Civilian Public Service Experiences

John Downing


Even though living in Saskatchewan, Canada prior to W.W.II I was an American citizen because my parents were naturalized prior to my birth. Wheat farming was my occupation during the warmer months. The winter of 1941 I visited California and was told I could not return to Canada as the U.S. had registered me in the draft.

I then became a fireman on the Southern Pacific Railroad in San Jose. I had long been a railway "buff." I wanted to continue along that line but Uncle Sam sent "greetings" in June, 1943, with orders to report for firefighting at C.P.S. camp in Los Padres National Forest. A member of the draftboard bought me a ticket and personally saw I boarded a bus for Santa Barbara. I had to stand part of the way.

At Los Padres I went to sick bay from shots received to immunize me from various infections. There I was told to drive a pickup to get food and supplies for the men fighting a forest fire in the higher mountains. On one big fire line, Navy Sea Bees were fighting with us. One asked what we C.O.’s were paid. I said 2.50. The Sea Bee really burned up. He said they only got $50.00 a month. I explained that Two Dollars and Fifty Cents was the amount which made the man feel good but also incredulous at the small amount we received.

When there wasn’t a fire, we were in the warehouse with rangers repairing equipment. On our first wedding anniversary on August 15, my wife Marietta baked an angel food cake and sent it by mail. Sad to say, it did not include hacksaw blades for my escape.

The next spring we were sent to Belden in northern California along the Feather River near Quincy. Dr. Evans, head ranger for Los Padres National Forest, gave the C.O.’s a laudatory speech at our "send off" banquet.

My first assignment from Belden was a spike camp out of Quincy. Quincy was a patriotic American Legion mountain town. The citizens and forest service there made us feel disliked. At this spike camp, I was elected representative for the C.O.’s which eventually resulted in my being moved to an even more remote area further north. My wife and a cousin rented an apartment in the County Treasurer’s home. One evening, they heard through adjacent walls the owner crying and telling her father that people in the courthouse were demanding that she stop renting to such people when her husband was overseas. Marietta and cousin were teachers and during the summer months had tried to get work at the county hospital. The director told the cousin they needed people and would give her a job, but not the C.O.’s wife. The cousin did not take the job because she thought it unfair discrimination. We attended the Methodist Church in Quincy and a school teacher’s Quaker wife befriended us, giving moral support and having us over for Sunday dinner.

One evening, a forest service ranger who lived across the road from the spike camp(side camp) came storming into the barracks demanding to know where his daughter was. One of the C.O.’s and she had become friends. A little after that, much to their parents’ dismay, the two were engaged to be married. After the war, we visited the couple in Santa Barbara where they were happily married and he was a successful educator.

Several C.O.’s became spokesmen for the camp men trying to convince the command that all the C.O.’s need not be in spike camp 24 hours a day, 7 days a week waiting for fires in the mountains. Marietta walked out three miles from Quincy to see me until I was expelled to do timber cruising with a ranger in a more distant forest area of the region. We shared a trailer and checked timber cutters who were cutting trees for commercial lumber companies. They would cut trees over the designated lines where they thought they were far enough back not to be noticed.

There had been detached service work posted before I was sent to the back country. I had applied for a dairy testing job to save Marietta from paying $15 month board the Brethren Church provided for the C.O.’s who couldn’t pay their own. I was notified I was accepted for a milk testing job in Illinois for a Dairy Herd Improvement Association, giving me room, board and transportation to the location. I had gone to an agricultural college in Ontario, Canada until my father died, which provided the science background necessary for the work.

The farmers I worked with lived about 70 miles south of Chicago. On the whole, they were understanding of my C.O. status even though one farmer had a pilot son with l0 "kills" to his credit. In peace time, this pilot was a music teacher. I lived for a period of time with each farmer and his family. In one place I slept with the lost son’s room with all his momentous, pictures, etc. There was also a prison camp for German prisoners of war and one farmer of German heritage had a nephew in the camp. This farmer hired German prisoners to work and thought my anti-war stand was right.

I was just finished milk testing at another farmer’s place when news of F.D.R.’s death came over the radio. He and his wife were so overjoyed they danced a jig. I rented a room from a widowed school teacher in a nearby centrally located town for Marietta who came by train to visit the first summer. We became friends with the teacher and she invited me to her college daughter’s wedding the next winter. Her daughter was marrying an affluent young man from a prominent family in town. The widow had a young son, medical bills for her recently deceased husband, as well as the daughter in college in Chicago, hence she was renting her guest room.

Marietta was often invited to visit for meals when I tested at various farms. One family invited her to spend the day and night on VJ Day. It was wonderful for World War II to end although people were apprehensive about the atomic bomb.

Released the following summer, I was hoping to return to my fireman’s job and some day be an engineer. Even though Southern Pacific had sent me a letter saying I would get my job and seniority back, they decided that since I was a C.O. they would not rehire me.

Marietta and I then moved to Modesto, near her folks. My experience testing enabled me to get a job in the laboratory at the Milk Producer’s Association. When they went out of business, I was 57. The laboratory experience and advanced chemistry enabled me to work at Shell Development Laboratory until I could retire.


John Downing’s father was a socialist and thought war was most foolish. He left three good sections of land to a boys school. John had to rent land to farm.

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

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