Like thousands of others, these Kansas City men refused to fight in World War II.

The Peacemakers 

Like thousands of others, these Kansas City men refused to fight in World War II.

Floyd Hermann is surrounded by signs of war. He lives in the three-story apartment building at John Knox Village in Lee's Summit. He's in his early nineties, but his friends say he doesn't look a day older than 73. Though his stride is clipped by a slight limp, he treads the retirement community's long corridors quickly, passing dozens of American flags hanging from his neighbors' doors. Some were torn from newspapers, others are made of cloth. He sees bumper stickers, too, tacked in place so as not to gum up the darkly finished wood: God Bless America! United We Stand! On a widow's door appear the words President George W. Bush spoke last September 11: "These acts shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve."

Hermann's neighbors are among those considered to be the heroes of the twentieth century. Having survived the Great Depression, members of their generation stormed Europe and conquered modern history's most evil dictator. No one cares to imagine what the world would be like were it not for their bravery and sacrifice. And now that a new villain has risen, they display their colors as if to declare that they'd gladly do it all over again.

There's no red, white or blue on Hermann's door. Like his neighbors, he was horrified as he watched television the day the World Trade Center fell. But to hang star-spangled bunting above the brassy numbers on his door would be to imply support for something he deeply opposes: the use of force anywhere.

"Nobody wins in a war," Hermann says. "Fellows are out there killing each other. They don't have anything against each other -- not personally. They're both innocent. But they're out there fighting each other and killing each other."

He felt the same way when he was in his early thirties, working at the old Union National Bank in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, when Japanese bombers pummeled Pearl Harbor. Soon his bank was selling war bonds. All around the city, neighbors waved flags from their front porches. They paraded down Grand Street. They sacrificed metal for new military machines. They ate less sugar and used less gasoline so the soldiers in Europe would have everything they'd need. Trains hauled loads of young men to army bases like Fort Leavenworth to be weighed, shaved and shipped overseas. But Hermann wasn't among them. He was a conscientious objector.

In early drafts of the United States Constitution, a clause allowed men to avoid military service if it contradicted their beliefs. It was deleted before the Constitution's ratification, though, "because it was thought to be unnecessary," writes Richard C. Anderson in Peace Was in Their Hearts, a historical account of conscientious objectors.

"A nation founded on the principles of religious freedom and settled by refugees from European military conscription could hardly be expected to invoke such a system in the new world," Anderson writes. When the war for independence erupted, George Washington ordered "all young men of suitable age to be drafted, except those with conscientious scruples against war."

When the draft was reinstated for the Civil War, this religious freedom was nearly abandoned. In that conscription law, conscientious objectors, commonly known as COs, were allowed to stay out of battle only if they paid other men to fight in their place -- an option most found reprehensible. Their only other choice was to willfully break the law, so some COs went to jail. Military commanders forced more than 4,000 of them to march unarmed onto battle fields. At Gettysburg, pacifists were forced to sit with soldiers dying all around them.

During World War I, members of three traditional peace churches -- the Brethren, the Mennonites and the Quakers -- were exempted from the draft; conscientious objectors of other religions had no choice. Even for the members of the peace churches, declaring themselves COs required taking a military oath, which these men couldn't do in good conscience. So many of them went to jail. Two died in a solitary confinement cell at the Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. Another seventeen perished at Alcatraz. In Burrton, Kansas, a celebration at war's end grew lethal when a mob seized John Schrag, a Mennonite who had refused to buy war bonds. They dumped yellow paint over his head and rubbed it into his beard before wrapping a rope around his neck and hanging him from a tree.

In 1940, as Adolf Hitler's assault on Europe intensified, members of Congress debated establishing the country's first peacetime draft. It eventually passed by one vote, and on September 14 of that year, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed it into law. "There are some timid ones among us who say we must preserve peace at any price," Roosevelt said. "To them I say this: Our freedom has shown the ability to survive war. But our freedom would never survive surrender."

Yet the law did allow for COs to forgo combat and combat training in favor of "work of national importance."

More than 72,000 of America's 16 million drafted men requested recusal from fighting in the war. Of the 43,000 allowed to avoid armed action, 25,000 served in the military as noncombatants, most of them as medics. Another 6,000 -- many of them men who opposed the war for political rather than religious reasons -- were imprisoned for thwarting induction. The remainder, about 12,000, took advantage of the draft law's new provision allowing alternative service.

Floyd Hermann, who came from a deeply religious family, was among the latter. His parents had immigrated from Germany at the turn of the century. "My father was in the military in Germany," Hermann recalls. "When he came over to this country, one reason was to get away from the service."

