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There is much debate among historians over how many Canadian Mennonites enlisted in active military service, either in combatant or non-combatant roles, during World War II.  T.D. Regehr, who uses statistics gathered by Frank Epp, claims that approximately 4,500 Mennonites joined the military.1   On the other hand, Peter Lorenz Neufeld disputes this number, stating that it should be approximately 7,000 and that Regehr has unfairly disqualified some 2,250 Mennonites for not being “true Mennonites.”2   But what makes a “true” Mennonite?  Neufeld points out that Epp and Regehr have made a distinction between ethnic Mennonites, those who follow the cultural customs, and religious Mennonites, those who adhere to the religious practices.  However, Neufeld argues that this is not for historians to decide.3  Another problem with determining the national statistics is that many Mennonites who had originally opted for Conscientious Objector (CO) status and served in Alternative Service Work (ASW) camps decided to enlist in the military in the later war years.  Do these men who filled both roles count as alternative service workers or military servicemen?  These are the questions historians must ask when determining overall numbers and this is the reason for the existing debate.

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John Froese of Abbotsford (front row, third from left) and his platoon.

Despite this national debate, the number of servicemen from the Mennonite community of Yarrow is more easily determined.  Although it is difficult to verify the population of Yarrow at the outbreak of the war, the Chilliwack Progress reports that in May of 1943 there were 1,200 residents of Yarrow.4   A total of the 96 citizens of Yarrow served in some respect during the war and only 8 of these were non-Mennonites.  Of these 96, 30 Mennonites served in the Alternative Service Corps, the 8 non-Mennonites joined the armed forces, and 58 Mennonites enlisted in the military – 37 infantry, 17 Medical Corps, 2 Air Force, 1 Merchant Marine, and 1 US Signal Corps.5   Out of the total 88 Mennonites, only 47 of them claimed CO status. 17 of these men chose to serve in the Medical Corps, while 30 settled on alternative service. Of the 30 alternative service workers, 10 individuals joined the military part way through the war (7 of these opted for combat roles and 3 chose the Medical Corps).6   Therefore, the numbers from Yarrow do not reflect Mennonite service on the national scale, for far more men chose military service over alternative service (58 to 30, 68 to 20 by the war’s end). Surprisingly, more Mennonites who joined the military chose combat roles (46) rather than non-combat roles (22). 

Motivation

Mennonite men chose military service for a wide variety of reasons, and each man was motivated for different reasons.  The most common reason for joining the Medical Corps appears to be the desire to make a meaningful contribution to their country while still staying true to their pacifist beliefs.  Until 1943, men wishing to join the Medical Corps had to undergo military training, to which many Mennonites would have objected.  However, in late 1943, the government waived this requirement for COs wanting to serve in this way.7   The Canadian government also gave assurances that these men would never be required to carry weapons.8   John H. Enns of Yarrow, who served in an ASW camp during the war, remembers that many Mennonite men left alternative service for military service in 1943 and 1944 once these regulations were in place.  These COs, who usually chose non-combatant service, found it more meaningful than alternative service because by joining the Medical Corps they could be a Christian witness on the front lines of battle, where they felt it was needed most.9

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V. Wiebe and group

One might assume then that Mennonite men, like the rest of Canadians, were caught up in the nationalism that was sweeping the country during the early months of the war.  However, it appears that very few Mennonites joined the military during this period.  Undoubtedly, Mennonite men were pressured by Canadian society to join the military to show their loyalty and dedication to their country.  Yet, Regehr claims that most Mennonites only joined the military after the National Resources Mobilization Act (NRMA) was passed in June of 1940, which introduced conscription.10   Therefore, when a Mennonite decided to enlist in the military, it was not a rash decision based on patriotic feeling, but was a clear, calculated decision. 

