Hospital Work

Hospital Work

Not all the conscientious objectors were interested in forestry work. Many felt that they had the ability to be of service elsewhere. Doing forestry, agricultural, and industrial work during the war was necessary, and many COs enjoyed this service. Others, however, felt that their usefulness lay elsewhere. A number of COs volunteered for hospital service.

Hospital service may seem out of place when compared to the other jobs COs performed, but it was also of national importance. Also, since COs working in a hospital had to interact with patients and staff on a daily basis, it was a good opportunity to give a Christian witness.

This is one of the reasons Jake Reimer liked working in a hospital.   

“In the mental hospital the work was interesting and challenging. Here we did not have to talk about our Christianity, but rather live it, and people respond far quicker to action than words.” [MHC, 1015-43]

Surrounded by like-minded COs in a forestry camp, there were fewer opportunities to be a Christian example to non-believers. In the hospital, Jake asserted, “we could live our Christianity” in another way.

The hospital experience was a powerful one for COs. Years later, some still remember details about their arrival and their daily routine. Henry H. Funk served at the Hospital for Mentally Defectives in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba. His first experience with the hospital and its patients speaks for many COs.

“Once I came near the building and they could see me they turned their full attention and scrutiny on me – with appropriate and loud commentary. My arrival afforded them a bit of diversion from their otherwise extremely monotonous existence and they made the most of it. Later I would learn to know some of them personally and to like them as individuals and as persons. At the moment, however, I was plain scared. Society had a lot of prejudiced notions about the mentally ill and I shared those notions. They sounded strange and acted strange and looked strange and they were part of my yet very strange future.” 

The hospital was large.

“There were about 700 patients at Portage. The female wards were taken care of by ladies and the male wards by men. While I began in the nursery, eventually we got to work on most of the male wards and on various shifts. Also there were outside jobs on the grounds and gardens, working with small groups of male patients. The work the patients did was mostly in the line of occupational care. They were not worked hard.”

Although their supervisors and co-workers were initially suspicious, Henry writes that the COs soon earned respect and trust.

“Relationships at work were positive – both among COs and with others with whom we worked. We worked five days a week and our two days off were usually together. Once we were familiar with the routine on the various wards it was easy to trade shifts and days off. That way we could line up four or even six consecutive days off with which to go home on leave. Mr. Inglis [the medical superintendent] was very lenient with us about this. He said that he knew one of us would be on duty in each place even if he did not always know who. Soon we started trading with the regular staff too and soon they started helping each other out as well. This never used to happen before, they said.” [ASM, 138-153]

JReimer Fri, 03/04/2016 - 10:52

Hospital Work - Page 2

Hospital Work - Page 2

Henry Funk served in three medical facilities during the war.

I had two years of service in the Manitoba School for Mental Defectives (Portage la Prairie), about 8 months at the St. Boniface Hospital and 4 months (or so) at Bethania (a Mennonite home north of Winnipeg). There was a significant group that did hospital work – both mental hospital and general hospital.

When asked to describe his experiences in detail, he writes that he doesn't “know where to begin here or where to stop.” The memories are so strong and fresh that they run together.

The people in the Brandon Mental Hospital got psychiatric nurses training. We did not at that time. The work soon became routine and boring, though it was significant. The patients were generally not treated as persons. I'm afraid we deteriorated to that too and very soon. Even brutality was not unknown…. Generally, I feel we Mennonite boys treated them with more kindness, and humaneness than did some of the permanent staff….

Henry's first assignment was in the youth ward.

The first six months I was on duty in the “nursery” – some 20 patients all infants – ages 4 to 22 – mentally crippled and physically crippled – all in cribs of various sizes – all on diaper, powder, feeding (spoon) routine.

After that, Henry spent time in the hospital's other areas. The tuberculosis ward, for example, and the dormitory ward for those patients who did work during the day in the gardens, fields, or dairy barn. Unlike the other staff, Henry and his CO colleagues lived at the hospital.

The dorm life was wholesome. We were 14 fellows in an old, large residence on the hospital compound. No dean, so we had our days – scrap and wrestle like boys – eat 'knacksote' [sunflower seeds] till the living room floor was covered with husks. Generally, now, I feel we behaved alright although we had a lot of fun. As a group experience it was good and a lot of adjusting was done.

Like other COs, they were sometimes criticized for their beliefs.

