Ralph DiGia Fund for Peace & JusticeIllusStainGlass

My Resistance to World War II

“World War II reenforced my belief that in war one becomes what the enemy is accused of being.” A day in early March 1943. A loud whistle. A shout, “On the count.” It was time for the hacks (guards) to take the count of the prison population to make sure that no one was missing. I shouldn’t have been surprised (and I wasn’t) that I found myself in a prison cell. After all, my father had given me a good start in that direction.

My father, a barber, was an immigrant and in this country he belonged to a group of Italian socialist immigrants, barbers, shoemakers, tailors, laborers. As a youngster I was taken to many meetings where I heard talk about the exploitation of the poor by the rich, how in war the rich got richer and the poor died. There was much talk about opposing Mussolini’s fascist government. Every Columbus Day there would be an outdoor meeting attended by representatives from the American and Italian governments praising Italy and the Italians here. But my father would take me to the meeting held by people opposing Mussolini. I remember going with my father protesting the trial and execution of two Italian anarchists, Sacco and Vanzetti, framed on murder charges.

At home we had a book which had photos of the horrors of war resulting from the use of mustard gas. Later, reading All Quiet on the Western Front and Johnny Got His Gun , two powerful antiwar novels, certainly made an impression on me. The thirties was a period of antiwar sentiment. In college I participated in demonstrations against ROTC, then called “Mili-Sci” (Military Science). I joined the thousands of students who signed the Oxford Pledge not to participate in war. There were many demonstrations throughout the country against war up to the time of Pearl Harbor. Feelings ran so high that in late 1940 the draft law narrowly passed the House of Representatives.

The draft was now a fact. It was time to make a decision. I had read about the conscientious objectors in World War I and how they had remained true to their beliefs. Their actions were an inspiration to me in my decision to register as a conscientious objector. There was no question for me; war was not the way.

On registration day in October of 1940,1 registered and informed the draft board that I was a conscientious objector. They didn’t have much of a reaction (this was before Pearl Harbor) and told me I would have to fill out a form. As of that day I had never met a pacifist nor known of a pacifist organization. Yes, I had antiwar friends but they were not pacifists. So when the draft came, my friends entered the military and I remained behind to do what I believed in. Soon after I registered I read a headline which mentioned that seven seminarians had refused to register and would be sent to jail. I suppose if they had not been religious I would have followed up on them. (Later I met two of them in jail and we became friends.)

I presented my case in writing to the appeals board, writing about my background in opposition to war, that war was contrary to all the ideals in which I believed, that we must look to the example of Gandhi and nonviolence as a substitute for war.

Without a religious background, I didn’t expect to be classified as a conscientious objector, and I was right. In the spring of 1942 I was ordered to report for induction and then came the discussion with my parents. My mother’s feelings were that I go neither to jail nor the army. My father, who had supported me up to this point, now advised me to report for induction. He was afraid that going to jail would ruin my future, and believed that as a college graduate I could get a good job in the army. One must remember that going to jail in those days didn’t have the same acceptance that it had during the civil rights and Vietnam eras. So, in retrospect, I can understand my father’s reaction. Anyway, I argued that I had gotten many of my ideals from him and now that the moment had arrived for me to live up to them, he was asking me to give them up. And what would ideals mean if one gave them up when they were put to a test? It was a very upsetting discussion and we both went to bed unhappy. The next morning my father had already gone to work when I got up, and my mother told me he had said I should do what I had to do.

This having been decided, the next question for me was how to handle the induction day. Having proceeded this far without help from anyone or any organization (I don’t know why I never sought help), I decided that I would go to the office of the United States attorney on the day I was supposed to be inducted. I wasn’t sure how the government would proceed, whether the FBI would come knocking at my door to arrest me. Since I didn’t want to get my parents in such a scene, I decided to turn myself in.

