Original Document
Original Document
David A. Swift, On alternative service as a conscientious objector during World War II, 1992.

A conscientious objector during World War II, David E. Swift later became a professor of religion at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, the nation's first black college, and then at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. In May, 1961, Swift participated in one of the first Freedom Rides, to Montgomery, Alabama, where he was arrested and jailed for five days for attempting to integrate a lunch counter. Swift was interviewed by West Chester University student Jerry Bailis on May 3, 1992, for an oral history project with the Chester County Historical Society on the Chester County Homefront in World War II. David Swift died in 2001.

DAVID SWIFT: I had no experience of Quakerism before about 1938, when I was teaching school out in Colorado Springs, out of college a year or two, and there was very clearly a big military build-up in central Colorado that was very much in evidence. And I began to think about the fact that there seemed to be a likelihood that a war was coming. I had gone to England with my college roommate the summer after I graduated from college. That was the summer of 1936. And we went over to Germany after we had spent several weeks in England. And we happened to be in Freiburg, Germany, at the time that there was a Nazi rally of storm troopers. As they marched through the main street of Freiburg we watched them, six abreast, solid phalanxes, for over an hour. It was a huge group of soldiers!

So it was perfectly clear then, in that summer of '36, that Germany was expanding its military forces, and presumably was going to be engaged in some kind of military operation. It wasn't clear at that time what that would be. But I was thinking about the probability of the coming of a big war, really from my time in college on. And I had some exposure to pacifism as an undergraduate in college. My roommate was a more heartened pacifist than I was. And I had a teacher in my graduate school work who was a Congregational minister as well as a Ph.D. in church history, who was a pacifist. And we had an undergraduate person who had a lot of influence on my roommate and me and my younger brother, [who] was the secretary of what I guess could best be called a student Christian association that was doing work with undergraduates. This man was a very persuasive pacifist, so that I think I owed-well, one or two other people-but I owed a good deal to him, in pointing me in an anti-war direction. Also to my mother. I think my mother, though she had never had anything to do with Quakerism, she was fundamentally opposed to war, very strongly opposed to it.

Anyway, by the time I finished teaching in Colorado Springs, in 1938, I decided I ought to get to know something more about Quakers, because I had heard that they were conscientious objectors. It isn't true. Many Quakers are not conscientious objectors to military service. So I chose to get acquainted with some that were, and I went to a summer work camp run by the American Friends Service Committee in the summer of 1939, the summer after my first year in graduate school. That work camp was located in western Pennsylvania, and it was very, very influential on me. The director of the camp was a man I came to respect a great deal, also his wife.

And I then was offered a job by the American Friends Service Committee the following summer, which would have been after two years of graduate school, directing a small Quaker work camp in Scott's Run, West Virginia. The work camp project there was to join in with the unemployed coal miners. There were many, many unemployed people-very low standard of living-joined with the unemployed coal miners' families in a large cooperative garden, where they were trying to raise their own food, so they wouldn't have to buy groceries. The campers in that camp, some of whom had been in the camp with me the previous summer–they reinforced each other and me in our pacifist conviction.

I was not actually drafted until–well, I had to register for the draft, about 1939, and my college roommate had to register for the draft, and my younger brother had to register for the draft. My college roommate refused to register for the draft at all, and was given a prison term in Danbury Prison, which is a very gentlemanly prison, Danbury Correctional Institution in Connecticut. My younger brother was also given a short prison term, sent to the same place.

By the way, my older brother was a career Marine, and he fought through World War Two in the Pacific, including on Guadalcanal, where he and the other American Marines came very close to being wiped out by the Japanese. So we had three different positions taken in relation to the war by my older brother, the Marine, my younger brother, in prison, and myself. I signed up for Civilian Public Service as something that was open to conscientious objectors, and more useful, I felt, than going to prison. I think I was also scared of going to prison; it's not a place one would want to be.…

JB: What was your roommate's name?

DS: My roommate's name was David Dellinger. David Dellinger became, I think it would be safe to say, a notorious pacifist, because he not only refused to register the first time, and was given a one-year term in prison, he refused to register after he came out of prison, and was sentenced again, this time for two and a half years, in the Lewisburg, Pennsylvania prison, which is a much less pleasant place than Danbury. And he became a lifelong crusading pacifist, leading marches during World War Two, having yellow paint thrown at him, because he was a coward, according to the people who were throwing the paint at him. He was a very brave, persistent witness.

I like that word: witness. Witness to the futility of war, a fact that war, even though you may see practicable reasons why a certain war has to be fought, war is a wasteful, barbaric custom that human beings have got to grow out of. And that, of course, was what we as pacifists were bearing witness to. We didn't know the full story of the horrors of the Nazi regime, but we knew that from a practical point of view, Germany had to be stopped. Now, in every war that's fought, there's a good, practical reason why it needs to be fought. So the pacifist, of course, stands aside from those practical necessities and tries to make a statement regarding the futility, wastefulness, and cruelty of resort to war….

