CPS Wife During World War II

Marietta Downing


When John and I met in February of 1941 I was in my third year at San Jose State. John lived with his widowed mother in Saskatchewan, Canada where he farmed grain most of the year. During the winter it would get 40 to 60 degrees below zero there without the wind chill factor so John and his mother lived in Modesto, CA. during the winter where he pruned fruit trees and grapes for farmers. He was an American citizen because his parents had become American citizens prior to his birth. In Modesto he became a member of the First Methodist Church because he thought some of the ministers were such good men. He also registered for the draft and was denied Conscientious Objector classification by the Modesto Draft Board.

We became most interested in each other and John said he would come back to San Jose after the grain harvest in the Fall. When he returned, he took a job working for the Southern Pacific Railroad which he enjoyed very much.

Franklin Roosevelt declared war in December, 1941. The draftboard denied John permission to return to Canada to farm in the Spring. John told me he would go to prison rather than be drafted 1-A. They sent him another l-A card and he appealed the classification. After John went before the Draft Board in Modesto and told them why he was a C.O., Rev. Arthur Wallace told John he had gone to the Draft Board and told them John was sincere and had taught a Sunday School Class several winters at the church. John did get a 1-AO classification. It was a relief that John would not go to prison.

We were married in August, 1942. I finished San Jose State with my credential and degree in 1943. John enjoyed his occupation of railroad fireman which was short-lived as he was drafted in July, 1943 and sent to Brethren C.P.S. camp. The church was generous enough to provide board and shoes for the men in their camps. We felt John should pay his way. I didn’t have any income and I did not want to go home to live off my parents who were elderly and could just take care of themselves after the Depression.

I took a business teaching position at Hilmar High School which was about ten miles from my parents’ home between Denair and Turlock. At that time, teachers were required to live in Hilmar during the school week, but I could go to my parents’ home on weekends. When I was first interviewed for the position I told the principal that my husband was a C.O. and a Methodist. I thought he should know because something might come up in the community. The principal was not shocked and said his father had been the minister of the Modesto First Methodist Church when the sanctuary and some classrooms had been built. Also, the shop teacher knew my brother who was now a Navy pilot. That may have helped the principal feel I did not come from a subversive family.

Our family had been long time Quakers in the Denair Friends Church. It is a branch of the Friends Yearly Meeting that had few Pacifists, even though they contributed to the American Friends Service Committee. My father’s father was a Quaker in Tennessee who had been taken from his home one night and put up on a platform to be tarred and feathered during the Civil War because he would not fight. Some of the local people came forward to say he was a teacher in the Quaker Academy in Friendsville, Tennessee and a Justice of the Peace, necessary to the community. He was set free. Even though my father was proud of his father’s bravery, he was much wrought up by W.W.II and Hitler. My father’s sister’s family, on the other hand, were Pacifists and two sons went as Quakers to France to do reconstruction work after W.W.I. Nevertheless, my parents believed in following your conscience and were free thinkers. They accepted and liked John as did my brothers, sister, friends and neighbors.

Most of the teachers at Hilmar also accepted John as a Conscientious Objector. However, when the principal knew John was coming home from camp for a few days, he asked that John come and see him. John met him in his office and he talked to him about changing his ideas. Later, he also suggested to me reasons John should not be a C.O. I replied that John would not be John if he were not true to his beliefs. The principal accepted that and remained our friend. His house was next to where I roomed. His wife tried to teach me to knit, but I gave up because I never could get the tension correct. Their young son would like to come over after school and talk to me. Some of the people belonged to the American Legion and the postmaster was one of them. He was hostile but not in an overt manner.

The people I roomed and had breakfast with were Swedish and sympathetic, even though they had two sons in the army. They invited John to dinner and to stay at night when he wished. They also had three daughters. When I moved after three years, the lady of the house said she felt as if I were one of her daughters. She and a daughter visited us several times in Modesto. I still have and use her waffle recipe. It makes the very best waffles. You do not beat the yolks and whites separately.

The C.O. Camp at Los Padres National Forest` was moved to Belden, near Quincy by John’s second summer in C.P.S. The forest rangers and town of Quincy were hostile to C.O.’s. Most of the men belonged to the American Legion. My cousin, a Quaker and daughter of my Father’s Pacifist sister, was a counselor in a San Diego High School. She decided to stay with me for the summer in Quincy where John had rented an apartment. One evening, I heard the landlady sobbing to her father through the kitchen wall that people in the town and the courthouse told her not to rent to a C.O.’s wife when her own husband was fighting for his country. She was taking her husband’s place as County Treasurer while he was away. My cousin talked to her the next day and asked if she wanted us to move. She said she had decided with her father not to ask us to leave. However, we felt we had put her in an awkward position.

