are working on obtaining discharges for two COs who permitted themselves to be inducted into the Army…Several men have requested advise [sic] with regard to the procedure for resigning from Armed Forces reserves and we have given information about this (See NSBRO Directors Minutes, March 30, 1949, addendum b, page 3, in the Center on Conscience and War Records (DG 025), Part II, Series A, Box 1,Swarthmore College Peace Collection)
October 16, 1950: On October 16, 1950 Mr. _______addressed an appeal to the Adjutant General, stating his conviction that he should not perform either combatant or noncombatant military service. This appeal was delivered personally to the Adjutant General’s office by A. Stauffer Curry, Executive Secretary of the National Service Board for Religious Objectors and myself on October 20, 1950. (See NSBRO Directors Minutes, November 27, 1950, addendum c, Memorandum by J. Harold Sherk dated November 25, 1950, p. 2, in the Center on Conscience and War Records (DG 025), Part II, Series A, Box 1, Swarthmore College Peace Collection).
A. Stauffer Curry, Executive Secretary of the National Service Board for Religious Objectors, 1949-1955. Photo Credit: Brethren Historical LIbrary and Archives
November 27, 1950: Voted: That a committee consisting of A. Stauffer Curry, J. Harold Sherk and/or E. Leroy Dakin and James A. Crain be appointed to:
(2) to seek an interview with the Secretary of Defense with, if possible, the Chief of Chaplains of the Army, relative to a question of the establishment of a policy in respect to the discharge of religious conscientious objectors within the armed services.
It was the consensus of the board that no such policy now exists and the appointment of this committee is for the purpose of seeking the establishment of such a policy in respect to men who are already in the Armed Services or are being called to the colors because of their reserve status (See: NSBRO Directors Minutes, November 27, 1950, page 2, in the Center on Conscience and War Records (DG 025), Part II, Series A, Box 1,Swarthmore College Peace Collection ).
December 13, 1950: Dear Secretary Marshall,…There are many men, from practically every religious denomination in the country, who hold the position that military service is a violation of certain deeply rooted convictions…A number of these men find themselves currently in Reserve units for one reason or another, and some are actually in the Armed Services. We have discovered that many of these men are in very intense states of conflict because of this situation, and face very serious personal problems (Letter from A. Stauffer Curry, Executive Director of the National Service Board for Religious Objectors to General George C. Marshall, Secretary of Defense, December 13, 1950, in the Center on Conscience and War Records (DG 025), Part II, Series A, Box 10, Swarthmore College Peace Collection ).
January 29, 1951: Many objectors now find themselves in the Reserves or Armed Services…and have applied for release. To date, fourteen have been released by the Navy, three had their requests denied, and one is still pending. The Air Force has released a very few. The Army, as far as can be determined, has not released any soldier for conscientious objection. Intercession was made with the Armed Forces Chaplain’s Board which decided to recommend that all branches of the Services use the same plan as the Navy (See: NSBRO Consultative Council Minutes, January 29, 1951, addendum b, page 2, in the Center on Conscience and War Records (DG 025), Part II, Series A, Box 1,Swarthmore College Peace Collection ).
January 29, 1951: A measure of unity of approach to the CO problem is observed in the working together of many churches and agencies interested in helping objectors. There is a running correspondence with most of the groups on the Consultative Council. Even though the philosophy of various objectors may differ, there has been full coordination and cooperation with the CCCO, whose new secretary is Lyle Tatum, the FOR, community committees for COs, and other groups (See NSBRO Consultative Council Minutes, January 29, 1951, addendum b, page 3, in the Center on Conscience and War Records (DG 025), Part II, Series, A, Box 1,Swarthmore College Peace Collection).
June 4, 1951: The following statements taken from letters received in the office of the National Service Board for Religious Objectors reveal some of the intense conflicts experienced by Christian youth in the Armed Services.
- “I am in the Navy, a member of the Church of Christ. I would like to know more about whether or not I…can live a Christian life in the Armed Services.”
- “Many of us feel that we are being given definite combatant training, even though we are not obliged to bear arms. We are compelled to attend such classes…as squad tactics, minelaying, etc. Indeed, one of our objectors faces a special court martial next week because he refused to cover an infiltration course under ‘mock battle conditions.’”
- “After three weeks of horrible training, I had a nervous collapse and was taken to the United States Naval Hospital…The first week at the hospital, I had another breakdown. After thirteen days of rest, I was released. The doctor diagnosed my case as a nervous condition resulting from emotional and religious feelings…It was at this time that I told him I was a Conscientious Objector.”