They settled in St. Joseph, where Hermann was born, and worshipped in a church where the sermons were delivered in German. In the 1920s, when Hermann was in his early teens, his father opened a chiropractic practice in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, and the family moved to a house just east of Prospect, near 37th and Indiana. They joined the Mersington Evangelical Church and attended services twice each Sunday and often on weeknights. (When whites eventually began leaving the neighborhood, Hermann's boyhood church moved to Raytown.) Hermann studied the Bible and took its commands seriously. "It says, 'Thou shall not kill,'" he says. "That's pretty clear. And the New Testament is 'Love thy neighbor. Turn the other cheek.' So it's peace."

When the draft notice showed up in his mailbox, Hermann didn't give it much thought. "I just felt like I couldn't do it," he remembers. "I would have gone in as a medic until I found out that I'd have to go into basic training first. I didn't want to go there. I didn't want to learn how to kill people. I felt like I could go out and get shot, if that would help any. But I couldn't kill people."

Hermann's girlfriend was dumbfounded. She urged him to join the Navy. "People called me all kinds of names," Hermann says. "They told me, 'If everybody felt like you, well, Hitler would come over and take over the country.' But I told them, 'If everybody felt like I did, there wouldn't be any wars. We'd settle things another way.'"

The weather was dismal that day in early December 1941. Pale clouds slumped against the icy horizon, and the Kansas wind was sharp. Ray Firestone was at an evangelistic meeting in Wichita when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The news was so disproportionately awful it didn't even register at first. "People didn't know whether to believe it or not," he recalls. "A pall just came over everything. Much like what happened when the twin towers collapsed."

Firestone had just emerged from an afternoon youth gathering and was on his way to the auditorium, where a marquee preacher was to give a sermon. Back then he could be found at the Methodist church "just about every time the doors were open," says Firestone, who now lives in south Kansas City.

His parents, who ran a small grocery in one of Wichita's poorest neighborhoods, were open in their disdain for combat. His father hadn't served in World War I, but he had witnessed the war through the lives of those who had survived it and those who had lost their sons. "They were opposed to war," Firestone says of his parents. "I heard about that all my growing days."

They also encouraged his religious activities. Like Hermann, Firestone took the Bible at its word. He devoured the writings of celebrated preachers and theologians. He tried to emulate Jesus. "It seemed absurd to picture Jesus in a uniform, dropping bombs over cities," he says. "It seems very out of character for what he would do."

Before Pearl Harbor, 83 percent of the American public opposed joining the war in Europe, a Gallup poll reported. But afterward, national support for the war became nearly absolute. Wichita was a hub of aerospace and war industries, so the fervor was particularly intense. But, Firestone says, "Wichita was a strange town." An Axis-friendly newspaper called Publicity was published there, and a radio evangelist named Gerald Winrod had visited Hitler's Germany and widely preached the dictator's virtues upon his return to Kansas. The city also provided sanctuary for pacifists: It had been home to the Quakers' Friends University since 1898. Firestone attended the college, and his draft notice arrived during his first year there. Several of his professors encouraged his decision to register as a CO.

Yet he still had to be processed like all of his war-bound peers. He boarded a bus for Fort Leavenworth. Upon arrival, the men filed into a wide room, where officers lined them up and told them to strip. They stood naked for hours, waiting for doctors to come by and press cold stethoscopes against their sternums. At one point, Firestone was called out of line and sent to an Army psychiatrist. The man scowled and barked at him: "You're a CO. Why are you a CO?"

"Because of my religious faith and my mental understanding," Firestone replied

"Do you have any mental understanding?" the Army official scoffed.

World War II came to be known as "the good war." Hitler's bid to control the earth and eradicate an entire race of people might have succeeded if American troops hadn't intervened. The threat was real, and all Americans were expected to join the team. Radio stations filled the airwaves with songs urging young men to enlist. Posters everywhere displayed haunting images of war and captions such as "When You Ride Alone, You Ride With Hitler!" and "Loose Lips Might Sink Ships." One showed a uniformed corpse draped over a barbed-wire fence and declared, "You Talk of Sacrifice ... He Knew the Meaning of Sacrifice!" In this atmosphere, COs were cowards, yellow bellies, draft dodgers and skunks.

When Hollywood star Lew Ayres applied for CO status, his wife, Ginger Rogers, filed for divorce. Ayres had starred in All Quiet on the Western Front, an antiwar film that won the Oscar for best picture in 1930. (In it, Ayres' character, Paul, spends a long night in a foxhole with an enemy soldier he has killed. "You're just a man like me," Paul cries to the corpse, "and I killed you. Forgive me comrade. Say that for me. Say you'll forgive me.") By the time he was drafted, Ayres was known nationwide as the idealistic Dr. Kildare, who, in a popular series of MGM movies, tirelessly pursued cures for deadly diseases. After he refused to fight, movie mogul Louis B. Mayer told Ayres, "You're through in Hollywood."

