AFSC in WWII
At the outbreak of the Second World War, the American Friends Service Committee was already active in the south of France, providing relief in camps built for refugees from the Spanish Civil War. British Friends, who had been working alongside the Americans, were forced to leave and the work was carried on by a mixture of Americans and other ‘neutral’ nationalities – some Quakers but many simply sympathisers.
The population in the camps swelled rapidly with refugees fleeing the German advance. From 1940 to 1942, southern France remained unoccupied, but food was desperately scarce. By 1942, the basic French ration card provided 1k calories daily. In the camps, food was no longer enough to sustain life.
The small group of AFSC workers fed adult and child refugees in the camps, looked after children full-time in special ‘colonies’, ran a meal service for French children through the schools, helped to rebuild deserted villages so as to re-house the remaining Spanish refugees, gave assistance to those seeking to emigrate and spent patient hours seeking information on missing friends and relatives.
Three women, Mary Elmes, Alice Resch and Helga Holbek, managed to secure permission for many of the children to be moved from the camps to the children’s colonies. From there, some were smuggled over the border to safety abroad. Many more remained in the colonies for the rest of the war. Most never saw their parents again.
When the USA entered the war in 1942, the remaining Americans either left France or were interned. Those remaining, now calling themselves Secours Quakers, carried on the work, often at great personal risk.
Conscription now came into effect in the US. Many American conscientious objectors had hoped to serve with organizations such as the Friends Ambulance Unit in Europe and the Far East. However, a bill was passed prohibiting COs from serving abroad and several men already on their way to China were recalled. Only those who were able to join organisations like the FAU before being registered as COs were able to work overseas for the duration of the War.
The only option for registered COs was to attend a Civilian Public Service Camp. The AFSC provided counselling for conscientious objectors of all faiths and, along with the other ‘Historic Peace Churches,’ ran the CPS Camps. These offered alternative service including forestry, agricultural work and work in mental hospitals. Work in mental hospitals led to the setting up of the National Mental Health Foundation, which continued to improve conditions for mental patients after the war was ended.
Others volunteered as human guinea pigs for medical experiments, including being exposed to extreme conditions, being infected with lice to test formulae for their control, and living on extremely restricted diets. One such volunteer died of polio. The director of the study in which he was involved said of him: “I know of no better example of work and sacrifice. He did, in reality, lay down his life that others might live."
Another impact of America entering the war was the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans who were forced to leave their homes along the west coast of the US. The AFSC was one of the few organisations that protested the internment and gave aid to those interned. Led by individual Quakers such as Floyd Schmoe, the AFSC began two programmes to get people out of the internment camps.
The first programme involved finding colleges and universities in the Midwest and Eastern States who would admit qualified students from the camps. Four thousand students were helped in this way by the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council, to which the AFSC belonged.
The second involved finding jobs and providing hostel accommodation for older internees released from the camps. This latter involved much conscience searching among Friends, who were torn between the desire to get people out of the camps and the fear that they were, in effect, colluding in removing people against their will from their homes on the West Coast.
The AFSC also gave support to those who, like Gordon Hirabayashi, sought to fight the internment order through the courts.
At the end of the war, many more American Friends were able to join the reconstruction efforts in Europe and the Far East.