In meeting with Mennonite war veterans years after the war, Lawerence Klippenstein discovered many of the reasons for why they joined the military.  He writes,
"The young Mennonite men who joined the Canadian Forces did not do so for any patriotic or nationalistic reasons but with a variety of other motives: They were bored and they needed some kind of adventure, their future was obscure and after a decade of relative inactivity they were looking for a diversion… their options had been limited for so long that they wanted action… Many of the boys were torn between their loyalty to family… and what the Forces had to offer.  The Mennonite doctrine of pacifism was the furthest from their mind…"11
Surprisingly enough, the fact was that Mennonite churches had not taught their youth the importance of nonresistance in the peaceful interwar years.  The lack of instruction in this foundational aspect of the Mennonite faith is mentioned repeatedly in personal accounts.  In Yarrow, where so many young Mennonites chose to enlist, and many in combat roles nonetheless, this was identified as the source of the problem.  Even in Mennonite Bible colleges, such an emphasis was placed on establishing right theology, correcting wrong theology, and encouraging evangelism and missions work that nonresistance was often neglected.12

VWiebe

Furthermore, Neufeld asserts that some young Mennonite men chose military service as an act of rebellion.  He states, “I am convinced that during the 1939-45 period, though parents and relatives certainly did influence a young Mennonite male’s decision to enlist or become a CO, church leaders did not play as strong a role in their lives as regards making decisions as academics and religious leaders often suggest.”13   The choice was ultimately left up to the individual, and those who wanted to act rebelliously knew that their parents and pastors would not be pleased with their enlistment.  Neufeld retells the story of a proud rebellious Mennonite soldier in Manitoba:
“I have (a) vivid memory of a young Mennonite soldier… standing arrogantly in our churchyard one Sunday morning in full military dress complete with long, wicked-looking dress sword… basking in the envy of the older youths and defiantly returning the disapproving stares of older people… (He) had come to show off and to mortify his elders.  …Had a Martian suddenly dropped into our midst he could not have created a more startling or alien effect.  The war had come to Steinbach…”14

Mennonite men joined the military for a wide variety of reasons. In general, it appears that their reasons were some of the following: they wanted to make a meaningful contribution to their country, they could be a Christian witness on the front lines of battle, pacifism had not been instilled in them, the military offered greater rewards than alternative service, they wanted to rebel against their parents and pastors, and they were simply bored and sought adventure. 

Reception

Mennonite men who enlisted were warmly received and celebrated by non-Mennonite Canadians, as they were perceived to be doing their part for Canada, but their reception in the Mennonite community was quite inconsistent.  As previously discussed, Canadian Mennonites had various opinions on what roles were appropriate for Mennonites to play during war and, thus, there is great diversity in the way the larger Mennonite community perceived and received the men who enlisted in the military.  Regehr reveals that it was quite common for Mennonite congregations to annul memberships of men who enlisted.  On the other hand, while it was quite rare, some congregations were swept up with the surge of wartime nationalistic fervour and completely rejected the nonresistance aspect of their faith.  In between these two extremes were congregations that accepted their men who enlisted only if they served in noncombatant roles.15   Furthermore, Regehr claims that in general, Mennonite congregations in cities were more accommodating than those in rural areas.16

DaveEppRev. Johannes Harder’s Mennonite Brethren church in rural Yarrow seems to break the mold, as it did not expel any members who enlisted.17   This may have had something to do with the fact that his son, John, joined the armed forces after beginning as a CO.  In the town meeting in May of 1943, the Mennonites of Yarrow defended themselves against the attacks of Fraser Valley’s non-Mennonite residents by proudly announcing that at least 34 of their men were serving in the armed forces.18   In a private meeting with reporters, Isaac Goertzen, preacher at Arnold MB, and Henry Sukkua, chairman of the Yarrow town council, declared, "Two-thirds of our young men of draft are now in uniform only one-third are in conscientious objectors' camps. They are not ejected from the church because they go into uniform."19 Again in Abbotsford, when the criticism from the community was very strong, the Mennonites highlighted the ways that their men were serving their country.20   However, they may have only done this because it was one of their most effective defenses, knowing the value non-Mennonites placed on military service.  Thus, the Mennonite congregations of the Fraser Valley were quite progressive in that they did not expel members who enlisted in the military and they publicly emphasized and praised the Mennonites who served in this way, but their private actions told a different story.