So, what happened? I went to the U.S. attorney’s office and he asked what he could do for me. I told him that I was supposed to report for induction and I was refusing to do so. He wasn’t upset or angry, as I thought he would be. As a matter of fact, he was very helpful. He told me that he didn’t have any papers about me and he could do nothing. At that point I wasn’t sure what to do. After all, 1 had said all my goodbyes. Then the attorney told me something that marked a turning point in my life: that I should go to see Julian Cornell, a Quaker lawyer who handled conscientious objector cases, and that he could be reached at the office of the War Resisters League.

I went immediately to the War Resisters League, operating out of a small office in lower Manhattan. There I told Abe Kaufman, the executive secretary, why I had come to the office. Although I had had no idea that there was such an organization, I said, I sure was happy that it existed. He told me there were other objectors in the area and that he would arrange for me to meet them. What a relief to find out that I was not alone and would have some support. I made an appointment to see Julian Cornell. We met and discussed my case. Since I was not religious, he said he had three other such cases of non-religious objectors which he was appealing, and that he would combine theirs with mine. He would prepare all the paper work and let me know when I would have to be in court. The four of us appeared before a judge for a hearing and were released without bail in the custody of our lawyer pending appeal.

In the meantime I met with other objectors who had not yet been called for induction to discuss our beliefs. I had previously read about Gandhi’s use of nonviolence to achieve India’s independence, but I had not really studied it thoroughly to understand it completely. I learned a lot in my conversations with my new friends. My belief in opposing war was strengthened. I remembered those brave men who had stood up against the government in World War I and their importance in the fight against war. I knew that if those who opposed war were to accept induction anyway, there would be no chance of achieving the goal to end war.

In early 1943 we lost our appeal on the grounds that our beliefs did not come under the religious definition of the Selective Service Act. The judge sentenced each of us to three years in prison.

In March I entered the Federal House of Detention at West Street in New York to be held there to await transfer to another federal prison. It was overcrowded, gloomy and, during the day, constantly noisy. Visiting conditions were terrible, which upset my parents. A glass partition separated the visitor from the prisoner and conversation was carried on by phone. Since I was awaiting transfer I was not assigned to a job. Although I was there only about thirty days, the time went very slowly.

An ironic situation developed at West Street. Being held in a solitary cell was Louie Lepke of Murder, Inc., who was awaiting sentencing (later was executed) for having murdered others. So here was someone in prison for killing and others there for refusing to kill. In April some other COs and I were transferred to Danbury Prison (classified as a Federal Correctional Institution) in Connecticut. The conditions there were an improvement over West Street. It was relatively new, clean, bright and not overcrowded. There was the usual 30-day quarantine period during which prisoners were instructed about rules and procedures, answered questionnaires, got physical exams, and learned how to make a bed: to make sure the covers were so tight that a quarter bounced on top would go straight up in the air.

Finally, I was sent out to join the prison population. I was assigned to a dormitory and to work on a labor gang. There were two types of housing, cells and dormitories. Most lived in dormitories. Cells were mostly for “trouble-makers” or were available to men who requested them for a good reason. As a matter of fact, after a lengthy stretch in a noisy dormitory with little privacy, one preferred a cell for a change.

I hate to say this, but the truth is I was relieved to be in Danbury, where there were many COs and a sense of solidarity. I was with a community. And the prison was not like the ones I had seen in Hollywood movies. On my parents’ first visit they were quite relieved, especially after their visit to the West Street jail. Visits at Danbury were held in a large room, sitting in chairs face to face without interference. And the warden walked his dog around the room and smiled, thereby assuring visitors that everything was cozy. My parents were relieved and this made me feel better.

I didn’t mind working on a labor gang, it was good exercise, I used up a lot of excess energy, and it made time pass. And that’s the way it was at the beginning. Oh, I should mention the make-up of the prison population. Conscientious objectors made up the largest segment. Others, all in for nonviolent violations, were butchers and gas station owners (convicted of violating wartime rationing laws), numbers runners, bootleggers, and bad check artists. All the latter had sentences of thirty days to a year. Sentences for war objectors ranged from two to five years. After a few months we began to discuss the existing racial segregation in the dining hall, and whether we could do something about it. We discussed it among ourselves during yard period. Danbury had an education department, with evening classes in arts, crafts and English. We asked permission to form our own sociology class. There was no objection, for it would look good on the prison’s record and for the warden to have such instruction at the prison. This gave us an opportunity to discuss specific plans.