The actor eventually was allowed to serve as a medic, which disappointed young COs like Ray Firestone. "I think we all hoped he would be a full-fledged CO," he says. "That would have made more of a statement."

Lewis Berg, who lives with his wife near Weatherby Lake north of Parkville, lost his job when he registered as a CO.

Berg, who had earned a master's degree, was working as a math teacher near the Canadian border in Adams Center, New York, when his draft notice arrived. Berg was a member of an Evangelical church, the same kind Hermann attended. His hometown was Bremen, Indiana, a predominantly Mennonite community just south of Michigan. The beliefs of the Mennonites blended with his own Christian upbringing to foster a stubborn allegiance to peace. In college, his conviction deepened. At the time, America had been gaining perspective on World War I. The conflict had brought a new definition to human battle, its terrors so intense they bore a psychosis called "shell shock" that caused men to freeze in midbattle. Long after they returned from the war, these soldiers continued to be plagued by nightmares, chronic anxiety and uncontrollable anger. Berg's grandmother had a book of the war, with photographs depicting the horrors that had driven these men mad. "I saw then how awful the war was," he says. "I couldn't believe that people could do that to each other."

He didn't even think twice about registering as a CO. But in a small town like Adams Center, word traveled quickly, and school board members soon learned of their young teacher's intentions.

"That's when they made a grocer out of me," Berg recalls. The board fired him, and he ended up sacking groceries at an A&P in a neighboring town. Nearly a year passed before he was assigned to his Civilian Public Service duty -- the official name for the "work of national importance" COs were required to do in lieu of military service.

Government officials accommodated COs begrudgingly. The men were charged $35 a month for their keep. Those whose families couldn't pay the bill were supported by churches that paid off the government and passed along extra dollars so the men could buy soap and shampoo.

Government officials feared the COs' beliefs might weaken wartime patriotism, so they scattered the pacifists to dozens of isolated rural encampments from the Pacific Northwest to the deep South. And the young men ended up doing what some of them called "work of national impotence."

Berg was sent to a so-called agricultural experimentation station in Coshocton, Ohio. In theory, workers at such camps were filling soil-conservation jobs left vacant by men fighting in Europe. In reality, they were wasting away in the boonies, pushing dirt around. Some of their work -- such as planting entire forests' worth of trees -- would have a lasting effect. But often, COs spent days on end doing one task, such as digging a long ditch, and then overseers told them to turn around and undo it all. The work was pointless.

"Nothing of national significance," says Berg's wife Rudy.

"Or humanitarian either," Berg says. "[I] wanted to do something that would be more meaningful and would help out in a way besides fighting and going to war."

One day a fellow CO told him about a new work opportunity. The U.S. Forest Service's newly created "smoke jumper" fire-fighting program was languishing due to a lack of able-bodied men. Smoke jumpers parachuted down near the edges of fires, wearing wire-mesh masks to protect their faces against tree limbs during their descent. They carried shovels, picks and axes to contain a fire by altering the landscape.

And during World War II their country needed them, because the Japanese continually attacked the United States by rigging balloons with bombs and lofting them into the jet stream toward the Pacific Northwest. The Japanese launched more than 9,000 of these balloons, and nearly 300 of them landed in North America. Smoke jumpers were trained to disarm the bombs that hadn't detonated.

A CO stationed in Washington state, tired of meaningless conservation work, persuaded federal officials to allow pacifists to fill the vacant CO posts. It wasn't an easy sell. "When I first heard we were hiring conscientious objectors, I considered joining the Army," a former Forest Service employee recently told The Washington Post. But his impressions soon changed; the COs ultimately saved the smoke-jumper program, which is still effective today.

For a young man, jumping out of airplanes and battling blazes was thrilling -- and dangerous. But it still seemed soft. "I felt guilty," Berg says. "I didn't feel it was a big enough contribution to justify my time and energy."

In a labor market gutted by war, new opportunities for service opened at mental hospitals across the country.

"I felt I'd be more of use at one of those," Berg says. So he applied for and gained a position at the state hospital in Williamsburg, Virginia -- the first one to put pacifists to work.

