The Adventures of a Conscientious Objector During W.W.II

Aaron Belansky


(This talk was given at the Memorial Day service at the Los Gatos, Ca. Unitarian Fellowship. The other speakers told of their differences as Conscientious Objectors during the Vietnam and Gulf Wars.)

I was born in Brooklyn, New York in August, 1921. My father came to this country before W.W.I as a young man without his family because he did not wish to serve in the Russian Army. The area he came from later became Poland after WW1, after World War II it became part of the Soviet Union and now it is in independent Belarusa.

While I was growing up in the twenties and thirties I heard about Eugene V. Debs incarceration in prison because he refused to support the United States participation in World War I. He ran for president of the United States on the Socialist Party ticket while still in prison. Since my father was a Socialist, that made a great impression on me. During the thirties a movement came out of England known as the Oxford Pledge. That was that an individual would not support his government. If it went to war, two friends and I took this pledge verbally among ourselves. Eventually, I was the only one to maintain this pledge when conscription started in the United States.

There were small advertisements in the New York City newspapers about claiming Conscientious Objector status to the draft. I contacted the Office of the War Resisters League (W.R.L.). The W.R.L. was founded in 1923 by members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation for philosophical pacifists and those of other than Christian faith. The F.O.R. was first organized in 1914 by British and German Christian Pacifists and started in the United States in 1915. The motto of the W.R.L. is "Wars will cease when men refuse to fight." I began to attend local meetings and reading the writings of Gandhi, Tolstoy and Thoreau. After the Spring semester of 1941 I quit college to work full-time since I knew that my parents would not support me if I were drafted into the Civilian Public Service Camps(CPS) for C.O.’s. Why did not my parents support me? We did not discuss that much. I do remember my father asking me, "But you will fight for Jerusalem? My answer was, "No." In the meantime I started to take Civil Service Exams for jobs for which I qualified.

A little of my background would be helpful. I was a rebel at an early age. I refused to go through with my bar mitzvah. When I was thirteen years old. I stopped going to the synagogue. However, I did not break the Jewish dietary rules. You will notice that I did not mention my Jewish ancestry in my Conscientious Objector form.

On December 7 I was in complete shock. I inquired about joining the Coast Guard because I thought that it was a civilian organization. When I learned that it was a military organization I gave up on that idea. I joined a civil defense unit. However, a few weeks later I received an appointment to become an apprentice printer at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington, D.C. When I was signing in I had to take a pledge to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, I said "Yes, by non-violent means." They were puzzled at first but when they checked with the Civil Service Commission they were told that it was okay. Apparently there were a number of other pacifists working for the Federal government. I registered for the draft as a C.O. on my 21st birthday in August of 1942. I had to fill out a Form 47 and answer all sorts of questions about my background and beliefs. I received my 4’E classification without much trouble and passed my preinduction physical examination.

I was drafted in February, 1943 and was sent to the Powellsville, Maryland C.P.S. camp which was administered by the Society of Friends or Quakers. Some of the other camps were administered by the Mennonites or the Church of the Brethren. They are known as the historic peace churches. There were fellows there from various backgrounds and religions. When I arrived there was a great deal of agitation by the fellows because they were upset that the churches were administering conscription for the government and paying all the expenses. Eventually the Selective Service System opened the first government operated camp at Mancos, Colorado (July, 1943) and I volunteered to be transferred there. I stayed there until November when I left camp A.W.O.L. I felt that I could no longer cooperate with conscription and it was a system of slave labor. I hitch-hiked across the country to New York. When I got home I was told that the FBI had contacted my father and that I should turn myself in as soon as possible. I went to the W.R.L. office and made arrangements to get out on bail. A number of people had put up the money for a bail fund.