- “I…have been in the Army 2 ½ months and refused any training that would lead to military activity. It seems the military leaders don’t put COs in the stockade any more but put them in Psycho Wards…I was ordered to…Psycho Section by the Commanding General…along with another CO…I did not have any exam by a doctor!”
“I…feel compelled to resign from the Army Reserves regardless of consequences….I believe the designs of any army are devoted to overcoming men with violence, terror, and destruction, and must therefore be innately contrary to Christian love, faith, forgiveness, and blessings towards our enemies…The Christian is first a member of the Kingdom of God, and only secondly a citizen of his particular country in the world.” (See: NSBRO Directors Minutes, June 4, 1952, addendum d, pp. 1,2,3, in the Center on Conscience and War Records (DG 025), Part II, Series A, Box 1, Swarthmore College Peace Collection).
With her brother on her back a war weary Korean girl tiredly trudges by a stalled M-26 tank, at Haengju, Korea, June 9, 1951 Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
November 20, 1951: Dear Mr. Lovett, It has been brought to our attention that there have been numerous violations, at Fort George Meade, and elsewhere, of Army Regulation AR 615-203, describing the status of men inducted into the Armed Forces with a I-A-O classification, as well as other conscientious objectors regarded as such by their chaplains and commanders…We would appreciate if you could make a check of the situation in various military establishments throughout the country. (See: letter from A. Stauffer Curry, Executive Director of the National Service Board for Religious Objectors to Secretary Robert A. Lovett, Department of Defense, November 20, 1951, in the Center on Conscience and War Records (DG 025), Part II, Series A, Box 10, Swarthmore College Peace Collection).
September 12, 1952: Several contacts have been made with Marine Corps Headquarters regarding a Brethren inductee who recently was court martialed for refusing to bear arms. An interview at Marine Corps Headquarters for the Brethren minister involved and a member of our staff is being arranged for next Friday. See: NSBRO Directors Minutes, September 12, 1952, addendum b, page 2, in the Center on Conscience and War Records (DG 025), Part II, Series A, Box 1, Swarthmore College Peace Collection ).
March 31, 1955: One type of difficulty is that met by the conscientious objector who is properly recognized as limited to noncombatant duty but has his status violated by an illegal order…
A more serious difficulty is that of the soldier who is willing to do noncombatant duties but can not get recognized by the armed forces as an objector…The objector who is in the most serious difficulty is the man who cannot, because of conscience, cooperate in any way with the armed forces…
The difficulties of these men are further increased by the fact that many officers of the armed forces are completely unsympathetic with this degree of objection. As a result of unsympathetic handling and an absence of adequate regulations dealing with this problem, these men frequently face court-martial charges for refusal to obey orders and finally get undesirable discharges after serving stockade sentences (NSBRO Consultative Council Minutes, March 31, 1955, addendum g, pp. 6,7, in the Center on Conscience and War Records (DG 025), Part II, Series A, Box 2, Swarthmore College Peace Collection).
September 5, 1958: A second major area of case work is that of armed forces cases. We are working on a growing number of cases involving armed forces personnel who come to the I-O position and seek a release. During the past year we have been successful in securing three such releases from the Air Force but none from the other branches. Our greatest difficulty is with the Army.
National Service Board for Religious Objectors (NSBRO) board meeting on November 22, 1960. Photo taken by Ellis J. Shenk. Includes from left to right: William T. Snyder, J. Harold Sherk, W. Harold Row, Lieutenant General Lewis B. Hershey, Colonel Daniel O. Omer. Collection Citation: IX-13-2.5 Box 2 Folder 102 Mennonite Central Committee Peace Section photographs 1954-1970, Mennonite Church USA Archives, Goshen, Indiana
On March 5, J. Harold Sherk and I met with a number of Army officials to discuss the policy of the Army in handling requests for discharge by conscientious objectors. During the course of the meeting with representatives of the Chaplains office and the Office of the Adjutant General, a new procedure for handling CO requests for discharge was outlined…namely, that persons who become conscientious objectors while in the Army should submit a request for discharge under the “for the convenience of the Government” provision…However, requests which were being submitted were receiving replies to the effect that all requests from conscientious objectors for discharge under the provisions of AR 635-205 were being denied and that such persons should be assigned to noncombatant duty (See:NSBRO Board of Directors Minutes, September 5, 1958, addendum e, p.2,in the Center on Conscience and War Records (DG 025), Part II,Series A, Box 2, Swarthmore College Peace Collection).
