By Rachel Dworkin, archivist
On the morning of Monday, April 8, 1946, internees at the Conscientious Objector camp in Big Flats woke to find a flag reading “U.S. Slave Camp” on the flag pole in where the American flag normally flew. Weather conditions made it impossible to remove the flag until Wednesday. By that time, someone had put up boards baring the words “This Is a Slave Camp” with arrows pointing the way on trees leading to the camp entrance. These acts of protest did not go over well. The Corning American Legion wrote to Washington demanding a full investigation. The local papers were filled with angry letters and op-eds calling the conscientious objectors cowards and provocateurs just asking for trouble.
Lowering the flag, Elmira Star-Gazette, April 10, 1946
The Conscientious Objector camp in Big Flats on Rt. 17 near Bottcher Gardens opened in August 1942 at an old Civilian Conservation Corps camp. During the four years of its operation, some 1,000 men served there, although never more than 200 at a time. They were housed in four large barracks and worked for the Soil Conservation Service on their 250-acre experimental grass and tree nursery. The saplings they grew were used all over the Northeast for reforestation projects. They also helped clear roads in the winter and bring in the harvest on area farms. Some also participated in voluntary medical and nutritional experiments for the U.S. military. Unlike with soldiers, the government did not pay the men or help care for their dependents, so many took outside, part-time work in Elmira as well.
The men who worked there came from all walks of life, united only by their opposition to war. They were religious objectors, mostly Quakers and Jehovah’s Witnesses, mixed in with artistic types, and anti-tax political activists. Whatever their reasons for doing so, each had been called before their draft board and registered themselves as conscientious objectors. Each objector was required to select one of three church organizations to be affiliated with during their alternate service. The government had contracted with the Mennonites, Church of the Brethren, and the Quakers to run the conscientious objector camps. The one in Big Flats was managed by the Quakers.
There were problems at the camp almost immediately after opening. Within weeks, several of the men were complaining about the nursery manager’s hostile attitude. The Soil Conservation Service employees, meanwhile, complained about the underwhelming quality of the men’s work. On October 1, 1942, George Kingsley, Louis Krawczyk, and Stanley Murphy walked out of camp declaring that they could no longer perform such “insignificant work.” The three were subsequently convicted of desertion and sentenced to 2 ½ years in prison.
Objectors harvesting hay, 1942
Certain segments of the local community were not happy to have them. In March 1943, the Corning American Legion Post petitioned their congressman, Republican Sterling Cole, to investigate the camp. The Elmira Heights post seconded their call, claiming the objectors were “a stab in the back to our national security.” After an inspection in August, Congressman Cole erroneously criticized the camp’s management for allowing the wives and girlfriends of the men to visit the camp. About one-third of the men had dependents, and many of whom found lodging in Elmira so they could see their spouses when they came into town between the end of their required workday and their 10:30pm curfew.
Despite the initial friction, the camp soon became part of the larger community. Area companies and farms actively recruited objectors for part-time work. The men’s families came to the area to settle and take work too. Several of the objectors volunteered as orderlies at the Arnot-Ogden Hospital, while others helped to renovate a local youth center. The camp basketball team played in the Elmira city league as “The Big Flats Friends” and music groups from the camp played at local venues. In June 1944, the camp hosted an Institute on International Relations, which drew hundreds of locals.
The war ended in August 1945 and the government began discharging conscientious objectors and closing camps soon after. By the spring of 1946, the Big Flats camp was the last one in New York and the men were getting restless. In addition to the slave camp protest signs, they also wrote to Governor Dewey, asking for his help. In May, 40 men went on strike and kept it up for weeks until all the men involved were discharged. Finally, the camp closed on October 31, 1946. Today, few traces of the camp remain and, with our all-volunteer military, there are even fewer opportunities to grapple with the question of how we treat those who refuse to fight.