Socially we did some dating with girls on staff. Most girls did not mind that we were COs even if the Nursing Superintendent advised them not to go out with us 'yellow-backs'…. The staff generally accepted us – we never felt we were hated by the men we worked with even though we were pacifist. Others on the staff – farm, maintenance, nursing – were mean sometimes.

The war years were a time of passion and patriotic fervour. All public messages supported the war effort. Anyone different felt uncomfortable.

I still recall the feeling of being a fugitive in society, however. All propaganda, radio, press, billboards pointed a finger at you – why are you not in the army doing your duty? One of the boys came to Portage by train – got on a train in Winnipeg and it happened to be a troop train – all passengers were army men. The three other persons in his double seat were in uniform and for the whole time – Wpg to Portage – they discussed conscientious objectors. One was ready to shoot them all, one was sort of neutral, one tried to defend COs. Imagine Ed Penner, from Plum Coulee, fresh from the farm, age 18, trying to fade into the upholstery, hoping no one would notice him and ask him why he was in civilian clothes. No one did, and he felt like a man who had narrowly escaped from dire disaster, when he finally was able to get off the train. [MHC, 1015-23]
JReimer Fri, 03/04/2016 - 11:10

Hospital Work - Page 3

Hospital Work - Page 3

William J. Kehler also served at the hospital in Portage la Prairie. His first impression was similar to Henry Funk's.

“My first impression of the work was that of a strange and somewhat repulsive atmosphere and due to the shortage of staff, they had neither the staff nor the time to properly train new staff. My training consisted of one eight hour shift on the ward together with one of the experienced staff, and the next shift I was on my own. That was getting to know the ropes the hard way but you learned fast. Apparently it had not been easy for some of the regular staff to start working there either. As one of them said, when he first applied for a job he had walked over to the institution and stood outside for quite some time trying to make up his mind whether to go in or turn around and walk back. But he needed a job badly so he got up enough courage and went in. He was still working there.” 

One of the hardest parts of the job was restraining violent patients.

“There were times when it could not be helped, you had to get tough with a patient and leave no doubt in his mind who was the boss. Dr. Bristow would not stand for a patient being manhandled unnecessarily. But when it was a case of self defense or restoring order as mentioned previously, he understood that a certain amount of force was necessary.”


“If necessary a patient would be restrained for short periods of time in a straightjacket. A jacket that was laced in the back, their arms in closed sleeves were crossed and also tied together in the back so that they could not use their arms. This was only done on doctor's order.”

Like all other COs, alternative service workers in hospitals contributed part of their earnings to the Red Cross. 

“We were paid regular civil service wages but after deductions for room and board and the compulsory Red Cross donation, our take home pay was very small and yet some of us managed to buy Victory Loan Bonds [Citizens could loan money to the government so that the government could wage war or alleviate suffering more effectively].”

As for personal relationships, Kehler remembers less trouble than Funk.

“I must say that we got along very well with our superiors and staff. Although they probably could never agree with our stand as COs they showed no animosity and we were treated exactly the same as the other staff. When I was leaving after my discharge, I had a brief farewell with chief John Inglis in his office. He told me, among other things, that we had done a good job. They were very well pleased with the services we had rendered.” [ASM, 114-121]

JReimer Fri, 03/04/2016 - 11:15

Hospital Work - Page 4

Hospital Work - Page 4

Although serving in a hospital was not easy work, some men felt called to volunteer. Nick Neufeld, for example, worked actively behind the scenes to make sure he was assigned to hospital work.

“It may be of interest that when I received my call in 1943 I immediately wrote to both the board and to Dr. Schulz, director of psychiatric services in Manitoba, expressing my desire to serve my country, and my willingness to take on duties at the Mental Hospital. At my interview, Judge Adamson had my letter at hand and quoted from it. He seemed favourably impressed when I told him that I had already contacted Dr. Schulz.” 

The judge assigned Neufeld to the mental institution in Brandon, Manitoba.

“There were about 20 of us COs at Brandon at our maximum, although there were fewer when I first arrived. To a large extent the work was similar to that which any ward aid would do: dressing, feeding, cleaning, and entertaining the patients…. I worked in the Male Hospital , a small ward with bedridden patients and under relatively close supervision by medical and nursing staff.” 

Neufeld, like most other COs serving in hospitals, also worked in the tuberculosis ward. Tuberculosis was a dangerous infectious disease, so workers had to be careful.

