[Editor's Note: We're thrilled to have Matt Love, the editor of Citadel of the Spirit: Oregon's Sesquicentennial Anthology, blogging for us on a regular basis! Matt's series on Oregon history, titled "On Oregon," will appear every other Wednesday, in rotation with Kirsten Berg's rare books posts
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It is a little-known story rarely, if ever, presented in high school history textbooks: during World War II, 43,000 men declared themselves conscientious objectors (COs) and refused combatant military service. Almost half of this total came from the historically pacifist Quaker, Mennonite and Church of the Brethren denominations located primarily in the Midwest.
This astonishing 43,000 figure included 25,000 non-combatants (many who served as medics), 6,000 prisoners (men refusing service officially denied CO status), and 12,000 official COs who ended up in the Civilian Public Service (CPS) The CPS was established to put COs to work in a variety of public works projects for the duration of the war. In the West, this work entailed planting trees, fighting fires, and building roads. Several COs died performing these dangerous labors.
The National Service Board of Religious Objectors, authorized by the government to administer the CPS, established 143 camps across the United States to incarcerate the COs. CPS Camp 56, known as Camp Angel, was situated south of Waldport on the Central Oregon Coast, near Alsea Spit. Camp Angel earned a unique designation in that it was chartered as the only Fine Arts Program camp in the entire CPS system.
During its three years of operation, Camp Angel's 25-30 active members of the Fine Arts Program oversaw the production of many original plays, crafts made from a loom and wood lathe, and publication of mainly small press runs of handsome poetry books from the inmates, but also anthologies and literary reviews that included contributions from pacifists incarcerated in other camps. In essence, these temporarily stateless men pledged allegiance to an ideal, not a country, and made their own culture, a culture almost entirely distinct from the United States, and consumed it themselves. One of the Camp Angel men, William Everson, wrote a collection of poems titled War Elegies. In 1944 it was the first volume published the camp's Untide Press and contains some of the finest anti-war poems ever written by an American.
The CO camps officially closed in 1945, although some men were held over until 1946 so they wouldn't compete for jobs with returning veterans. Several of the Camp Angel Fine Arts Program participants, most prominently Everson, writer Kermit Sheets, and dramatist Martin Ponch, relocated to the Bay Area, and there ushered in what's now known as the San Francisco Renaissance, seeding much of the Beat Generation and all the rest of the counterculture that followed. Just think about that: the Beat Generation born at the wet and sandy Oregon Coast. No wonder Ken Kesey had such an affinity for the place.
Recently, out of sheer curiosity to investigate an incredible literary story not far from my home in Newport, and to stand on the grounds where men evinced a moral courage in almost total anonymity, I visited the old Camp Angel site. It's a Job Corps training center now, a vestige of LBJ's Great Society initiative. The last remaining building of the World War II-era Camp Angel was moved to Waldport in 1988 and now serves as the Waldport Heritage Museum, which does hold some CO-related material.
As I leafed through this material, the word 'counterculture' sprang instantly to mind, as in an authentic American counterculture undertaken at great personal cost to its practitioners. It wasn't like they were starting a weird-sounding rock band and struggled to get signed to a major label. They had no notion of irony or that their stand would turn out for the best in the end. In one of the more stunning photographs from Camp Angel, a tall, thin man named Glen Coffield appears with his hair in dreadlocks. Other prisoners wore their hair long tied back in a ponytail. In 1944! Who were these men? And I like to think I'm apart from things.
It moves me to the extreme to imagine Everson, Coffield and other men earning some release time from Camp Angel and exploring the beaches and woods around Waldport. I imagine them hiking down Alsea Spit, then nothing but a long stretch of sand without European beach grass, paved streets, houses, and satellite dishes. I imagine them carrying books and paints and musical instruments and cheap wine to end of Alsea Spit. They probably would've ignited a bonfire clearly visible to anyone from downtown Waldport looking to the ocean. Everyone seeing the fire would've known the men who sat around it and what they talked about. They must have considered these unarmed men very dangerous.
One young man named William Stafford counted himself as one of the CPS' 12,000 and spent time in camps in Arkansas and California (but not Camp Angel). He later emigrated to Oregon and went on to become the most renowned poet in the state's history, in fact, a National Book Award-winning poet and Oregon's poet laureate, best known for his poem titled "Traveling Through the Dark."
Stafford wrote a short memoir about his experience as an incarcerated conscientious objector called Down In My Heart: Peace Witness In War Time and in the opening pages he describes how he and a couple of other COs were nearly lynched in broad daylight by a mob on Main Street of McNeil, Arkansas, as they made their way across the South unescorted to their assigned camp in California. The memoir's narrative begins with the question, "When are men dangerous?" and Stafford almost found out the hard way. He later wrote of not recognizing his own country in the time of war and hoped one day that he would see a 'landmark' that would mark his return to a less savage United States.
In a time of world war and blind racist hate, what Stafford later described as a "barb wire time," he longed to see a landmark that signified a return to the country he knew and loved. Stafford knew it would take time and knew it would not happen on its own. "We live in an occupied country, misunderstood; justice will take us millions of intricate moves," he wrote.
If you think about it, that's exactly what the incarcerated men at Camp Angel were doing — applying a multitude of intricate (and totally unpublicized) moves in the hope they would one day lead to justice. Ultimately, they have not. But where would be without them?
Have you made your little move for justice recently?