JB: How did your mother raise you? You said she influenced you?

DS: … My mother was a powerful force in the direction of pacifism because of her distaste for any kind of cruelty. And she was firmly convinced war was not necessary. The position I eventually came to as a pacifist was her position. She was not ever in danger of being drafted, but she was, I would say, 200 percent in support of my younger brother and me when we became conscientious objectors. She also supported my older brother, though, in the Marines. As a mother, she had to; she wanted to support each of us. My father–he was a rancher–he was about due to be called up, in World War One … when armistice was declared. So he was prepared to fight, and I always had the feeling that he was probably more strongly behind my brother as a Marine, than my mother was.

JB: What was the procedure of applying for conscientious objector status?

DS: You registered for the draft when you were told to. I did it at graduate school at Yale, and there the form had on it the 4-E classification. And if you wanted to declare yourself as a conscientious objector–you see, it was legal to become a conscientious objector if you were certified by the local board as sincere in World War II. It was totally illegal, and impossible, in World War One. So there was a major change from World War One to World War Two. And the peace churches, which included the Quakers, the Mennonites, and the Church of the Brethren, had a great deal to do with working through with Lewis Hershey, Director of Selective Service, the Civilian Public Service option. So I asked for a 4-E classification, and then I had to write a statement in support of my request for a classification to be submitted to the local Draft Board in New Haven. And I did that, a fairly long statement. And I expected they would cross-examine me, call me in and ask to talk, because I didn't pull any punches as to how extreme my position was. But they just gave me the classification….

JB: What was the name of the camp that you were first assigned to?

DS: Petersham. It's the name of a little village in western Massachusetts.

JB: And what did you do there?

DS: I was primarily cutting up wood. There was a lot of fallen hurricane timber, timber that had been blown down by a hurricane a few years earlier, which was a fire hazard. And the U.S. Forest Service was trying to clean it out, and so they had some practically free labor, and they set us to crosscut saw work, axe work, cutting it up, setting it up in cords, you know, neatly. And that was the main project, for the camp. We also dug, or deepened water holes to be used in fire fighting, to provide a supply of water for fire engines.

JB: Did you feel that what you did was important to the community?

DS: Well, that's the crucial question that was bothering me a great deal, and bothering my fellow campers. We went into the camps with the understanding that we should be positive in our attitude toward it. It should be like a volunteer work camp in the summer, such as I'd been involved in twice. Whether we were doing something that used our brain power was unimportant; we were doing something of practical use. And certainly we were being given a good break, from the point of view of the army.

There were several things, though, that made us get restive. One of the negatives in it was that the peace churches had arranged with Selective Service that we would get almost no pay. In other words, and at the time we joined, we were drafted for one year. So we figured that somehow, by hook or by crook, by wives working, families helping, we would be able to make it with only about two dollars and fifty cents a month pay. It was just a token something for shaving soap and razor blades.

I went into Civilian Public Service in late August of 1941. Pearl Harbor was December 7th, 1941. After Pearl Harbor, it was clear that this was going to be a long, drawn-out war, and probably lasting for years. You didn't know. And we became very resentful on two counts: resentful that Selective Service wasn't using us to exploit our abilities to a greater extent. I mean, most of the people in my camp were college graduates. Several of them were Ph.D.s; several of them had written books. Several were gifted artists. And we didn't have much money. Some of us were married, as I was, and one or two had children. It was an impossible financial situation. And we had the ability to be doing things more useful, doing work of greater national importance than what we were doing.

So we rather quickly, from December on, became very critical, and I wrote a long letter to the Service Committee… a very critical letter, which said that they had to do something, to get Selective Service to change the nature of the work that we were doing-at least offer the option of more demanding jobs, not physically more demanding, but overall more demanding. And they talked with Selective Service, and requested that Selective Service approved my being put on so-called detached service, to go down to Philadelphia and start trying to find these other projects, which would be more useful to the country than working on hurricane timber.

So I did; I went down there, and I worked in Philadelphia, for about three years, in the course of which I had a lot to do with the opening up of work in mental hospitals, which became one of the largest forms of alternative service. I think there were thousands of C.O.s who worked in the mental hospitals, that is, Brethren, Mennonites, and Friends. Mennonites were happier in the camps, because some of them came from a farming background. Friends, almost none of them came from a farming background, so you had the greatest degree of discontent in the Quaker camps. Anyway, one of the mental hospital units I helped to set up. That meant going to visit the superintendent, telling him about this possibility of comparatively low-priced labor, and well-motivated people. I talked with the superintendent, Zeller. I can't remember his first name. And a hundred men were placed in Byberry Hospital, working on the men's side. There were almost no male attendants left at Byberry, which at that time had about 6,000 males, and 6,000 females, with just a tiny number of men who had not gotten better-paying jobs, or gone into the service. Eventually, my last year in Civilian Public Service, I worked as an orderly at Philadelphia State Hospital, known as Byberry.

