Mennonite Health Journal

Articles on the intersection of faith and health








Conscientious Objectors and the Transformation of Mental Healthcare

Harold Lehman

from Mennonite Health Journal, Vol. 15, No. 2, April 2013

The following article is adapted from a presentation given by Harold Lehman at the Harrisonburg, Virginia Regional Meeting of Mennonite Healthcare Fellowship on January 19, 2013.

When I was 10 years old, my father took me along one evening to the chapel at Eastern Mennonite School to hear Peter Hartman talk about his memories of life as a young man during the Civil War. I remember how this elderly man with a cane described so vividly the hardships suffered right here in this community, whether by Confederate or Union troops. Sometime after the Hartman lecture, history professor Harry Brunk published the memories of Peter Hartman in edited story form as Reminiscences of the Civil War.

What does this have to do with tonight’s topic? Actually two things: One is the importance of memory and the connection of memory and story. Memory is personal; story is public. Memory is time determined; story can be timeless. Memory is place determined; story may have no boundaries. Furthermore, a determinate of vocal expression of living personal memory is the age of the memory teller.

Uncle Pete in 1931 had a clear memory of events seventy years earlier, beginning when the Civil War started when he was fifteen years old. Tonight another old man stands before you to recall memories of World War II, which was raging seventy years ago. There is a time limit to the oral transmission of memory! The direct memory-tellers regarding the impact of conscientious objectors on mental health practices in World War II are a vanishing number! No Civilian Public Service men are present here tonight. Six such men currently live in our community; their CPS units are in parentheses: Richard Weaver (Harrisburg Mental Hospital), Cleo Weaver (Greystone Park Mental Hospital), Stuart Shenk (Harrisburg Mental Hospital), Harry Kraus (Staunton Mental Hospital), Laban Peachy (Howard, Rhode Island), and Merv Hostetler (Harrisburg Mental Hospital).

The following talk has three parts: (1) my memories of CPS experience (1942-46) and some basic facts about the CPS alternative during World War II; (2) the impact of conscientious objectors on Mental Health Service during World War II; (3) and the Mennonite Mental Health Story since World War II.

Personal Memories
Six of us left Harrisonburg on October 27, 1942, to open up CPS Camp 39 in Galax, Virginia, joined by four men from Archbold, Ohio, and six from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The number of men at the camp increased to 150 within two months. Our work included foresting jobs and building the Blue Ridge Parkway, including grading banks, and putting in culverts. What we were doing was interesting and worthwhile, but hardly work of national importance.

In April, 1942 the Galax camp closed and moved to Three Rivers, California. Meanwhile, word came through of openings at Greystone Park Mental Hospital in New Jersey and also a unit at Vineland Training School in New Jersey. The unit at Vineland had a specialized requirement–open to ten men who were college graduates with two years of teaching experience. I just qualified. But on my way to Vineland I had to go by way of the mental hospital at Greystone Park, New Jersey. Leaving Galax, I had three days of furlough to spend a weekend at home and to report to duty at Greystone by that Tuesday morning. I took the Norfolk and Western Sunday night train out of Elkton and changed to the Penn Railroad at Harrisburg for the rest of the night’s journey to Newark. Then I went by bus to the Greystone hospital, arriving by 9:00 a.m., hoping for some time to rest and settle in. But by 10:00 a.m. that Monday morning, I was told to report for duty at noon to the Medical Surgical Ward and was fitted with white trousers and jacket. Without a single word of orientation, there I was on the job with approximately fifty male bed patients.

What little I learned I learned very quickly from nurses and student nurses: how to change sheets, feed patients, tie on a camisole, particularly to wheel a patient to electric shock treatment. The first afternoon I was in the presence of a patient who died, something I had never witnessed before. Another shock was to find that the work day was 7:00 until 7:00, either on the day shift or the night shift, six days a week. Although my time in the mental hospital was short, I’ve always had great respect and admiration for the CPS men and wives who spent months, even years, as mental health hospital attendants working on this schedule.

Shortly, three of us who had been accepted into the new CPS Unit #92 were told to report to “Vineland Training School for the Feeble Minded” in Southern New Jersey to open up the unit. There I was stationed for the next three years. I will not take time to talk about this experience except to say that because it was a private institution, the CPS unit there came about only because Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, Pearl Buck, and Dorothy Canfield Fisher lobbied President Roosevelt for his permission to put a CPS unit there. Vineland Training School was an institution that was a leader in the care of, and scientific study of [what at that time was called] mental retardation. I was privileged to teach there for three years in the school and also served as unit leader for the last two years, from 1944 until July 1946. My wife Ruth joined me in January 1945, a month after we were married at her home.

