Contrary to myth, all of young male America did not dash down to the recruiting centers the day after Pearl Harbor. Deferments from military service were coveted, and in some areas plentiful. Two million exempt farm workers stayed in their fields—initially three times more than those deferred for industrial work. Eventually four million men were deferred for defense plant work. In the repair and trade services alone, 34 occupations were classified as "essential."
The most controversial deferments were for conscientious objectors. The Selective Service Act of 1940 exempted any person who, "by reason of religious training or belief, is conscientiously opposed to the participation of war in any form." Selective Service Director General Lewis Hershey (who would hold the job for three decades, through Vietnam) strictly interpreted the qualifications, working through 6,443 local draft boards. About half of the 70,000 men who applied for CO status got it, many of them Quakers, Brethren and Mennonites. Because Jehovah's Witnesses opposed WW2 but not all wars, draft boards routinely denied their requests. Of 16,000 men convicted of draft resistance during the war (and sentenced to a maximum of five years), 6,000 were rejected CO's, and 3/4 of those were Jehovah's Witnesses.
25,000 CO's were assigned to non-combat military duty, of which the most famous were medics. At first, frequently reviled in boot camp as cowards and shirkers, "Conchie" medics' status rose rapidly on the battlefield, when GIs realized their lives often depended on the unarmed medic, and his bravery under fire.
Nearly 12,000 CO's were assigned to "alternative service," especially Public Service Camps that had been funded with $7,000,000 from Pacifist churches and organizations. Working fifty unpaid hours a week on conservation, forestry and public health projects, some CO's found these camps to be virtual prisons, where military discipline prevailed. (The last of the CO's was released from the camps in 1947.) About 500 CO's volunteered for medical experiments, testing, among other things, cures for typhus and malaria. Perhaps the most dashing CO's were smoke jumpers in Oregon, parachuting down to fight fires that were started by the thousands of timed incendiary balloons released by the Japanese. Thus ironically, the only direct attacks on the continental United States during World War Two were repulsed, in part, by conscientious objectors.