The conditions in the hospital were abysmal. The existing staff had been drawn from the bottom of the labor pool, mean and lazy men who would just as soon beat up the patients as take care of them. Kept warm only by rubber sheets, patients slept naked on bare concrete floors that were soaked with urine. One patient died of tuberculosis. The COs complained about the conditions to the hospital's management, which ignored them. They requested an audience with Virginia's governor and then with the state hospital board, which agreed to launch an investigation. Newspapers published the findings, administrators were fired and conditions at the institution eventually improved.

Floyd Hermann and Ray Firestone also transferred to state hospitals midway through their service terms.

Firestone learned of the new opportunity from a fellow Kansan named Asa Mundell, who had stopped at Firestone's work camp on his way from a smoke-jumping unit in Montana to a hospital in Norwich, Connecticut. Firestone put in for a transfer and soon found himself working in the "ward for the semi-disturbed," where patients sometimes became violent.

"I was scared to death," Firestone recalls. "When I got there, they said, 'This is Mr. Lovett. He's your supervisor. Do what he says.' That was my only training." Though the Connecticut hospital was better than most, Firestone still witnessed cruelty. Some patients cowered when the newly arrived COs grabbed the long metal poles used to open the hospital's barred windows. When excitable patients grew violent, workers would wrap them tightly in wet sheets and leave them for long periods so the cold, heavy dampness would drain their energy.

Across the country, COs took their discoveries public. Based on information provided by COs at a local hospital, a Cleveland newspaper filed dozens of reports under such headlines as "Mental Patients Beaten and Shackled Here" and "Food for Mental Patients Revolting." Eventually, COs from various hospitals founded the National Mental Health Foundation, which aimed to expose the abusive conditions. Their accounts of life inside the hospitals became the subject of a book by Frank Wright called Out of Sight, Out of Mind and a long Life magazine article titled "Bedlam 1946: Most U.S. Mental Hospitals a Shame and Disgrace."

In postwar America, the vivid descriptions and haunting photographs awakened people to the shortcomings of mental-health care, and these exposés helped usher in an era of change in the country's approach to mental illness. But inspiring wholesale social change still wasn't enough contribution for some COs. Some of them agreed to be starved and contaminated with deadly diseases. "They felt they didn't want to be any less than those who were putting their lives on the line, than those in the service," says Firestone's friend Don Martinson, also a former CO, who lives in Wichita.

COs volunteered for experiments, the most notorious of which was the University of Minnesota's semi-starvation study. As the war raged on, destroying village after village in Europe, it became clear that vast numbers of Europeans would suffer starvation when the fighting ended. Scientists hoped to learn how best to nurse them back to health, so they enlisted dozens of COs who agreed to eat precisely measured rations of soybeans and flour over the course of a year. They slogged on treadmills for hours, burning more calories than they were taking in, watching nearly 30 percent of their body masses wither away. They posed for photos, sporting stylish 1940s haircuts as they flexed their sinewy biceps and pinched at the white skin ghoulishly stretched across their pointy bones.

Though Martinson had signed up too late to participate in the starvation experiment, he did submit to several illness tests. In one, he was contaminated with a live hepatitis virus. "There was a slight yellowing of my eyeballs," he says, "and I may have had a fever of a degree or two. But that was the extent of it."

Asa Mundell, Firestone's friend from Kansas, participated in a similar hepatitis experiment in Connecticut. He didn't fare as well as Martinson.

"I was given a capsule the size of the end of my little finger full of freeze-dried fecal matter from a sick soldier in North Africa," he says. A short time later, while working a shift in the hospital, a wave of feverish nausea washed over him. "I'm not feeling well," he managed to say to the head nurse. For the next three weeks he agonized in a hospital bed, riding a roller coaster fever and vomiting what little food or liquid he could force down his throat. "It was everything but dying," he says.

Mundell says he wasn't warned of the risk. "I don't think we thought it was possible to die," he says. "We just thought we might get sick a little."

But the experiment could have killed him, according to former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop. As a young surgeon, Koop assisted in hepatitis experiments on COs. "Some of these youngsters did die," Koop said in The Good War and Those Who Refused to Fight It, a documentary aired recently on many U.S. PBS stations, though not in Kansas City. "It was very difficult for me to be part of it because, you know, you're powerless when you're part of the big team." Koop said that such experiments "couldn't happen today. I doubt that even if they knew what the risk was, that an internal review board in any academic institution would consent to that kind of experimental work."

But whereas Koop appears to be ashamed of his participation in the experiments, Mundell is proud. "I think we felt it was something we could do to help," he says. "Not just to the military, but to the whole country. We helped other countries suffering with hepatitis. We added to knowledge and made a difference in the world."

