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Hospital Work

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J.K. Schellenberg spent time at the Brandon Hospital for Mental Diseases. For him, it was a “very beneficial experience.” He writes that the COs “were reasonably well received by the administrative staff, in particular Dr. S. Schulz the medical superintendent. He always had a sympathetic ear for a bunch of young farm boys cast into a totally foreign environment.” [MHC, 1015-54]


Herbert J. Brandt also worked at the Brandon Hospital. After appearing before the judge and receiving CO status in the summer of 1943, Brandt met with a man to discuss his options.  


“This man represented the Alternative Service or the Selective Service Department. He seemed very friendly. He informed me that there were three alternatives for me. I could go to a forest camp, a mine, or to a mental hospital. I did not hesitate for a moment and said that I would choose to work in the hospital. After some simple paper work I was assigned to the Brandon Mental Hospital and told when to report. The interview and the assignment took only a few minutes and I was on my way home.”


Two days later he arrived in Brandon.


“From there I was taken on a preliminary tour of the facilities. Then I was supplied with clothes for work and taken to the ward to begin my assignment. The man who directed me used a big key to open the door to let me in and then he locked it again behind me. With this I was introduced to an entirely new phase of my life. I was an orderly shoved into a world of men with mental illness. I was certainly not prepared for what I encountered. Here was a ward of 150 men, crowded into a relatively small space. Some of the men greeted me, others stared, and some walked by totally oblivious of me or anyone else. Although it was daytime, the ward was only dimly lit. The odour was strong, but not that of a hospital. There was a pungent smell of detergent combined with body odours. I thought it was most unpleasant. But I knew that I was there to stay, even though I had a key to open the door and leave. I determined to do my best and take my responsibility as it was assigned.”


“The man who took me to the ward introduced me to the person in charge, who in turn gave me a few instructions. For the first couple of hours I was to walk through the ward and keep my eyes open for anything that appeared as unusual to me. Well, everything looked that way to me. However, it was not long before I knew what the unusual was. A man bashed his head against the wall, another was seeking a fight with a passive person talking to himself, and at the far end people were cursing and swearing at each other. I had no idea what I was to do. In fact I was afraid that someone would attack me from the back as I walked down the ward. By lunch time I was tired, although I hadn't really done anything.”


“Lunch break was most welcome. The staff dining room was dim and cold and unattractive. The food was good and plentiful, but the half-hour was too brief. Back in the ward it was my responsibility along with the other orderlies to feed the men. What a mess. Some of the men would not eat. Others would grab anything they could get a hold of. The idea of force feeding was repulsive to me. This was routinely done with a  number of patients. Cleanup after the meal was quite an experience. Certain patients had been trained to clear the tables and wash-up. All dishes and every piece of cutlery had to be counted. Patients were known to use these as tools to hurt themselves or others. At the end of the first day I was not only tired but a young man with a new appreciation for life and health.”


“Shortly after I began to work at the hospital I was asked to enroll in classes to study psychiatric nursing. This training was very interesting and helpful. Different doctors and nurses gave lectures on which we were examined at the end of the terms. Here I learned that the doctors and nurses were seeking ways and means of helping the 1600 patients in the hospital.”


David F. Friesen with a patient at St. Boniface Hospital


Taking some nursing classes helped give Brandt the confidence to take on challenging assignments, including being responsible for the night shift.  


“And since I was the only one on the ward at night, I would be responsible to give the prescribed medication. I enjoyed many responsibilities and appreciated the confidence and respect I received from the medical staff.”


“I saw my time at the hospital as an opportunity to learn and serve. I learned to appreciate Dr. Schulz, the Medical Superintendent of the hospital. He was very kind and understanding and seemed to go out of his way to make us young COs feel accepted. I also learned to respect the doctors with whom I had opportunity to interact at work and in other activities, such as sports…. I never detected from the medical staff that they resented the COs . I thought that they were pleased to have a group of ambitious men upon whom they could rely to carry out their orders.”  


The hospitals appreciated the hard work of the COs. Their effort seems especially impressive since they were not getting paid very well.


“The arrangement that Selective Service had with the hospital was that the COs would receive room and board and $25 monthly. The remainder of our salary would go to the Red Cross. In today's standards that would be a very small monthly allowance, but strangely enough I did not need all I earned.”


After the end of the war in Europe in May 1945, veterans began to return home.


“In the fall of 1945 a number of the COs were replaced with veterans who had returned and were reclaiming their jobs. My turn to leave came in January 1946 and by then most of the men had left. On the one hand I was glad to leave and to get on with my schooling, but on the other hand I was still not released from Selective Service."


Brandt taught in Swan River for a few months and then, in August 1946, all conscientious objectors were released from their work programs.


“My three years of service had helped me to mature in many ways and equipped me for life and service in the years to come. Over the years my understanding and conviction of the peace position has been strengthened. In retrospect I believe the church and its leaders could have had a great input and impact on our lives. I and many others floundered in our Christian walk. I am indebted to those men who made it possible to be allowed to serve our country through alternative service rather than through the military.” [ASM, 122-132]

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