We chose a committee to discuss with the warden our suggestion to integrate the dining hall. He refused to meet with a committee but would meet with two individuals to discuss the problem. The warden argued that prison was a mirror of the outside society and that we should change the outside first. No other federal prison was integrated, he pointed out, and that was the policy of the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Washington. He said that he personally favored integration, but his hands were tied. He could do nothing.

We now had to decide what course we should take, A sit-in at the dining hall? Continue to organize until we had a larger group to participate? Go ahead with a work strike? After a couple of weeks we decided on a work strike. We informed the warden that we had no choice but to refuse to work until the dining hall was integrated. There was no response from the warden. We then chose a day to ask all those interested to meet in the yard after breakfast and refuse to go to work. In the middle of August eighteen of us appeared to strike. And thus the action began.

We were moved to a cell block that contained exactly eighteen cells. There we were isolated from the rest of the population, locked in our cells except for a forty-minute yard period. Food was brought to be eaten in our cells. In order to communicate we had to lie on the floor and shout through the crack at the bottom of the door. But how to pass notes and reading materials? We found metal collars at the bottom of the radiator pipes. By attaching a string (taken from Bull Durham cigarette tobacco bags distributed by the prison) to the metal disc and tying the other end to a magazine or other paper we were able to pass things to one another. We would send the disc sliding under the door to a cell across the hall where that person would pull the string until he secured the reading material. One of the guards referred to this means of sending things as an “ingenious device.” And so it was.

After many weeks our spirits began to sag. Nothing was happening, no publicity, no move by the warden. There was talk of ending the strike, of going back into population to organize and get more support. Perhaps we should go back and have a sit-in in the dining hall. These were difficult and depressing days. But in the end we decided to hang in a little longer.

Meanwhile, friends at the War Resisters League increased their efforts to publicize the strike through press releases to the Negro and liberal press, a visit to Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, and letters to James V. Bennett, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Finally the story appeared in a few newspapers. The ACLU criticized Bennett. Our spirits were buoyed and there was no more talk about ending the strike.

Just before Christmas the warden dropped in on us. We were released from our cells so he could talk to all of us at the same time. He said he wanted us to know that he had plans to desegregate the dining hall on Feburary first, but we were hindering his plan. He said his hands were tied so long as we remained on strike. We could hardly believe this. We told him we would like to discuss this among ourselves and would let him know our decision. Wondering whether this was a trick, we agreed to take him at his word while committing ourselves to return if the promise was not kept. We sent word to the warden that we were ready to end the strike. We did not mention our committment to return.

On February first there was an announcement that prisoners could sit anywhere they wished in the dining hall. The dining hall was desegregated. What a wonderful feeling after more than four months on strike, A few whites and Negroes complained at the beginning, but nothing serious happened. After a month or so, no one paid any attention to the seating.

While on strike I learned something that had nothing to do with the issue of integration. I remember my father denouncing the church and priests, making it clear to my mother, who was a Catholic, that his children were not to go to church. As 1 was growing up I noticed that my boyhood friends who went to church were not interested in any of the social issues that interested me. And it seemed to me that the church’s attitude was that we should wait for “pie in the sky when you die.” I had no reason to believe that religious people were interested in supporting the causes I believed in. Interestingly enough, the strike had the effect of changing my mind. A few religious friends had also been on strike. One of them said that he was amazed that a non-believer would participate in the action in which we were all involved. His impression was that one had to believe in God in order to join in social action. So the strike not only eliminated a social injustice, it also erased a misconception that some of us had.

This reminds me of how I battled the monotony of prison life. I did something very unusual for me, attending the services of the Jewish, Catholic and Protestant faiths. It was a new experience for me, and a way to break up the monotony.

