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Conscientious objectors served without the sword

July 26, 1998

top photo: MIKE CRUPI / staff photographer

bottom photo: courtesy Irvin Cordell

Conscientous objectorsBy DON AINES / Staff Writer, Chambersburg

MERCERSBURG, Pa. - In 1930, actor Lew Ayres played a doomed World War I German soldier in "All Quiet on the Western Front." The experience made him a conscientious objector.

When the United States was thrust into World War II, Ayres put his convictions to the test by joining the Civilian Public Service before becoming a medical corpsman in the military.

The late actor, best known as Dr. Kildare in a series of pre-war films, was the most famous of the 11,996 men who served in the CPS.

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Most had common backgrounds, like Irvin Cordell and Paul Eby, both of Mercersburg, and Oliver Petersheim of Greencastle, Pa. They and 4,662 other Mennonites followed their religious convictions by serving their country with plowshares rather than swords.

Whether it was thousands of Mennonites, dozens of Unitarians, two Zoroastrians or the one member of the Truelight Church of Christ, conscientious objectors of religious and political backgrounds opted to serve rather than avoid the draft.

"We were taught, and I believe it was right, to follow the path of the conscientious objector," Cordell, 74, said Sunday at his home. He signed up as a "CO" a year before he entered the CPS in June 1943.

"We were under Selective Service, the same as anybody, directed when to leave and where to go," he recalled. He was assigned to The Grottoes, Va., working for the Soil Conservation Service, doing plowing, fencing and other field work.

Eby, 79, who lived in Hagerstown, was assigned to a former Civilian Conservation Corps camp in Sideling Hill, Fulton County, Pa., where crews did the same kind of work.

Petersheim, 79, also worked in The Grottoes camp with 100 other men. Later he worked in a smaller camp in Leitersburg. He said there were two Mennonite camps in the Hagerstown area and one each for Amish and Brethren in Christ church members.

Civilian Public ServiceUncle Sam owned the camps, but they were run by the "peace churches," the CPS veterans said. At the beginning of the war, an Army private was making $21 a month, but CPS workers got only room and board.

After Sideling Hill, Eby, who was married, was assigned to a Forestry Service camp in Camino, Calif. Cordell went to North Fork, Calif., where he worked in a Forestry Service motor pool.

Despite popular support for the war, the three men said they encountered little trouble because of their CO status.

"The day after Christmas in 1944, I was wounded in action ... I split my big toe with an axe," Eby joked. On medical leave, he took a train back East from Sacramento, Calif., with three GI's.

"They took care of me just like I was one of their buddies," he said, changing his bandages and getting him boxed lunches at stops.

Cordell could only remember being harassed by a group of men once in Harrisonburg, Va.

"You tried to stay out of those situations," Petersheim said.

About 3,000 conscientious objectors were assigned to mental hospitals, including Cordell and Eby. "Our fellows really did a lot to clean those places up," Cordell said.

On Cordell's first night at a hospital near Wilmington, Del., "the police brought in a fellow they said had been drinking two weeks."

The patient was no sooner restrained than he slipped his wrist straps and put a choke hold on an attendant. Cordell had to put a choke hold on the patient to get him under control.

Eby recalled a similar situation at the Norristown (Pa.) State Hospital, where a shell-shocked sailor broke his restraints.

Cordell said he'd never been away from home or seen his father cry until he left for the CPS. At the same time, "I was single and I was enjoying the travel."

For Eby, the worst part of his experience was being away from his wife Carrie for almost four years, but there was an up side.

"It was very well worth the four years. The agriculture was helping the farmers, the forestry was helping nature and the mental hospital was helping mankind," he said.

"He (Paul Eby) used to say, 'It was a million-dollar experience, but I wouldn't take a nickel more of it,'" Carrie said.

"I would do it over again," Eby said.

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