In January 1943, a little more than a year after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Bill Everson boarded a bus in Fresno, California, headed for a camp in a place he'd never seen. His draft number had come up, and although he didn't want to go, he knew he must. He'd already missed the earlier call for his scheduled departure, lingering in the station with his wife, Edwa, as if they could somehow hold off their coming separation. When the next bus came, it was a scene like those played out all across America at the time—the hugs, the tears, the goodbye waves through windows grimy with exhaust and road dust—as the country mobilized to take on Hitler, Hirohito, and a world at war.
Except Bill Everson wasn't going to war. He was one of more than 50,000 men during World War II who were conferred status as conscientious objectors, or COs. About half of them were inducted into the armed forces to perform some manner of noncombatant work, nearly 14,000 were classified as unavailable due to medical or other conditions, and about 12,000 like Everson were classified 4-E, eligible to do "work of national importance under civilian direction." Rather than fight or otherwise engage in war-related activities, Everson would spend his conscripted years at a CO work camp in Oregon—Camp Number 56 at Waldport, one of the eventual 150 scattered across the country for the Civilian Public Service (CPS) program, part of the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940. Some of the men in the CPS were assigned to work in such places as mental hospitals, or volunteered as human guinea pigs for medical experiments. The majority, though, were sent to remote rural areas, where they did work similar to that done by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) of the 1930s New Deal programs. Many of the CPS camps were, in fact, originally CCC camps. The camp spaces, work equipment, and job supervision were provided by the U.S. government; everything else, including room and board for the men, was handled by one of the three "historic peace churches"—the Brethren, Friends (or Quakers), and Mennonites. The COs would generally work eight-and-a-half-hour days, six days a week, with no pay beyond a $2.50 monthly allowance for basic needs such as toothpaste and shaving razors. They had Sundays and Christmas Day off, with furlough days available similar to their counterparts in the military. Their service term would last the duration of the war plus six months. Depending on a camp's location, the work might be in forestry, soil conservation, agriculture, fish and wildlife management, or even weather research. Camp Number 56, just south of Waldport, on Oregon's central coastline in the heart of logging country, would focus on tree planting, road building, and firefighting.
Everson arrived the next day just in time for supper; he was taken directly to the mess hall, where about one hundred other camp members were already seated. "It was certainly an unusual gathering," he wrote Edwa later that night. "The faces were largely of the plain, placid farm-boy type, with beards and off-style hairdos noticeable, but here and there a fine brow, or nose, or a sensitive mouth." A few appeared somewhat intellectual, but most were, he said, "the simple fervently religious."
For the next three years, these would be his people. Everson was a poet, tall and thin, with serious eyes behind large glasses, and an introspective tilt to his head. As a young man back in California's San Joaquin Valley, he'd worked in the vineyards, orchards, and industrial fruit canneries. During the Great Depression, he joined the CCC, clearing trails in Sequoia National Park. While a student at Fresno State College, he discovered the poems of Robinson Jeffers, prompting what he called "an intellectual awakening and a religious conversion in one." The publication of Everson's work in Poetry magazine, followed by two thin volumes of his work printed in California, led to friendships with the influential UCLA librarian Lawrence Clark Powell and the iconoclastic author Henry Miller, whose notorious Tropic of Cancer had been banned from sale in the United States since its 1934 publication in France. In 1938, Everson married Edwa, his high school sweetheart, and spent the next few years balancing the agrarian and creative life—growing grapes for raisin companies, working seasonally at the Libby's fruit cannery, and submitting poetry to the literary journals. When the draft board called, he declared himself a pantheist, stating that America should pull out of the war so that "men of the future would say: here was finally a people in all the bloody past who loved peace too much to fight for it."
At the Waldport camp, he would walk with other poets and writers, artists, actors, musicians, creative types—and also with scholars and engineers, architects and philosophers, machinists, carpenters, accountants, welders, pipe fitters, religious absolutists, and those "plain, placid" farm boys whose convictions and curiosity were defined by what they had been taught from the Bible. It was an unusual gathering, indeed. Men from all regions of the country, all economic and social classes, with differences in age, race, prejudices, and understanding were thrown together with really only one thing in common: they refused to take up arms in the name of one nation against another.
Rain or shine, the men worked their fifty-plus hours a week, with a focus on tree planting in the winter and firefighting during the summer—with road building into the forests a major support effort, and wood cutting for fuel a daily necessity.
Everson's group worked crushing rock. They gathered boulders, sometimes pounding them down to manageable size with sledgehammers, and dumped them into bins that were hauled to a rock-crushing machine located on a hillside five miles from the camp. The aggregate was then spread along the muddy roads in an attempt to make them passable for the tree-planting operations during rainy season and to provide access to the vulnerable forests during the hot, dry fire season.
"The work is quite hard," Everson noted. "We are crushing rock for a road, and heap fragments on a truck to be hauled to the crusher. The weather is cold, an icy wind has persisted, and rain falls. These factors would make any exposure uncomfortable, and handling the heavy and ragged stones with icy hands becomes a kind of drudgery." No one pretended that CPS work was supposed to be easy. But for a number of COs from drier climates, a winter on the Oregon coast must have seemed more like a sentence than an assignment.
They were also isolated. Like most CPS camps across the country, Camp Number 56 was chosen partly for its remote location, with the aim to keep contact between the unpopular COs and the general populace at a minimum. As one CO put it many years later, "These camps were really just prisoner of war camps . . . just a place to keep us out of society."
—By Steve McQuiddy '87, MFA '90