“I worked in the TB ward, a semi-isolated ward with mental patients infected with TB. We attendants wore launderable whites on this ward, and wore surgical masks when in close contact with the patients, as when we were feeding them. These patients had special diets, and I remember making gallons of eggnog for them. One Eskimo patient, less than five feet tall and speaking no English, once embraced me in what I thought was friendly fashion, and then with astonishing strength held me close to him and bit me on the chest. I carried the bruise of his tooth marks on my epidermis [skin] for about a month, to the amusement of my fellow workers.”

Unlike the insane asylums of the nineteenth century, Manitoba 's mental hospitals attempted to treat the patients instead of just isolating them.

“Patients were divided into two groups: those undergoing active therapy to cure their illness, and those considered to be chronic cases, not amenable to treatment. Insulin shock was used as treatment on one ward. Insulin was used to reduce blood sugar levels until the patient went into shock. Then the patient received a lemon-flavoured sugar syrup to restore him. All this was done under strict medical supervision. Night staff on this ward of about twenty beds had to be particularly vigilant. Patients might rarely relapse into an insulin-induced coma, and this had to be forestalled by administering a drink of the syrup. It was the duty of the night attendant to make half-hourly rounds of all the sleeping patients and check their pulse rate and respiration…. Incidentally, the improvement in the condition of some patients undergoing this therapy was little short of miraculous.” [ASM, 133-137]

Insulin shock therapy was part of the twentieth-century revolution in the understanding and treatment of mental diseases. Until the early 1900s, people with mental problems were usually locked away and given little to no therapy. In the 1930s, new methods began to emerge. Doctors knew that, for some reason, head trauma, convulsions, and high fever were sometimes useful in treating those with mental illness.

Two Canadian doctors discovered insulin in 1921. Then and now, the most common use for insulin was for treating diabetes. European doctors found that a large dose of insulin would also cause a superficial coma in the patient. This was found to be very effective for treating schizophrenics. Initial studies showed that more than 70% of patients improved. It was also popular because it was less painful than chemical convulsions and electroconvulsive shock therapy. Today, doctors do not use these methods. Instead, they use drugs and gentler forms of therapy.

JReimer Fri, 03/04/2016 - 11:23

Hospital Work - Page 5

Hospital Work - Page 5

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.”

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]

JReimer Fri, 03/04/2016 - 11:29

Hospital Work - Page 6

Hospital Work - Page 6

Not all COs doing hospital work served in mental institutions. Some worked in general hospitals, especially at St. Boniface Hospital in Winnipeg.

Peter Schroeder knew he wanted to do hospital work even before he appeared before Judge Adamson. 

“I was the first of the group to appear. My case went very smoothly since I, along with my cousin, had obtained the orderly job on our own before the hearing…. The judge knew of the St. Boniface appointment and granted CO status.”


“I, along with other COs, were gladly received by the hospital administration because we worked hard (12 hr. shifts) and demanded little. The other staff members ridiculed some, especially the young Medical Corp interns. One doctor prescribed that I should scrub the base of the operating table (which I cleaned after an operation) just as clean as my CO soul was. Generally I was treated well and got to like the work very much.” [MHC, 1015-11]

David Schroeder, also an orderly at St. Boniface, has similar memories. In general, the COs were treated well, but there were always a few exceptions.

Fatal Accident“I had no knowledge of orderly work and had to be trained. Our work was appreciated and generally well accepted. Occasionally we met with hostility on the part of nurses or doctors where members of their own family had to go to war. The hospital administration did not take advantage of our compulsory service with them.” [MHC, 1015-1] 

Though the experience of the COs at St. Boniface was good, there was one particularly sad incident. David F. Friesen recalls that moment.

“We did have some difficult days. Willie Unrau, from the Lowe Farm area, worked on maintenance. The hospital had a huge incinerator to dispose of garbage. Somehow a container of ether was part of the garbage and when Willie put it into the incinerator it exploded. Willie died a few days later. I remember how his father came to pick up the body. It was a sad moment.” [ASP, 83]

On the whole, though, the three years that Friesen worked at St. Boniface Hospital were a positive experience.

“It was a tremendous experience for me especially in the hospital work. It changed the direction of my life as I decided to go back to school during that time. It was also during this time that I became an active Christian. The opportunity to meet people who had a different culture was valuable.” [MHC, 1015-56]

JReimer Fri, 03/04/2016 - 11:42