General Background about Civilian Public Service in World War II
The sources for this information are The CPS Story by Albert Keim, which includes general information, an overview, and history of the CPS with the special attraction of photographs; a doctoral dissertation by Ted Grimsrud on four types of conscientious objectors and how they contributed; and The Turning Point by Alex Sareyan, which is a comprehensive treatment of COs and the mental health program. Some hospital units produced their own descriptive stories of their work and contributions, for example the Harrisburg Mental Hospital unit.

In all, there were 12,000 conscientious objectors assigned to 151 CPS base camps and units. The largest religious group was the Mennonites at 41units; next in size was the Church of the Brethren, followed by the Quakers. In all, the 12,000 men listed 201 different religious affiliations. Twice the number of COs in CPS, about 24,000 men, registered for non-combatant service in the military branches, and about 6,000 men went to prison rather than serving, mostly Jehovah’s Witnesses. Others, who had registered as COs, failed their physical exams and consequently were not drafted.

All 12,000 men in CPS were inducted first into a base camp and worked for one of the federal agencies: Soil Conservation Agency, the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, etc. This was the design of the federal authorities: to scatter these men into places out of the public eye as much as possible. For instance, there were six base camps in Virginia, but not a metropolitan center in the group: Grottoes, Luray, Galax, Lynnhurst, Bluemont, and Bedford. Mental health service was not in the original CPS plan, but came later as I will describe shortly. About one-quarter of the men in CPS (3,000) served in 61 mental institutions. Hundreds of CPS wives and some other volunteers served as well. The Mennonite Central Committee administered 23 units in mental hospitals; the Brethren Service Committee administered 10, and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) administered 8. In Training Schools, the American Friends Service Committee administered 6, the Mennonite Central Committee administered 5, and the Brethren Service Committee administered 3.

Impact of COs on Mental Health Services during World War II (1941-46)
The first suggestions for establishing CPS units in state mental hospitals during World War II came from a group of COs then assigned to two US Forestry Services units in Massachusetts. In their attempt to seek more socially significant work they approached a YMCA secretary close by. He in turn addressed their concerns to the superintendent of a nearby state hospital. The idea was passed on to the Massachusetts Commissioner of Mental Health. After a series of lengthy negotiations, approval came for establishing a CPS unit at the nearby hospital. The unit was slated to open April 1, 1942, under the auspices of the American Friends Service Committee.

Less than ten days before the date, the American Legion in Massachusetts condemned the assignment of COs to the state hospitals as un-American. Instead, it recommended that COs be sent abroad to give aid to the wounded, bury the dead, and dig latrines.

At the same time as the Massachusetts event, the Brethren CPS administration made a similar effort to place CPS volunteers at Elgin State Hospital in Illinois. That project was deferred by the protests of the American Legion and the local labor organization. Meanwhile, the three service committees–Friends, Brethren, and Mennonites–were working with Selective Service for approval to place CPS units at mental health institutions. The first CPS mental health unit was opened in June, 1942, at Eastern State Hospital in Williamsburg, Virginia.  Interestingly, it is also said that Williamsburg was the first state mental hospital in the United States. [Virginia] also saw the founding of the first permanent CPS base camp in May 1941 (seven months before Pearl Harbor) at Grottoes CPS #4.

Why were state hospitals and training schools in such dire shortage of staff and consequently so lacking for decent custodial care? Speaking foremost of attendant care: The war effort and better wages in civilian jobs (particularly those industries supporting the war efforts) drained much of the hospital staffs. Both the Keim and Sareyan books tell the story of the desperate need for hospital attendants at the Philadelphia State Mental Hospital, known as Byberry. In 1941 the hospital had 1,000 employees, but by October 1942 only 200 remained. Designed for 2,500 patients, the hospital held 6,000. There was one attendant for every 30 patients. It was into this setting that the AFSC established a CPS unit for patient care.

Within months the Quaker unit at the Philadelphia State Hospital became the center for the CPS movement to improve health care at the lowest level–on the wards. Four bright energetic COs published a monthly paper The Attendant, later called The Psychiatric Attendant. This paper was sent out widely to CPS units in mental health across the country. Its purpose was to empower readers at the attendant level toward better treatment for the mentally ill.