I gave myself up at the FBI and was sent to the West Street Detention Center. I made bail after a few days. I got a job as an orderly at a general hospital and rented a room in Manhattan. My parents didn’t want me to stay with them. After a few weeks I was told that the Federal Courts wanted me to report to Denver. I told them that I couldn’t pay my way but that I would report there if they supplied my ticket. They refused and I was told to turn myself in again and have my bail rescinded. I spent a few weeks at the West Street jail and then I was brought to Denver County Jail. I was there about a week when I was transferred to the Littleton Colorado Federal Correctional Institution. A short time after I was shown to my bed located in a large dormitory I was asked by a trustee to sweep the floor. I had previously decided that I would not work in jail since I did not need to be rehabilitated. I refused to sweep and a short time later I was asked to go to the shower room. I was met by a group of inmates who started to beat me up. They broke my nose and bruised my face and body. Then they called the guard and I was put in a separate cell for my protection in a cell block of about six cells. The other in that cell block were there for disciplinary reasons or for reasons of security. After a few days I asked to go to Federal Court to ask the judge to reduce my bail. The bail had been increased to Three Thousand Dollars from the One Thousand Dollars I had in New York. The judge agreed and I made arrangements with the office in New York. A few days later I got out again. Arrangements had been made with the F.O.R. group in Denver to find a place for me to stay. I stayed with a Methodist minister and his wife whose son was a non-registrant ministerial student at Union Theological Seminary in New York.

After a few days I obtained a job as an attendant at a small private mental hospital in Denver where I received my room and board and a small salary. After a while I received an unusual communication from my draft board in Washington, DC asking me to go for another pre-induction physical examination. The psychiatrist at the induction center had some patients at the hospital where I was working. Naturally he knew me. I was given a 4-F classification for mental reasons as unsuitable for military service. I went to my court appointed attorney who contacted the US Attorney. They decided to drop the prosecution against me. I worked at the hospital for 3 or 4 more months. I decided to quit and go back to New York. Another C.P.S. walkout fellow took my place at the hospital.

My family. My brother was older and was drafted into the Army. He was never sent overseas since he hurt his leg during training. I had an older sister also. They did not support my views but we have always been on friendly terms during that period and since then.

I have been active with the Peace Center since I retired about 15 years ago. However, I have been a member since 1957 when it was founded.

The Collins Foundation. The Foundation owns the building in which the Peace Center has its office. The building was purchased about 10 years ago to give the Peace Center a permanent home. Prior to that the Center had moved many times since its founding in 1957. It was named for Rev. George "Shorty" Collins. "Shorty" volunteered for service during W.W.I and trained as a machine gunner. He was sent to France but never got to the front because the Armistice was signed. When he got back to New York he heard Norman Thomas speak in a church. Norman was a pacifist then and working for the Fellowship of Reconciliation(F.O.R.). Shorty decided to join the F.O.R. and became a field secretary in the South in the early twenties. Later he became a campus minister at a large university in the midwest. After he retired from there he took another position as a campus minister at San Jose State University and also as a field secretary in the Northern California F.O.R. In 1957 he was instrumental in getting several groups together to form the San Jose Peace Center. Much later, the Peace Center affiliated with the Fellowship of Reconciliation. The building is named "Collins House" in honor of him and his wife. The Collins Foundation is not a membership organization. It has a self-perpetuating board. I am a member of the Board of Directors and the Treasurer. We pay the bills by renting out a number of offices and accept donations. We are also the fiscal sponsor for a few other organizations since we have a non-profit status.

Direct action: I have not been arrested for non-violent action since I got out of C.P.S. In 1952 I married my wife who had 3 children from a prior marriage. I soon added 2 more of my own. I have had to maintain a steady job to support them. Now that my children are grown and on their own I have other problems. My wife is handicapped and relies on me a great deal. I promised her that I would never get arrested on purpose. I do participate in marches, demonstrations and vigils regularly. However, I am very careful about not getting arrested for civil disobedience.

Note: The author eventually moved to California and worked at various jobs. For two years he worked as a migrant farm laborer. For part of that time he volunteered as an aid to a farm labor union organizer in an early organizing attempt supported by H.L. Mitchell, a founder of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. I later returned to college and received a degree in accounting. I retired as a highway engineer for the State of California and am self-employed as an income tax accountant. I am a volunteer for the Peace Center and the Collins Foundation.

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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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