Generally, Mennonite congregations across Canada sent pastors and representatives to ASW camps to support and encourage COs there and corresponded with COs who were stationed too far away, while they had very little correspondence with military men.21 When COs returned home, they were warmly welcomed back, but when Mennonite men returned from the armed forces, they were spurned.  Some congregations even required returning soldiers to confess and renounce their involvement in the war before admitting them back into the congregation.22  To avoid this mistreatment, many Mennonite soldiers left their home churches when they returned to Canada. Some joined together with other veterans and started their own Mennonite churches, while others switched to Christian denominations that would accept them.23

Since almost all of the Mennonites in the Fraser Valley were Russlaender, their Mennonite congregations were more receptive to their men who served in the military than most Mennonite churches across Canada. They did not publicly or formally reject their military men, but they did not treat them in the same way as they did COs. While the Yarrow soldiers were away, their churches prayed for their safety and salvation, suggesting that they doubted the salvation of men who enlisted.  Rev. Harder's church in Yarrow did not expel its members for enlisting nor is there any evidence that Mennonite congregations in the Fraser Valley required their returning soldiers to renounce their military involvement before being readmitted. Nevertheless, it seems that returning servicemen still felt uncomfortable reentering their Mennonite congregations.24  

Moreover, their service was not celebrated when they came home, apart from small family functions. 66 men had gone off to war from Yarrow, but no official homecoming or celebration was ever held for them.25   It appears that although Yarrow’s citizens emphasized the service of these men to deflect criticism from the broader community, they were not truly proud of them.  Unfortunately, it seems that the bravery of Yarrow’s soldiers was never honoured by the Mennonite community. 

JohnHarder
John Harder and friend

Their Stories

John Harder, the eldest son of Rev. Johannes and Tina Harder, was conscripted in the summer of 1943.  He was granted CO status and assigned to Alternative Service work on a ranch in Ashcroft, BC.  He was likely influenced to choose this path by his father, who was a strong supporter and defender of Mennonite COs.  However, Harder did not have a positive experience as an alternative service worker and decided, apart from his family, to enlist in the armed forces. (He even did so before the basic training requirement was removed in 1943.)  He was grateful to his new home country of Canada and “wanted to make a significant and meaningful contribution in the country’s hour of need.”26   His decision obviously shocked his family, especially his mother, but he seemed to think that his father understood.  Harder returned home safely from his service in Europe and was permitted back into his father’s church, but this seemed to be uncomfortable for him, as he went on to join a Presbyterian church instead.  After finishing high school and studies at the University of British Columbia, Harder joined the Royal Canadian Air Force, the occupation in which he remained until retirement.27

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Jack Block

Jacob (Jack) Block was one of the twenty men from Yarrow who enlisted in the Medical Corps.  In his autobiography, Reflections, he does not identify patriotism or strong faith as his motivation for enlisting; instead, he states, “I was twenty years old with the future at my disposal.  I embraced the adventure with no misgivings.  I wanted to see the world.”28   He comments that his mother objected to his decision, while his father did not.  He was proud to return to Yarrow after training to show off his soldier’s uniform.  Block enlisted in 1943, but it appears to have been before the basic training requirement was removed for medical officers because he did undergo basic training in Peterborough.29   Although he was a medical officer, he was still considered a soldier, but he and other COs received stretchers rather than rifles from the armory.  While in London, Block was not warmly welcomed at first at Mennonite Central Committee’s (MCC) centre because he was in uniform, but he and those who were with him were permitted to lodge there.30   Despite the uniform, he was still a devout Mennonite, ministering to the sick and wounded and seeking out other Christians to have Bible study with.  Block received four services awards for his time in the military – a War Medal, a Defense Medal, a Canadian Volunteer Service Medal, and a Clasp.31   When he returned home, he remembers being enthusiastically welcomed back by his family and a few others.  He does not comment on how the Mennonite community received him back, which could mean that reentering the community was neither a positive nor a negative experience. 

