CPS Unit Number 044-01
Unit ID: 1
Title: Western State Hospital
Operating agency: MCC
Opened: 8 1942
Closed: 9 1946
Total number of workers who worked in this camp: 110
CPS Unit No. 44, a Mental Hospital unit at Western State Hospital in Staunton, Virginia operated by Mennonite Central Committee, opened in August 1942 and closed in September 1946. The majority of the men served in the wards.
Western State Hospital in Staunton, Virginia, was the first Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) mental hospital CPS unit.
Directors: Landis Martin, Alfred Zook, Levi Tschetter, George Classen, Harry Kraus*, Noah Hershey
The first nineteen men came from the Grottoes CPS Camp No. 4. The unit increased to fifty-two during the second year and peaked at sixty men in May 1945. By May 1946, one hundred and six men had served in the unit.
As in other MCC camps and units, most of the men when entering CPS reported affiliation with Mennonite denominational groups—ninety-eight of the one hundred and six were Mennonite or Old Order Amish, and two were Hutterite Brethren. Some were married.
When the first men arrived on August 19, within an hour they reported to work on the wards, in the carpenter shop and on the farm. Staff shortages at the hospital had led to poor conditions and treatment of patients. They worked long hours, slept in beds on the wards, found the food poor and an open garbage wagon contributed to rat infestation. During the first year on the wards, men averaged seventy-six hours of work per week. Their allowance was $2.50 per month. Much later the unit provided hospital clothes to be worn when on duty.
Assignees began to document the poor patient care and hospital conditions. A community protest occurred against the management. The documentation by the CPS unit established the case that was brought against the management by W. Carroll Brooke, a Staunton Episcopal minister. In August, 1943 an investigation opened. It led to the resignation of the hospital superintendent. For additional information on the expose of the camp, see Taylor, pp. 239-43.
When a new superintendent arrived in November, working conditions for the assignees did not improve. The men presented a letter to the superintendent asking to be transferred back to base camps if the promised improvements in working conditions and camp life did not occur.
Since the Brethren and Friends were experiencing similar challenges in the other Virginia state hospitals, they and the Mennonites met in Richmond with all of the hospital superintendents, camp directors, the National Service Board of Religious Objectors (NSBRO) staff, Selective Service and the State Hospital Board during February 1944. After an airing of views, change began.
The Staunton CPS unit staff grew, and as a result staff work hours shortened, and trained cooks were hired to provide better food. The hospital established recreational facilities for patients and employees. As a result of changes, nearly a fourth of the men worked outside the wards—“six in the kitchen, four on the farm, one as mail clerk, one in the patients’ canteen, one as nurse’s assistant in fever therapy, one on the medical staff, and three received visitors and acted as chauffeurs”. (Gingerich p. 218)
Some patients and workers challenged COs. When the COs first arrived, “a crowd of patients and on-lookers had gathered to see the new curiosities. We heard remarks of ‘slackers’, ‘draft dodger’, ‘yellow bellies’, and from one of the wards, ‘I just dare you to come up on this ward and work, you conscientious objector, you! Do you object to work too?’” (from CPS unit report quoted in Taylor, p. 191). The opposition dissipated as soon as the men began to work in the wards.
During the first year of the unit, the work schedules left no time for orientation, nor a formal program of recreational, educational or religious activities. One of the men asked by MCC to serve as unit leader reported to MCC that he had no time to organize any meetings due to the work schedule. As a result, MCC identified leadership for the hospital units and began regular visitation.
By July 1943, with improved working conditions, unit men developed spiritual, recreational and educational activities. Titus Book, the area pastor, proved particularly helpful at this stage. Unit morale began to lift. Speakers came from Eastern Mennonite School and the men found softball games to be energizing.
The camp held classes in foreign relief, poultry raising, music, and typing. A number of the men and two CPS wives took fifty-seven correspondence courses in twenty-five different subjects from Pennsylvania State University.
One of the men served as unit historian and recorded the story of CPS Camp 44. Men in the unit also published a camp paper The Unifier.
In the last year of the unit, the men, well oriented to hospital service, developed a mental hygiene program and kept up with hospital service in other units. After the war, Selective Service began to release CPS men, the first man at Staunton, released in November 1945.
One wrote the following about Unit 44.
Although the unit very nearly was removed in November 1943 and February 1944, we went an extra third and fourth mile and in the end it paid high dividends. The group took the work as a challenge to become a testimony in a dark spot and to grow from one of the poorest to one of the best CPS units in the system. (Gingerich p. 219)
For more information on this unit and other mental health and training school units, see Melvin Gingerich, Service for Peace: A History of Mennonite Civilian Service. Akron, PA: Mennonite Central Committee printed by Herald Press, Scottdale, PA 1949, pp. 214-219.
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.
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.
Swarthmore College Peace Collection, Camp periodicals database.
For more in depth information on mental hospital 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.
*Camp director Henry Krays changed to Harry Kraus to reflect '47 and '96 directories (Stephanie Cabezas, 06/14/13).