Ted Neff’s battles began with Form 40 and his own father.
“If you do this,” his dad told him, “don’t come home anymore.”
Even so, Ted sat down in his rooming house with the eight-page Selective Service questionnaire. He reached for words about his belief in nonviolence, one he would often be called upon to defend.
He explained why he would not fight in World War II.
Jesus’ teachings in the New Testament call us to a peaceful world, rather than a war-filled, killing world.
In 1941, Ted was 20 and soon would graduate from Otterbein College, a United Brethren school in Westerville, Ohio. He’d grown up nearby in a German Lutheran family, the lone boy among four children under the roof of a strict father who was a textile salesman.
The textbooks in Ted’s political science class taught him that the bloody war raging in Europe could have been prevented. He believes that still.
That summer, he quit his job in a children’s savings department when the bank started selling war bonds.
In the fall, the draft board rejected Ted’s first application for conscientious objector status.
When he appealed, standing before five men in suits, Ted’s campus minister (who soon would be his father-in-law) and his uncle were there to support him.
Asked whether he was nervous, Ted, now 94, closes his eyes, and then says he can’t remember.
“I knew where I was coming from. I knew that I would cooperate as much as I could — but I would not be active-duty military.”
The draft board approved his application.
Four days after Pearl Harbor, Ted was called up.
Of the 34.5 million men who registered for the draft during the war, 72,354 applied for conscientious objector status.
Of those, about 27,000 were exempted from service after failing physicals, 25,000 served in non-combat roles and 6,000 went to jail for refusing to sign up for the draft.
Ted and about 12,000 others chose to perform alternative service.
He worked in Civilian Public Service camps, formed in a partnership between the U.S. government and the Brethren, Quakers and Mennonites.
In the 152 camps, COs typically did hard labor, six days per week, doing jobs like building dams or roads. Promised “work of national importance,” they lived in rundown barracks, made of lap siding and tarpaper, left behind by the make-work programs of the Great Depression.
COs were expected to pay the government $35 per month, for room and board. Church congregations usually paid on their behalf and gave the men $15 a month, money that they could spend on, say, getting a haircut.
Other COs fought forest fires, served as medics or volunteered for medical experiments, including starvation research.
Ted worked on an Ohio tree farm until the government closed it. Hopes of joining a Quaker mission to China were dashed by a federal funding cut, so he did reforestation and fire suppression work in West Virginia.
On farms in the Shenandoah Valley, he and other COs ate slop between long, hot hours of hacking down dried corn stalks.
“They treated us like war prisoners.”
Frustrated because farmers sometimes stood and watched with contempt — and let tractors that could do the same work sit idle — Ted risked prison by refusing to work.
He told his supervisor, This is not work of national importance.
For two weeks, Ted cleaned up after the camp’s more than 150 men. Then, he caught a break.
With three weeks of training, he was given a job as the director of a hospital unit at Rhode Island school for mentally disabled delinquents.
“ ‘School’ was a euphemism. It was a prison.”
His young bride, Almena, whom he’d married while on furlough, joined him on a skeleton crew, feeding, caring for and trying to control some 600 boys and young men and 300 women and girls, in overcrowded buildings reeking of sweat.
In one, the lowest functioning boys sat for hours in a room with a concrete floor slanting toward a drain. It was hosed down twice each day.
A new assistant supervisor, a Jewish psychiatrist who’d fled from the Nazis in Europe, helped Ted and the other COs change the treatment of patients who had been routinely beaten and locked in closets.
They plugged in the institution’s first radio and filled the room around it with games and books.
Later, a Life magazine article detailing the conditions COs found in mental facilities across the country led to reforms.
At war’s end, Ted spent six months running a warehouse, baling clothing and blankets bound for Europe, part of a massive relief effort that won the American Friends Service Committee the Nobel Peace Prize.
He remembers other German-Americans bringing clothes and insisting they should not go to Nazis.
“I’m sorry,” he told them, “but we don’t discriminate.”
Next, Ted joined the huge influx of new Californians. He moved to Costa Mesa and began teaching.
There, his beliefs would be questioned again.
During the McCarthy era, teachers were asked to declare their associations. Ted wrote down his membership in the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an interfaith peace group. He scribbled down the American Civil Liberties Union, too, because a friend had bought him a subscription to its newspaper.
Unbeknownst to Ted, the ACLU had fought — and won — a case for pickers against orange growers in the county before he arrived.
It was enough to get him fired.
School districts with openings across Southern California refused Ted interviews. He’d been blacklisted.
When Ted did find another job, as a principal and, later, as curriculum director in Palos Verdes, questions about his allegiances dogged him. He lasted seven or eight years there, he says, before a superintendent, maybe worn down by defending him, ended Ted’s contract with no explanation.
Ted moved to Davis after accepting a job in the state Department of Education, where he remained until retiring. There, he worked to eliminate discrimination in teacher hiring.
On his own time, he lobbied for Quaker causes, like ending capital punishment, at the state and federal level.
He and others from the Davis Friends Meeting organized a silent peace vigil in G Street Plaza that has continued each Saturday since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.
Though World War II is often called “the Good War,” Ted makes no apologies for refusing to fight.
“It’s not a war unless people are killed or are in danger of being killed. There’s nothing about any religion that involves the necessity to kill.”
Here, his voice rises.
“Violence is a mental aberration; it’s a physical aberration; it’s a spiritual aberration; it’s a social aberration.”
He looks near tears. His voice softens.
“Sometime, somewhere, somehow it’s got to stop.”
Ted has not been able to attend the Saturday peace vigil for some time.
He began using a walker after a fall cracked his pelvic bone. He needs a catheter because of an ongoing struggle against the side-effects of radiation treatment for prostate cancer back in 1956.
Ted’s first wife and the mother of his three children, Almena, died in 1999.
It was before they married that Ted and his father reconciled, in the quiet way men sometimes do.
Ted’s father and mother turned up to help with the wedding planning. No words were spoken about Ted’s conscientious objector status.
“He didn’t say he was wrong, but he became my dad again.”
Ted married his second wife, Paula, herself a widow, nine years ago.
The couple first met decades earlier, in Costa Mesa, at meetings of the same peace organization that helped cost Ted his job there. Paula’s first husband, a disillusioned veteran, joined them up.
Ted counts among his friends at University Retirement Community a retired psychiatrist.
Vlade Dupre was a conscientious objector, too.
Sometimes, the two white-haired men sit together, telling war stories of a different kind.
— Reach Cory Golden at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8046. Follow him on Twitter at @cory_golden