WWII conscientious objector Dick Flaharty, 90, at his home in Granada Hills, CA
WWII conscientious objector Dick Flaharty, 90, at his home in Granada Hills, Calif.
In November I shot Dick Flaharty for National Parks Magazine and learned quite a bit about what it was like to be a conscientious objector during the various wars in which America has been involved. Flaharty, of Granada Hills, Calif., served during WWII as a smoke jumper in the National Parks Service. He was one of 12,000 COs who worked with the Civilian Public Service, which put COs to work doing jobs considered to be of national importance here in the U.S. The other 25,000 COs served non-combat roles in combat zones overseas. Thanks to President Roosevelt, WWII was the first war that the U.S. had been involved in that didn’t persecute conscientious objectors, instead opting to put them to work. According to the National Parks Magazine article, during previous wars, CO’s had been imprisoned, tortured and, during the Civil War, even starved to death.
In order to be accepted as a CO and assigned to a camp, applicants were tested not only on their objection to WWII, but all wars under any circumstances. Only 37,000 of the 72,000 applicants were admitted, according to the article.
Now 90, Flaharty lives alone in a quiet suburban neighborhood 20 miles northwest of Los Angeles. He plays in a bluegrass band with members of his church and has photographs of children and grandchildren lining the hallways and sitting on a bookshelf next to a sofa where he spends much of his time reading. The same spirit that made him what he was back then is still obviously alive though. In his driveway sits a dark blue Prius, adorned with a bumper sticker commenting on fuel consumption. He may be the eldest of the 5 million Prius drivers in the Los Angeles area. And as you approach the front door there is a sign reading “Peace” perched in a window.
He also is part of an organization that keeps the history of the WWII COs alive and keeps track of surviving WWII COs. Despite that, all that remains of his time serving as a smokejumper is a folder containing a couple blurry black and white photographs and some news clippings, as well as a piece of discolored white fabric only a foot wide in either direction and torn on the edges. It is that of a parachute that once nearly killed him, before saving his life. It sounds like a story straight from a comic movie, but actually scary. During a jump to head off a fire, he told me, his chute didn’t open properly, leaving him plummeting toward the earth. I don’t remember if he said that it opened partially, providing some resistance, or whether he was falling at full speed. I think the former. What’s important is that at the end of the fall he found himself crashing through a thick patch of trees, when at the last second, his chute snagged a branch, bringing him to a sudden halt just before impact. He said he could touch the ground with his toes as he dangled there. Crazy! I tried to incorporate the material into the shot, but it just looked like a handkerchief. Oh well.
The article has just been published in the Winter 2011 edition of the magazine. Read it here.