There were other projects that C.O.s were involved in. By the way, Selective Service let the hospital pay us ten dollars a month, instead of two dollars and fifty cents, so our situation improved slightly–not very much. There were some other very dramatic projects that Selective Service liked, because they were dangerous, and sort of tested the sincerity of C.Os. One was a so-called smoke jumper unit, out near Missoula, Montana, [where they] dropped with a parachute to fight forest fires. And there were several so-called guinea pig projects, which had an element of danger involved. C.O.s volunteered to be subjects in experimentation in jaundice, and one or two other areas where there was some danger not only of getting sick, but even of you getting sick to death.

So there were a variety of other projects, but what we had hoped was that Selective Service would allow us to go overseas, and serve in a civilian ambulance unit somewhere, where we were closer to the war, and we were in a kind of dramatic way, doing something to save people's lives instead of destroying people's lives. But Selective Service would never send us out of the country. To become an ambulance worker in World War II, you had to be inducted into the Army, and request, as you were inducted, to be assigned to ambulance service. And for the most part, we were unwilling to be inducted into the Army. It was the machine that we were condemning.

So we were insisting on civilian work, and Selective Service refused to send us as civilian ambulance workers, overseas. For a while it looked as though they would, and we had group learning Chinese, training to go to southwestern China, to serve as an ambulance unit. And the war was going on in China, I think it was between Japan and China. And they were just about ready to fly, or go by boat–I forget which–when Selective Service said, "We've decided we're not going to let you send those men out of the country." They wanted to keep the conscientious objector out of sight, and above all, they didn't want the conscientious objector in any admirable role, admirable from the general public's point of view. So, they wanted to make it as difficult for us as possible, without being cruel to us, and they wanted the work to be unglamorous.

By the way, every time I went on a trip, as I often did on my job when I was in Philadelphia–I would go to the Middle West, or to the West Coast, to talk to the guys in the camps, explain to them these new forms of work, or to visit hospitals where they might use conscientious objectors–most of the other men who were riding the planes and trains at that time were in uniform. And I often sat with a Marine or an Air Force person, and I always made it a point to tell them before we parted why I was there in civilian clothing. And I was very much moved by the fact that in every case, they were admiring of me. Basically they said, "It takes a lot more guts to do what you're doing than it does to go into the military." That was very, very encouraging to me. My older brother didn't ever say that, but he treated me and my younger brother with complete respect, never a hint of negative judgment.

JB: What was the most satisfying work that you did during C.P.S?

DS: Getting these new units opened up.

JB: Was the manpower used well?

DS: In these new units? Yes. They were desperate for help. Now, I don't mean that we were really not doing anything that utilized our brain power, or our special background, our special training, any more than in the wood-cutting camp. I mean, you could get a job as an orderly in a hospital with absolutely no background, no education, beyond being able to read and write. But we were desperately needed. Those patients were taken care of a great deal better, because of the fact that we were there. So we were meeting a real human need.

JB: In your first assignment to a C.P.S. camp, what were the backgrounds of the gentlemen there?

DS: There were about thirty-five in the camp. There were several farmers, I think I mentioned that. But most of them were not from an agricultural background. There was a Ph.D. in history Carlton Mabee, who's book The American Leonardo, on Samuel F. B. Morse, had just been accepted for publication. There were two artists, one of whom, William Castle, is a fairly distinguished New York artist. A couple of other people who were going into academic life, one of whom has taught many, many years at some college in upper New York State. And some were from a business school background; I think one or two were accountants. And there were a number-well, one of them was a sophomore in college; a number of them were just getting out of college, so they hadn't really gotten established. I was older than most of the others….

JB: What made the work most satisfying?

DS: The camaraderie was the most important part of my work in the woods, in Massachusetts. The human need that we were meeting in hospitals, as I indicated, that was what made it seem much better, although it was still routine work. So in my work in the hospital ward, I was on the so-called death ward for six months. The people were there in last stages of syphilis and arteriosclerosis, and many of them aged, but some younger people. One of them committed suicide by hanging himself from his bed.

Credit: David E. Swift, interviewed by West Chester University student Jerry Bailis on May 3, 1992. Chester County Homefront Oral History Project, Chester County Historical Society.
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