In September of 1942, Warren Sawyer, a 23-year-old conscientious objector, reported for his volunteer assignment as an attendant at a state mental hospital. The young Quaker was one of thousands of pacifists who had refused to fight and instead were assigned to work in places few outsiders got to see — places like Philadelphia State Hospital, best known as Byberry. What these young men saw horrified them and tested their faith. Using photography, they decided to blow the shameful secrets of these institutions wide-open.
Bringing the abuses to the attention of newspapers and magazines across the country, they led a reform effort to change public attitudes and to improve the training and status of institutional staff. Prominent Americans, including Eleanor Roosevelt, ACLU founder Roger Baldwin, author Pearl S. Buck, actress Helen Hayes, and African-American activist Mary McLeod Bethune, supported the efforts of the young men.
These men and their brave actions, give a new meaning to the phrase "the greatest generation.”
- To listen to the NPR story go here [10 min 37 sec]
- To watch a powerful audio slideshow: A Mental Ward Exposed
- The original article published in LIFE magazine: Bedlam, 1946
- To order - Acts of Conscience: World War II, Mental Institutions, and Religious Objectors (or you can preview it at Google Books)
- Read an article from Friends Journal – US Conscientious Objectors in World War II