Regehr relates the story of Rudolf Goetz, another young man from Yarrow who joined the Medical Corps.  He “was sent overseas in 1944” and “was killed in action in March 1945.”32   Apparently, “Goetz died when a live grenade landed in a crowded spot. Goetz dropped on it, and his body absorbed the explosion, which otherwise would have killed many others.”33   Although some of his fellow Mennonites back home would have questioned his faith because of his decision to enlist, Goetz made the ultimate sacrifice in unselfishly giving his life for the lives of others.

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1 T.D. Regehr, Mennonites in Canada, 1939-1970: A People Transformed, Volume 3 (Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 1996), 35.
2 Peter Lorenz Neufeld, Mennonites at War: A Double-edged sword: Canadian Mennonites in World War II (Deloraince, MAN: DTS Publishing, 1997), 69.
3 Neufeld, Mennonites at War, 69.
4 Chilliwack Progress, 12-May-1943, "Mennonites Protest Criticism; Organize to Buy Loan Bonds," p1.
5 Harold J. Dyck and Marlene A. Sawatsky, “Yarrow’s Soldiers,” in Village of Unsettled Yearnings; Yarrow, British Colombia: Mennonite Promise, ed. Leonard N. Neufeldt (Victoria, BC: TouchWood Editions, 2002), 96.
6 Dyck and Sawatsky, "Yarrow's Soldiers," 96.
7 Neufeld, Mennonites at War, 10.
8 Lawrence Klippenstein, "Canadian Mennonite Service in World War II," in Alternative Service for Peace in Canada during World War II: 1941-1946, ed. A.J. Klassen (Abbotsford, BC: Mennonite Central Committee (BC), 1998), 5.
9 John H. Enns, "John H. Enns," in Alternative Service for Peace in Canada during World War II: 1941-1946, ed. A.J. Klassen (Abbotsford, BC: Mennonite Central Committee (BC), 1998), 67.
10 Regehr, Mennonites in Canada, 56.
11 Klippenstein, "Canadian Mennonite Service," 6.
12 T.D. Regehr, A Generation of Vigilance: The lives & work of Johannes and Tina Harder (Winnipeg, MAN: CMU Press, 2009), 97.
13 Neufeld, Mennonites at War, 10.
14 Neufeld, Mennonites at War, 11. (Quoting from June and Summer 1974 edition of The Mennonite Mirror).
15 Regehr, Mennonites in Canada, 57.
16 Neufeld, Mennonites at War, 13.
17 Regehr, A Generation of Vigilance, 88.
18 Chilliwack Progress, 12-May-1943, "Mennonites Protest Criticism; Organize to Buy Loan Bonds," p1.
19 Abbotsford Sumas Matsqui News, 22-Dec-1943, "Mennonite Leaders Deny 'Reprisal Threats,'" p6.
20 ASM News, 15-Dec-1943, “'We Only Want to Make Homes' They Say," p1,5.
21 Neufeld, Mennonites at War, 11
22 Neufeld, Mennonites at War, 13.
23 Neufeld, Mennonites at War, 12-14, Regehr, 57.
24 Regehr, A Generation of Vigilance, 88.
25 Dyck and Sawatsky, "Yarrow’s Soldiers," 103.
26 Regehr, A Generation of Vigilance, 87.
27 Regehr, A Generation of Vigilance, 88.
28 Jacob (Jack) Block, Reflections (Surrey, BC: Coastline Mountain Press, 2002), 49.
29 Block, Reflections, 50.
30 Block, Reflections, 56.
31 Block, Reflections, 64.
32 Regehr, Mennonites in Canada, 37.
33 Regehr, Mennonites in Canada, 37.

I am convinced that during the 1939-45 period, though parents and relatives certainly did influence a young Mennonite male’s decision to enlist or become a CO, church leaders did not play as strong a role in their lives as regards making decisions as academics and religious leaders often suggest.

- Historian Peter Lorenz Neufeld

 

 

 

 

[Mennonite COs who joined the Medical Corps] found this more meaningful [than alternative service] and served their country in a more worthwhile manner.

- John H. Enns