When you have two to five years to do you see people come and go, since most of the prisoners had shorter sentences. Then you notice that many people, especially those in for white collar crimes, are making parole. And very few war objectors are being granted parole. So we decided to make an issue of it. In order to bring this to the attention of the authorities we decided to refuse to work. In discussing how to proceed we decided that one person at a time should refuse to work instead of all striking at once as we had in the strike against segregation. In this way the authorities would not know how many might be involved. Someone carved out a wooden numeral “1.” We would display the numeral in the prison yard and announce that whoever found it in his bed would have to go on strike the next day. (Of course, we actually had volunteers.) I was the fifth to go, joining the others who were being held in segregation quarters.

Every Wednesday for fifteen weeks an objector joined the strike. But by then I was not there, because five of us had been transferred to Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary. It was a treat to be driven about two hundred miles, to enjoy the scenery and to be in the wide open spaces.

Lewisburg was not a federal correctional institution like Danbury, but a penitentiary where three and five-year sentences were considered short time. Many prisoners were there for violent crimes like bank robbery and kidnapping, and fifteen, twenty or twenty-five year sentences were common.

Since we were still on strike we were placed in the tough cell block in individual cells. Things were uneventful, just getting used to our new surroundings. A few days later one of the other prisoners in the cell block came to the front of my cell and said we had better get back to work because our presence there was making it hard on them. He said the hacks were hanging around more than usual because of us. I explained that the authorities had deliberately put us there, figuring that the other prisoners would pressure us to go off the strike. They were playing prisoner against prisoner to gain their own ends. He didn’t accept that and repeated that we’d better get out or else. This left me uneasy, but fortunately, cell bars separated us. The next morning another prisoner approached my cell and asked if I was a friend of Dave Dellinger’s. I had never met Dave, but I had heard of him so I answered “yes.” He replied, “any friend of Dellinger’s is a friend of mine.” He assured me that if anyone bothered me I should let him know and he would take care of him. This gave me an inkling of how things were handled in Lewisburg. I learned later that Dave had the respect of the general population because he had supported some of them when they were in trouble with the authorities. The next week we were transferred to another cell block and were segregated from others. When other Danbury strikers were transferred to Lewisburg, we were all moved to a dormitory where we were able to move about among ourselves.

Weeks went by and we were getting nowhere with the parole issue. Furthermore, Lewisburg didn’t seem to be a place where paroles were easily granted to any prisoners. After about two months we decided to go back into population.

We were put in different housing units. I was put in a dormitory without any other objectors. Word gets around who you are when you are moved into new housing. I moved in after the evening meal and was greeted by no one. I arranged my belongings, read a little before lights out and then went to bed. As I was falling asleep, suddenly my bed was moving and 1 was being doused with water and I heard a flow of words about being a @#$%&* yellow coward. I was frightened, but whoever did it had disappeared. I moved my bed back and got in and then someone said “Here comes the hack.” He stopped at my bed. I pretended to be asleep and he asked me what happened. I said nothing happened, that I was all right. After he left someone said that was a dirty trick and offered me dry clothes. Someone else suggested we switch my wet mattress with one belonging to a prisoner who was working on the night shift. I objected but they went ahead with the switch. I was very uneasy, wondering what would happen when that man came back to his bed. When he got back he began swearing that he would take care of the person who had done this. In the morning I went to the shower room where I had hung my wet clothes. And next thing I knew, someone grabbed my shoulder and swore at me for having taken his mattress. Before I could answer, someone else grabbed his shoulder and told him that he was the one who did it and if there was anything to say, to say it to him. Again I learned that this was the way things were settled in Lewisburg.

That evening I was called down to the office and was told that I was being transferred to another dormitory for my own safety. I objected vehemently, saying that would be the worst thing that could happen, giving the impression to other prisoners that I couldn’t “take it.” I was told that if 1 didn’t move I would be responsible for anything that happened to me. I said that was OK with me. Later I wondered if the guards might arrange for “something” to happen to me. When I went back to my dorm I told other inmates the story.

The incident proved to be very fortunate for me. The fact that I had not ratted on anyone and had refused to move made me an OK guy. I was accepted into the community.