Edward Epperson, former commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4050 in Kansas City, North, calls COs "chicken shits." He earned five purple hearts during the war, including one for a wound he suffered on Omaha Beach at the D-Day invasion of Normandy. "I swam through blood in that sum'bitch," Epperson says. Regarding COs, he says, "I haven't got much use for them, myself."

Earnest Williams, of Gladstone, was at Omaha Beach, too. He was seventeen. He resents the men of his generation who refused to fight the war. "It's a way of doing away with your responsibility," he says. "Nobody wants to fight. Nobody wants to kill. But you have to protect your rights."

Clinton Fry, who also lives in Gladstone, believes that in the face of threats to freedom like those presented in World War II, killing is just and right. He says he once shook hands with Paul Tibbets, the man who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Fry remembers that after Tibbets delivered a speech at the Truman Memorial Library in Independence a few years back, Fry asked him if he regretted what he did. "No," Tibbets told him. "I think I saved a lot of lives. Don't you?"

"I sure do," Fry replied. He was stationed in the South Pacific, waiting to be sent to Japan. "That would have been murder," he says.

While he understands that COs made contributions during their service terms and in some cases even put their own lives in danger, Fry believes that, in the long run, they simply didn't do enough. "Did you ever stop to think, if it wasn't for the veterans who went of their country to fight, where we would be now?" he asks. "Would there be freedom of religion? Would there be freedom?" He concedes the irony of his resentment: COs represent the very freedom he fought to protect. But it doesn't make him any less bitter. "I went to war so they could do what they were doing safe here at home," he says. "That's kind of cowardly, I think."

This sentiment was even more acute in the late '40s, when COs who had served tried to reintegrate themselves into American society. Returning soldiers swamped the job market, and their hero status made them top candidates for almost any position. Even though he had a college degree, for his first few years back Floyd Hermann washed dishes in a restaurant on the Plaza. When he landed a job at Southeast Bank, it was as a teller. By the time he retired, though, he was vice president.

Firestone sought a preaching career after the war. While he was finishing college, a church official assigned him to a student-pastor position at a congregation in Haysville, just south of Wichita -- an ideal location because he still lived at home and didn't own a car. But just as he was set to start the job, he was sent instead to a church in Rosalia, 45 miles to the east. To serve the position, he had to catch the Missouri Silver Eagle on Saturday nights and take the bus back to Wichita late Sundays. It wasn't until years later that he learned the reason for the sudden switch: The congregation at the Haysville church didn't want a pacifist preaching to them.

Berg went on to win a share of the Nobel Prize.

At war's end, he chose to continue his humanitarian service. He enlisted with the Quaker-run American Friends Service Committee and traveled to Europe to aid survivors of the war. The region's infrastructure had been decimated, so Berg and thousands of other volunteers delivered food and supplies. They helped rebuild bombed-out villages. They established "warming centers" where families could cook and sew new clothes. These became social centers where AFSC volunteers helped the war's survivors instill democracy by holding public meetings and fair votes. In 1947 the Nobel committee awarded the Quakers the Nobel Peace Prize for these efforts.

A few years later Berg moved to Kansas City to teach mathematics at what was then known as Park College. He claims no regrets. "None whatsoever," he says. "I could not bring myself to kill people. I thought it was unholy to say the least. I've never regretted that I've taken that stand."

Likewise, Firestone doesn't second-guess the decision he made when he was young. While he respects the decision others of his generation made to fight in the war, he believes his own life is richer for having decided not to go. "War destroys people, and it corrupts morals because you have to be taught to kill," he says. "And once you've been taught to kill, that's always in the back of your mind. You're never as sensitive to suffering and to other people."

"I never was sorry I did it," Hermann says. "It was right for me. Because it was just what I believe in. I don't like any violence. I don't even like it when there's violence on these movies they have here."

Firestone believes that terrorists must be stopped, but he doesn't agree that war is the answer. "Regardless of what you think about violence," he says, "you still have to have police to restrain the evildoers. That's as true in the world of nations as it is in local communities. You can't just let violent criminals run loose in neighborhoods. But we also can't have police tearing down whole neighborhoods to get to them."

In the end, Firestone says, wars are always settled by acts of diplomacy -- the leaders of nations sit down together and agree to peaceful negotiations. "We're asked what we think when we're in the midst of the conflagration. One hopes people will arrange their house so that there won't be a fire."

Like his neighbors at John Knox Village, Hermann wants to rid the world of the venom that would cause men to fly airplanes into buildings, killing thousands.

When he thinks about it, he seems to forget for a moment that he's more than ninety years old and that there's no chance he might one day open his mailbox and find another draft notice. "I'd be glad to help out wherever I can," he says. "But I'm not going to fight."

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