My cousin thought we should find work in Quincy and pay for our summer there. We walked to the edge of town and applied to work at the County Hospital where the director of nursing ran the hospital. The woman offered my cousin a job, but said she would not hire a C.O.‘s wife. My cousin decided if I was discriminated against, she would not work there either. I applied for work at the forest service office. The head ranger was polite but non-committal. A week later, John was sent back to Belden. My cousin and I did not wish to be a further burden to our landlady treasurer. I went to my parents, made jelly and preserves, helped my mother with housework and made my dresses for the next school year. My cousin returned to San Diego.

The third summer John worked on detached service as a dairy tester in Illinois. I went tourist class on a non-air conditioned car to Chicago and down to Gibson City which was central for the farms where John tested cows. John stayed and boarded at the different farms. He arranged for me to rent a room from a schoolteacher where I could have kitchen privileges. She had a young son, a daughter in a college and was recently widowed. She turned out to be a Methodist and understood John’s beliefs. She was cordial and suggested that at times we could have meals together. She and I enjoyed being together to visit and we shared clothes washing; she would wash our clothes in the washer and I hung the clothes out. John stayed at night when he was testing milk at farms nearby. Some farmers’ wives invited me for lunch or dinner when he was testing at their places. One farm, that was a considerable distance away, the wife would ask me to come all day and spend the night. The war came to an end that day and we listened to the celebrations on the radio with the wife and husband that night. Our wedding anniversary was the next day. We went to the theatre in town. The people were happily celebrating the end of the war. The theatre was packed. It was unclear as to when C.O.’s would be released and people were beginning to hear about the catastrophic atomic bomb, which caused the end of the war celebration to become somber.

When John had first arrived in Illinois, a farmer in the Dairy Improvement Association had retrieved an old Model A Ford in his barn and given it to John so he would have transportation. It had no roof or useable front seat. John bought metal and wood to make a roof and front seat, but the brakes were very poor. We spent our free days sightseeing in Illinois. We went to Springfield to spend a few days with another C.O. and his wife. While there we enjoyed visiting Lincoln’s home when he was a lawyer, before he was elected president. We then drove back to spend a few days in Chicago before I returned home on the Western Pacific. While there we hit the back of a car because we couldn’t stop in time. Bumpers were strong then and neither automobile was damaged. Nevertheless, the driver jumped out of his car with very angry words. We didn’t say the brakes were bad. We just let him assume it was sloppy driving.

On the train back to California, many of the passengers were soldiers. The women traveling paired up with the soldiers, except for me and another young lady. The soldier opposite me on the Pullman saw me sadly tell John good-bye. After the train pulled across the Mississippi, the serviceman became overly cozy. I then moved and sat by a wholesome looking girl who said she had a scholarship to Mills College. We enjoyed each other’s company and did some sightseeing in Denver and Salt Lake City. We had a lovely lunch in a beautiful restaurant she had been to on a previous trip, in Denver.

When traveling, whether by bus or train, I always told anyone I was sitting next to that my husband was a Pacifist and what he was doing. Most accepted it well and were interested. However, on the way home from San Francisco one Christmas vacation, a soldier I was conversing with abruptly moved away as soon as another seat on the bus was available.

The next school year, a new math teacher and alumnus of Hilmar High, made life most unpleasant. Most women’s husbands were officers or enlisted men in action-her husband was an officer. She tried to exclude me from the women’s social gatherings and trips after school. The others did not. She also pointedly invited other women teachers to her home in my presence and did not invite me. She left at the end of the school year.

The last summer, another P.E. teacher and I drove back to Illinois in John’s almost new pre-war Chevrolet. John had meant to replace the tires when their sale was "frozen" due to the war. We drove at the wartime speed limit of 35 miles an hour which saved gas and tires. Even so, a huge bubble erupted on one tire just outside a small time a small town east of Salt Lake City. When we inquired about help, we were directed to the local station owner’s home. He cheerfully opened his garage and repaired it. We wired John the next day that we were having tire trouble. He was at a dairy member’s home having dinner when he read it. The man had a car dealership in town and told John he would get him a new tire. He did.

The last of July, 1946, John was released from C.P.S. We spent about six weeks sightseeing and visiting relatives in eastern and western U.S. and Canada. At the time John was released it was as if we could be together forever. Now still having many responsibilities and duties, what in youth was forever has quickly passed.

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from Roots and Fruits, a publication of the Stanislaus Peace-Life Center and the Stanislaus Safe Energy Committee

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