After that things settled into the usual monotonous routine, obeying silly rules: roll down your sleeves, straighten out the line, get that shovel moving, quiet! The noisy dorm, loud talking, no privacy. Some of this was offset when I was able to do something useful, helping someone write a letter, listening to a hard luck story, giving some advice.

Always taking orders wears one down and you get frustrated because you can’t do much about it. But two weeks before I was to be released I reacted. Once a week we would go to the clothing room for a change of clothes. This hot summer day when I received my clean clothes I put on everything except my undershirt. Rather than wait until I went back outside to work, I decided to remove it at once. The hack asked me to put my shirt on. I started to explain why I hadn’t put it on. Again he ordered me to put it on. Again I tried to explain. He cut me short and asked, “Are you refusing to obey an order?” I hesitated for a moment, then shrugged my shoulders and said “yes.” He took me to the captain and said: “This man refused to obey an order.” Before I could say anything the captain said “Take him to the hole.” My belt was removed so I couldn’t hang myself. I spent most of the time walking up and down in my cell, shaking my head, not out of anger but at the absurdity of it all. The next day I was let out.

After almost three years in prison I guess I had reached a breaking point. I had endangered the date of my release which was a few weeks away. But I didn’t care. I had to say “NO.”

Late in June, 1945 I was released. I had a strange feeling on the train ride from prison to my home. Passengers reading, talking quietly, seemingly unconcerned with world events. I didn’t feel connected to them. I wondered what they would feel if they knew that I had just been released from prison for refusing induction into the military. I thought I should be celebrating and overjoyed. Instead I sat silently and slightly anxious about what I would do after I got home. A former college friend met me at the railroad station, much to my surprise and joy. It connected me to the outside world once more. And I felt much better. Then to my family and I was happy.

Soon after my release I received an invitation from Dave Dellinger, who had been released a few months earlier, to join him in upstate New York where he was staying in a cottage of a friend who was not living there at the time. Of course I joined him and his family and Bill Kuenning (also from Lewisburg.) This would give me time to re-adjust to the outside world and to be with my prison friends again. Dave and Bill worked on a farm and I got a job in a summer resort hotel.

Before long we became active again. Dave had secured possession of an old printing press and we decided to publish a magazine which we called Direct Action. Just about this time came the dropping of the A-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This prompted an editorial headlined: “Declaration of War.” It stated that the United States could have no claim “to being a democratic or a peace loving nation. Without any semblance of a democratic decision the American people waked up one morning to discover that the United States government had committed one of the worst atrocities in history.” The editorial called for “total war against the infamous economic, political and social system which is dominant in this country.” We published two issues. It was now winter and we had to leave. We moved back to our homes in the city.

Needless to say, after prison I continued my involvement with the War Resisters League. Beginning in 1946 I became a volunteer, then joined the staff in 1955 and remained on staff until my retirement. Today I am again a volunteer. The years included countless demonstrations and many arrests, protesting bomb testing, civil defense drills, nuclear weapons, nuclear power plants, the Vietnam War, Central America intervention, and the Gulf War. During the Vietnam War I also counseled war resisters.

There are some interesting stories attached to many of those demonstrations. I would like to detail one in particular. In the summer of 1951 it was headlined “4 Americans Bicycling From Paris to Moscow.” I joined Dave Dellinger, Bill Sutherland (also from Lewisburg prison) and Art Emory. We sailed on a ship laden with students, arriving in France in about ten days. Our first job was to find a printer to publish our leaflet, which explained that we had served prison sentences in the United States as conscientious objectors to war. We appealed to people in both East and West blocs to join together in nonviolent resistance to war and injustice. The leaflet was always printed in English on one side, the other in French, German or Russian, depending on where we were distributing it.

In Paris we visited the Soviet and German consulates to request visas for our trip. In each case we explained who we were and the purpose of our trip. The German consul was visibly upset. This request obviously had to be discussed with American authorities, no matter what the German government might desire. We were told to fill out an application and we would be informed at a later date. We visited the Soviet consulate and were well received. The consul agreed with some of the things we said, explaining that the Soviet army was a peace army and that we probably would be welcome. Of course, we were told, we would have to wait until he had consulted with his government.

