"My Life as a Conscientious Objector"

"My Life as a Conscientious Objector"

Excerpts from "My Life as a Conscientious Objector," by John Hoffman:


"In my home town, it became known that my brother and I had registered as C.O.s. We were not popular with the younger people in the town who called us "Yellow Bellies," probably because they heard their parents refer to us in this way.”

“After graduating from junior college, I and a classmate at Messiah College successfully applied for work on the Pennsylvania Railroad. My number for the draft had not yet come up so I went to work as a clerk at the freight station in Marietta near my home in Maytown. My job was to type way-bills, the document that accompanied each carload that made up the train. The conductor, who in those days rode in the caboose, carried these bills to the cars' destinations.”

“One day, the railroad agent, Mr. Althouse, came to me and said that everyone who works on the railroad must sign up for a payroll deduction to buy War Bonds. I replied that I had just graduated from junior college and had a school debt that I wanted to pay first. He responded by saying that if I didn't sign up I would be fired.”

“I knew the position that our church took on buying War Bonds so I made up my mind that I would have to be fired from my first job. Besides, I knew that I would soon be drafted into Civilian Public Service for C.O.s. So when I left my work that evening, I gathered up my belongings, dropped the keys on Mr. Boardman's desk, and headed for the door...He yelled for me to come back. He told me to report to the Harrisburg office in the morning.”

[Hoffman was then assigned to work with Mr. Baker, who was made aware of his C.O. status the first day, at the Elizabethtown station]

“On my final day at Elizabethtown, Mr. Baker looked over to my desk and said, "John, I have to apologize to you." I asked, "Why?" "Well," he replied, "I think you know it's because you are a conscientious objector and I have treated you unkindly. Now that you have been so kind and helpful to my son, I'm ashamed." I left Elizabethtown in good standing with that agent.”

"After another two months, I received my orders to report to C.P.S. Camp #45 in the Shenandoah National Park at Luray, Virginia. Mr. Boardman told me to send in my required resignation and that my seniority would continue until I was discharged.”

“At Christmas I received a Christmas card from the Women's Auxiliary of the Pennsylvania Railroad, but in February I received a letter stating that my seniority had been discontinued because I had not filled out the proper paper when I left. But I knew that this could not be the truth. I replied that I had filled out the proper papers and that he [Mr. Boardman] knew that I had done so. In response I received another letter telling me that the law didn't apply to those who were not in military service. That ended my employment with the Pennsylvania Railroad.”

“My first job at Luray on the Skyline Drive was to shovel mud from mud slides into a dump truck. The mud stuck to our shovels so that we had to pull or jerk it off into the truck that was higher than our heads. Having just left an office job, I soon developed blisters on my hands.”

“One day the camp director said that he saw on my records that I had bookkeeping experience. He asked me to work in the office to balance the books. It didn’t take long to say yes to that request. After two days I had balanced the books. Now I had to help around the camp including cleaning the barracks and the grease pit in the kitchen.”

“The camp was mainly for fighting forest fires. We were trained by Park Rangers to use tools necessary for fires. Some of the men drove trucks, others used bush wackers [sic], others fire rakes; still others carried back packs to back-fire flames. We planted and mulched tiny pine tree seedlings. Some years after leaving C.P.S., I, with my wife Betty, revisited the camp where we saw blooming daffodils which the camp director had ordered us to plant when he thought we were fooling round too much in the office.”

[Hoffman was later assigned to the mental hospital unit at Howard, Rhode Island.]

“When we arrived at the hospital, we were assigned to various wards. Because I was nearly six feet tall, thus larger than some conscientious objectors, I was sent to the violent ward in the Pinel building. In it were six wards, each with forty male patients. The ward should have had five attendants but because of the war and the resulting shortage of labor, many times, only two or three of us were on duty at a time.”

“We saw that the rooms were kept clean, attended to the patients’ baths, and supervised the men when they went to the dining room. Many times we played cards with the patients. Haircut day was always interesting: some of the men would gather up the hair, roll it in toilet paper, and smoke it as a cigarette. What an odor this made!”

“I once had an encounter with a patient when he began knocking his broom against the other patients in the hallway. When I told him that the floor was clean enough and that he could now put the broom away, he replied, ‘You’re not telling me what to do.’ After all, I was only twenty-one and he was forty-five. When I took the broom from him, he began swinging his fists at me. In the fracas that followed we both received a black eye. He even bit me in the leg, for which I received a tetanus shot and, in a bad reaction from the shot, I ended in the hospital. But the man respected me afterwards.”


--Taken from the Brethren in Christ History and Life. Brethren in Christ Historical Society. XXVI, 2 (August 2003), 36-44. Used with permission.