Saskatoon

WWII conscientious objector kept his view secret for 64 years

Gordon Toombs didn’t tell anyone for 64 years that he was a conscientious objector during the Second World War. Now, at 99 years old, he’s opening up about his experience in his book, L74298.

Veteran ‘loyal to Jesus’ denied conscientious objector status during the war

Gordon Toombs wanted to declare himself a conscientious objector during the Second World War — instead, he said he was tricked into signing up for duty. Now, he's telling his story for the first time in a new book. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

Gordon Toombs kept it a secret for 64 years that he was a conscientious objector during the Second World War. 

Now, at 99-years-old, he's opening up about his experience in his book, L74298.

Toombs was a 21-year-old in training for the ministry of the United Church, attending the University of Saskatchewan during the war. 

"Our loyalty was to Jesus of Nazareth who [was] a nonviolent person and advocated non-violence and good neighbourliness for everyone," Toombs told CBC Radio's The Afternoon Edition.

Toombs in his military uniform after he tried to declare himself a conscientious objector during the Second World War. (Supplied/Gordon Toombs)

He went before a board established by the Department of National Defence that was created to decide who was a genuine conscientious objector and who wasn't, he said.

"I told them I wanted to work on the front line in a similar dangerous situation to my friends who were carrying guns and risking death. I said I'd like to be in some kind of medical operation, if possible, without carrying any weapons."

The board told him they would put him in the medical corps and he took them at their word.

If we're going to be loyal to Jesus ... someone has to be witnesses to the opposite of violence.- Gordon Toombs

He was training in Ottawa when he realized they weren't going to honour his request. He said he tried to leave the army, hoping the air force or the navy would respect his wishes.

"They refused to let me out," he said. "I had to manage my exit in my own way."

Wanted as an army deserter

Toombs joined the Royal Canadian Air Force without telling the army, causing the army to put out a notice that he was a wanted deserter.

He'd been training with the air force for seven weeks when he went to his wing commander and asked what they could do for him in this situation.

The wing commander gave him two choices: go back to the army and do his time in prison or volunteer for the aircrew.

"What could I do? I'd given up any hope of being a conscientious objector."

He chose to volunteer and ended up being a navigator in a Lancaster bomber. Toombs said he blamed himself for many years.

"It never occurred to me to blame the army as being the culprit," he said.

Today, he does attend Remembrance Day ceremonies. He lives in a retirement residence in Winnipeg where there are six other veterans.

"I usually sit behind them because I wasn't proud to be in the army; I didn't choose to be in the army," he said.

"I still am convinced that if we're going to be loyal to Jesus that someone has to be witnesses to the opposite of violence."

About the Author

Ashleigh Mattern is a reporter and copy editor with CBC Saskatoon and CBC Saskatchewan, and an associate producer with Saskatoon Morning. She has been working as a journalist since 2007 and joined CBC in 2017. Email: ashleigh.mattern@cbc.ca.

With files from The Afternoon Edition

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