In a short time we were refused a visa by the Germans. I should say by the Americans, because this was 1951 and the Germans were still not free of U.S. control. The Soviet consul told us that we had to wait a little longer. We were not told “no,” but we felt we couldn’t wait any longer. We began to doubt that we would ever be granted a visa. We decided we would bicycle to Strasbourg at the German border to protest the denial of a German visa. We knew we would be unable to get into Germany but we did want to call attention to the fact that the United States was setting up a barrier to making known our message. And then we would continue our attempt to get a Soviet visa.

We bicycled from Paris to Strasbourg, passing out our leaflets on the way. We tented near the bridge over the Rhine. We distributed leaflets and fasted for a week, which drew the attention of the press.

Our next plan was to head for Vienna where the four Allied powers were situated, and there we would check on our visa application at the Soviet consulate. We bicycled to Switzerland where we boarded a train for Vienna. There we consulted with some Quakers for information and advice. They were very fearful of having any contact with the Soviets. We got in touch with the Soviet consul in Vienna, who was also happy to meet us and encouraged us to be patient. But after a couple of visits we felt we were getting nowhere. We had applied in July, it was now October. We decided on a plan to go to the Soviet-controlled section of Austria and distribute our leaflets. We would buy train tickets to go to the British zone, which was legal, but we would get off at the stop before that, the Soviet zone in Baden, which was illegal. The Quakers warned us we would disappear and that no one in Baden would dare take a leaflet from us. Well, we discounted their fears. We thought we might be detained and maybe imprisoned, but disappear, no. We did write letters home about our plans, suggesting that they could be in touch with our New York friends if they didn’t hear from us.

We went ahead with our plan. The four of us got off in the Soviet zone but no one questioned us. We had decided to go two together so as to appear less conspicuous. We began to pass out our leaflet? as we met soldiers in the streets. We would smile and say a few words in Russian: friend, peace. There was no problem in passing out the leaflets. No one questioned us. We walked through the town twice without incident, passing out leaflets to soldiers. And then we decided to do something that wasn’t in our plans, to catch the next train back to Vienna. We had accomplished more than we had expected.

Much to the Quakers’ surprise (and ours) we returned safely to Vienna. Why had we not been arrested? I believe that the people in Baden figured that no one in his right mind would be doing what we were doing without the approval of the authorities, and therefore they accepted the leaflets. But whatever the reason, they had taken our leaflets. And what was the effect? Who knows? We hoped it planted a seed in some which affected a future decision. And so, back to Paris and a slow boat back home via Canada.

Having lived through the years of World War II, I am more convinced than ever that war is not the method to solve conflicts. When I refused induction I had no illusions that I was going to have any effect on the current situation, but hoped I might contribute something to future situations. I did want to help keep alive the ideal of nonviolence and resistance to war. If every pacifist went to war when called, the ideal of nonviolence would lose its power.

World War II reenforced my belief that in war one becomes what the enemy is accused of being. Compare the atrocity of Hiroshima to what I was taught in school, that one of the worst atrocities of World War I was the German submarine attack on the Lusitania, an unarmed ship with civilians aboard. Americans, as well as other nationals, think of themselves as decent people, but they will sink to any level to destroy others in war. No matter how people justified war in the past, we are now in the nuclear age and even from a pragmatic view we must look to other ways to solve our conflicts.

There is a long, long history of developing efficient weapons of extermination. And where has it left us? Compared to this history, nonviolence is in its early stages. We need to put more resources and effort into developing nonviolent alternatives. Let us consider what are our professed ideals. Is war the method to achieve these ideals? Or is nonviolence the way? Some say nonviolence is idealistic and unrealistic, but studying the history of war and violence, one must conclude that nonviolence is pragmatic. Whatever one wants to call it, let it be. Nonviolence is the way.

Written by , updated 11/3/08

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