Letters from Warren Sawyer

Letters from Warren Sawyer

The following are excerpts from letters that Warren Sawyer wrote during his time at the Philadelphia State Hospital which highlight both the relationship between the COs and the public and the impact of the CPS men in the mental hospitals. The excerpts were taken in full from The Turning Point by Alex Sareyan [see below]:


September 27, 1942

Thursday, we had a meeting with Dr. Zeller, the hospital's superintendent. He remarked that since the COs had arrived, he had noticed a distinct improvement in cleanliness throughout the hospital. He also observed that patients were receiving better treatment since our arrival. "There was far less beating of patients by attendants," he noted. He expressed the opinion that the regular attendant staff had been influenced by our behavior and were beginning to use a kindlier approach in dealing with patients. I do like the work here and have tried to understand the feelings and problems of the patients with whom I come in contact...I must also add that the morale of the men in our unit is high.

November 8, 1942

Some of my patients are beginning to show real improvement. They're beginning to ask for a bottle or bed pan. One of the patients with diarrhea has learned to go to the bathroom. When we first arrived, the patients seemed to be in a constant state of fright. They were especially afraid of the physical abuse to which they had been subjected by uncaring attendants. Since we've taken over the ward, and this is also true of other wards and buildings for which we are in complete charge, the patients have come to trust us and have become responsive to our requests.

November 22, 1942

Thank you for the dollar, Aunt Jane. It will be used for Christmas, and will have to cover a lot of territory...Do the kids back home know about my stand as a CO?...One of my fellow COs whose home is in Florida can't visit there because the last time he was there, the neighbors ran him out of town. He's vowed not to go back home until after the war ends...Many of the Quaker families in the vicinity of the hospital have extended Thanksgiving Day invitations to members of our unit.

April 27, 1943

Last week I was assigned to work in Building A where the incontinent patients are housed. Earlier this week I was placed on duty in Building B which I described in a previous letter. I was asked to take the 2 P.M. to 11 P.M. shift, and agreed to do so on a temporary basis. In one struggle to separate two fighting patients, my glasses got bent. This is a perfect setting in which to demonstrate the superiority of pacifism over brute force in handling tense situations. If you can convey to patients that you're not afraid of them and respect them as individuals--even though you're shaking in your boots--they return your respect. A few attendants have had their jaws smashed but they're usually the ones who approach troublesome patients with broom handles and other similar weapons. When patients sense that you feel safe and have the situation in command without the threat of force, they are much more amenable to following instructions. I've already broken up several fights using this technique, and it works.

August 16, 1943

Last Wednesday, we celebrated the opening of our CPS unit here at Byberry a year ago. The dinner was provided by the hospital and attended by several members of the medical staff. Also joining us were several guests from the American Friends Service Committee, the official sponsoring agency of our unit.

Today, I had a run-in with the man who's in charge of the hospital farm. He has a consuming hatred toward all the fellows in our unit. He thinks we're cowards and "yellow-bellies"--no doubt because he has a son in the army overseas. Shortly after my assignment to the farm crew, he ceased to deal directly with me and instead gives his orders to me through an assistant...He has little or no regard for the worker-patients whose labor is so essential to running the farm. In wet weather, the worker-patients who are ill-clothed to begin with are given no rubbers and are expected to work in muddy soil that reaches up to their knees. And to make matters worse, upon returning to their wards after a long day in the fields, are given no change of clothing.

March 14, 1944

This morning, while on my way to University Hospital for my jaundice tests, I noticed that someone had scribbled "COs won't fight" in large bold letters along one side of the bus. As the war drags on and the casualty reports begin escalating, I expect we'll be seeing a lot more of similar bursts of hostility directed at us...The local newspapers have been running quite a few stories about COs both pro and con. I've been saving them. Twenty years from now, it'll be interesting to read them.

July 6, 1944

Earlier this week, we had a serious flare-up in Building B. One of the patients assigned there had previously been serving time in prison because he had tried to knife a police officer. The patient had pulled a knife on one of the attendants and had cut his thumb. An attendant who had come to his aid had his hand injured, and a patient who had come to their rescue suffered cuts on his head...Our unit has set up a series of weekly meetings that are aimed at preparing us for the postwar era when we'll be free to reestablish our civilian careers. Those who are planning to go into the teaching professions are facing some real problems. In several states, laws have been enacted or are in the process of being considered which contain provisions effectively barring COs from employment in public school systems. I recently heard that one of my former campmates, who had been released from the CPS program by Selective Service, had been run out of his hometown when he applied for a teaching post in one of the local schools. He landed a bookkeeping job in another state. In a letter describing his ordeal, he wrote that he had come close to being beaten before he managed to escape.

January 21, 1946

My discharge arrived on the 14th and I'm finally a free man!...For the time being, I've decided to stay on at the hospital in the office position I've been holding down in the recent past. I was given a grade A rating and will be earning $81.50 per month plus room and board.

At the end of a few months, when I will have accumulated some much-needed money, I expect to apply for a cattle-boat project sponsored by the Brethren Service Committee. They are recruiting ex-CPS men to assist in transporting cattle and horses to Poland. The fellows are needed to care for the animals while they are on the high seas. Each trip lasts about six weeks, and those who participate in the program receive $150 for their services.

Several of the fellows still in the CPS unit at Byberry are initiating a campaign to publicize the truth about the hospital. We're hoping to get the cooperation of the Philadelphia newspapers in this effort...Our intent is to avoid putting the blame on individuals but focus instead on such issues as difficulties in staffing the hospital because of the low prevailing wages, persistent problems in getting adequate supplies for the patients, and the horrendous delays in getting a response to breakdowns in the institution's infrastructure. In this context, we plan to reveal how state hospitals in some other states like California, New York, Michigan, and others are responding to the needs of their patients. Our ultimate objective is to arouse public pressure on the state legislature to increase the budgets for state facilities like ours so that patients may have access to more enlightened care and treatment.

February 11, 1946

Yesterday morning, the Philadelphia Record ran a front-page story concerning problems rampant at Byberry.

February 19, 1946

As a result of the press coverage that has been directed at Byberry in the past few weeks, the head of the State Department of Welfare, the agency that administers state institutions like ours, paid the hospital a visit. She has had little or no use for the men in our CPS unit. As she was inspecting Building B, she turned to one of our men on duty and muttered--"You fellows seem to have more time to write letters to the newspapers than to clean the floors." Just prior to the time of her visit, one of the patients in restraint had urinated on the floor. For close to a year, no mops have been available for any of the wards in our service. We have had to resort to using towels to handle such problems, but towels are chronically in short supply.

March 18, 1946

Today I will be leaving Byberry at long last...I'm certainly glad to be leaving this place after three years and five and a half months. As I take leave, I have a wonderful sense of relief and release. At the same time, I leave with a deep sense of frustration that the patients whom we've tried so hard to serve under the most difficult circumstances are little better off than when we first arrived. I must close with one final observation--what an even more tragic place Byberry might have been in this war period had it not been for the presence of our CPS unit.


--For more excerpts see: Sareyan, Alex. The Turning Point: How Persons of Conscience Brought About Major Change in the Care of America's Mentally Ill. Scottdale: Herald Press, 1994. Pp 37-58.