On May 6, 1946, Life Magazine published an exposé of conditions in US mental hospitals, which appeared under the headline, “Bedlam 1946: Most US Mental Hospitals Are a Shame or Disgrace,” and was written by Albert Maisel, a science reporter for Life. One source was “A View from the Lion’s Den,” the journal or diary of Warren Sawyer from September 1942 until January of 1946. Out of the Byberry connections and work, the National Mental Health Foundation was formed and chaired by Chief Justice Owen J. Roberts. On May 6, 1944, the nation’s big newspapers publicized this new organization, noting that 38 distinguished citizens had signed on as sponsors. By 1949, a National Mental Health Foundation week was established in April . These are two important developments in the mental health crusade. Among crucially important hospital units advocating for mental health care were the AFSC unit at Duke University Hospital and the AFSC unit at Connecticut State Hospital.

The Mennonite Mental Health Story
It wasn’t until the Civilian Public Service mental hospital program began that Mennonites made their next major commitment to the care of the mentally ill. Some 1,400 men had volunteered for service in one of the 28 mental hospitals and training school CPS units under the sponsorship of MCC. Some 400 wives of volunteers also served in mental hospitals or training schools. (My wife Ruth, in fact, moved from the MCC office in Akron, Pennsylvania to join me at Vineland Training School.) After the war, from 1945 until the early 1960s, approximately 3,000 more Mennonite people served in I-W units sponsored by MCC.

In Sept. 10-13, 1944, I was one of the 29 unit leaders attending a conference at Sideling Hill CPS Camp. Ralph Kauffman, a psychologist from Bethel College, challenged the group “with the unique opportunities the Mennonite Church has in finding its conscience and attitude toward institutions and patient care and in particular the possibility of the church operating mental hospitals guided by religious principles.” Some months later, in the spring of 1945, the MCC published a report: “Should the churches establish and maintain hospitals for the Mentally Ill?”

A positive answer to that question was on the move, but it took time, much deliberation, and expert planning. “By January 1946, the MCC in its annual meeting moved to recommend that plans be developed for the establishment of three Mennonite-sponsored mental health facilities: one in the East, one in the Midwest and one in the Far West of the United States.” Eventually the first of the MCC-sponsored mental health services opened on a 105-acre farm at Leittersburg, Maryland and was renamed Brook Lane–a 23-bed facility when it opened.

The second of the three MCC-sponsored mental hospitals, a new facility at Reedley, California, was under the direction of Arthur Jost, who served there as administrator until his retirement in the late 1980s. This new center was named King’s View. The third center under MCC, Prairie View, was built at Newton, Kan. The administrators were Myron Ebersole and Elmer Ediger. Later, two other hospitals were established under MCC: Oaklawn Psychiatric Center in Elkhart, Indiana, and Kern View Hospital in Bakersfield, California.

Finally, three Mennonite mental health facilities developed independently of MCC, but became affiliated with Mennonite Mental Health Services (MMHS), of which Elmer Ediger was a leader. These were the Eden Mental Health Center in Winkler, Manitoba; Philhaven Hospital in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, and Penn Foundation in Sellersville, Pennsylvania.

Gradually, the influence of Mennonite Mental Health Services grew and Mennonite Central Committee loosened its connections as the three mental institutions under MCC became able to administer their own programs with their affiliation to MMHS.

I would like to close my remarks with a tribute to the book, The Turning Point by Alex Sareyan. In 1988, in preparation for writing this book, Sareyan sent a questionnaire to men who had served in the 61 mental hospitals and training schools forty years before. His questions:

Reasons for Volunteering
Initial Fears
Hostility Experienced
Major Challenges Encountered
Reflections on the Positive Side
Effects of the Experience on Career Direction
Impressions of Former COs Who Made Return Visits to Institutions Where They Had Served

The results provided a good review of the long-term influence of the CPS experience in mental health and its effects upon the men and women who had these experiences in mental health service some 45 years previously.

About the author

Harold LehmanHarold Lehman, Harrisonburg, Virginia, was educated at Eastern Mennonite College (3 years), Bridgewater College (1 year), and Madison College (3 summers), receiving his degree from Madison (now James Madison University) in 1942.  At 91, he is the oldest living male graduate of JMU.  In addition to his experience with Civilian Public Service, he taught in the public schools, taught and was Director of Eastern Mennonite High School, was Professor of Education and Registrar at Eastern Mennonite College (now University) and concluded a 45-year career in teaching with 19 years as Professor of Education at James Madison University.  Photo by Nikki Fox/Daily News-Record