November 16, 1961: Many recent calls have come from reservists who are seeking recognition and discharge as conscientious objectors. Some requests come from persons on active duty…We are glad to report now that the Department of Defense is preparing a directive with a view to establishing a procedure, applicable to all the services, by which persons found to be bona fide religious objectors may be separated under conditions not less than honorable (See: NSBRO Board of Directors Minutes, November 16, 1961, Exhibit III, Report of Executive Secretary, in the Center on Conscience and War Records (DG 025), Part II, Series A, Box 3, Swarthmore College Peace Collection ).
One military conscientious objector's story: the pressure to accommodate conscience against war grows
From: CO Services
American Friends Service Committee
20 South Twelfth Street
Philadelphia 7, Pennsylvania
The following letter is from a conscientious objector who is serving as a non-combatant (1-A-0) with the U.S. Army in Korea. Identifying symbols, personal names and references, and unrelated matter have been deleted…
I have been in the “Land of the Morning Calm” now for 15 days. On the 28th of last month I was assigned to the medical coverage…Last Friday, I was assigned as a litter-bearer…
On the train from Inchon to Chunchon, I was ordered to take a weapon and stand guard on the train platform for an hour. I said to the Sarge that I could only do so without a weapon because of my religious beliefs. He agreed to this without an argument. Once assigned to the medical company of this regiment, while awaiting my assignment to my present outfit, my name went up on the guard roster. I went in to the operations officer and told him I would stand the watch to give an alarm but could bear no weapon. He said this was the usual CO procedure and agreed kindly. I stood guard twice over there unarmed.
Then I was assigned here where the medics have no guard, no M.P., and no details except their own preventive medicine work. All medics are expected to carry weapons. This I have refused to do. So far, they have honored my refusal. We went on the firing range last Monday where the medics fired for practice except for another CO and I who stood by and watched. My line (that which I won’t cross) is taking a weapon. That’s where I drew the line but even at that I have been so watered down that I seriously would challenge anyone who tried to call me a pacifist.
Here are some practical problems that face a 1-A-0:
(1) Guard –he can stand it without a weapon but when he gives the alarm in case of attack his friends may arise and slaughter the attackers. If he refuses to stand watch then he takes the attitude of –let them come and kill us—when the others in his camp don’t share his pacifist life promise and his willingness to die rather than kill another. This is a ridiculous spot to be in as far as a pacifist is concerned. Here he is too close to one party who agrees in the use of violence to be a reconciler.
(2) What about driving a truck that has an unloaded rifle in a rack in plain view? There are some COs doing this in our outfit even though they don’t intend to use the weapon. I will not go this far.
A .50 Cal. Machine gun squad of Co. E, 2nd Battalion, 7th Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, fires on North Korean patrols along the north bank of the Naktong River, Korea. 26 August 1950. Korea. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
(3) Medics go on patrols. Should a CO go on an “ambush patrol” which is trying to waylay and kill unsuspecting opposition troops? Here he abets the process so visibly that it should be clear to all that he is close to carrying arms and doing the fighting himself. Yet this is just a more intense form of what he is doing when he works in a hospital in the States. You can just see his collusion more clearly the closer he gets to the front.
We may go up on the line shortly and I will be getting patrols. I will go but expect to do so unarmed. I will do so realizing fully how I am compromising the Peace Testimony. These are difficult problems and they lead me to say that a pacifist who comes into this is making a grave error. He becomes part of the conflict which he hopes to reconcile. He enters full force into the mainstream of a process that his religious convictions have led him to oppose. I see this more clearly than ever up here. Of course, you do the same thing on a minor scale when you pay taxes but there must be an intelligent place to draw the line, and I consider yours far more intelligent than mine.
This may sound morbid, but I am impressed with the necessity of being ready to die for something as well as live for something in this world. These fellows I am with face death all the time for the protection of the USA in military terms. They may do it due to public pressure but they do it and with courage. It’s the same way with the well-drilled Commies on the other side.
You pacifists…must also be ready to die if necessary for our beliefs. If it’s the firing squad for being a CO, then that’s it. I think we must go through this problem in our minds. This truth (if it is one) looks more apparent here than it did at Ft. Wood. Here the issue presents itself with more force.
…Incidentally Acts of the Apostles has helped stiffen my lip out here. Wish I had more time for reading and meditation. Chauvinist army chaplains are often not much help with their sermons. Also this life is not meant for spiritual development but some can come from it.
(See: NSBRO Programmatic Efforts, May 27, 1953, in the Center on Conscience and War Records (DG 025), Part II, Series A, Box 16, Swarthmore College Peace Collection ).