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Starvation experiement participants on the treadmill.

May 8, 1945, was V-E Day; Victory in Europe. But the brutal fighting against Japan continued. In Minnesota, Max Kampelman and the 35 other conscientious objectors were halfway through the starvation phase of the experiment. At the lab they took dexterity and concentration tests. They ran on a treadmill, sometimes to the point of collapse. They continued exercising and doing their jobs. They were preoccupied with food and found ways to compensate for ceaseless hunger.

"And what we enjoyed doing was to see other people eat," says Jay Garner. "We would go into a restaurant and order just a cup of coffee and sit and watch other people eat. And it bothered us to see people come in only eat half of their food and just leave the other half."

Participants were allowed to drink coffee and tea and, at first, they were allowed to chew gum. Jay Garner says he once chewed 18 packs in a day. "One of the fellows, he had somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 packs a day," Garner says. "May have explained one of the reasons he had problems losing weight."

Physiologist Ancel Keys led the starvation experiment. Courtesy University of Minnesota

Ancel Keys and the other scientists running the experiment realized that each stick of gum had a few calories of sugar, which would add up if a desperate man chewed a couple hundred sticks. So gum was rationed - two packs a day.

Behavior, especially around food, became increasingly irrational. "One man completely lost control of himself," says participant Sam Legg. "Went into a grocery shop. He didn't buy anything - he shoplifted. And what did he take? He took potatoes and carrots and onions - root vegetables which were the basis of our diet - and he stuffed himself."

The shoplifter and three other men were either dropped from the experiment or the final results because they cheated or failed to lose weight as expected.

On July 28, 1945, the starvation phase of the experiment ended. Two days later, Life Magazine published a photo spread on the Minnesota experiment. With their shirts off, the men's rib cages pressed through their skin like washboards and their bony shoulders and elbows jutted out at alarming angles. The men had been longing for the end of the starvation phase. Next came the three-month rehabilitation phase. But the suffering intensified, according to researchers.

"What was unexpected about the rehab phase was it ended up being psychologically the hardest phase for most of the men," says author Todd Tucker. They were put on a very limited increase in calories. And so for many of these men, it was an excruciatingly disappointing time.

It was the time when Sam Legg was so hungry he mutilated himself. He and fellow CO Marshall Sutton were visiting friends for dinner at their home in Minneapolis. As always, they brought their own bag of pre-measured food from the lab. Even though it was late summer, the hungry men enjoyed the glowing fireplace. It was always so hard to stay warm.

Starvation subjects became overwelmingly preocupied with food. Some collected dozens of cookbooks. Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

"The fire was getting low and Sam jumped up and said he knew where the woodpile was, and there was a hatchet out there, and he needed to, in order to get the fire started, split up a little wood there," Sutton recalls.

It was the third week of rehabilitation. Sam Legg weighed about 113 pounds. He could hardly hold the axe in the air. But he brought it down on his left hand, chopping away three middle fingers.

"I admit to being crazy mixed up at the time," Legg says. "As of 50 years later, I am not ready to say I did it on purpose. I am not ready to say I didn't."

The experiment's staff psychologist noted that Legg's mental state was in a sharp decline. He was despondent over his ongoing hunger. Sam Legg was rushed to the hospital to get his mangled hand stitched up. He remembers explaining what happened to a young worker; that he lost his fingers because he was so hungry.

"And the poor kid, she says, 'But, but, but you didn't have to do it that way,' Legg remembers. "She thought I had eaten them. I was hungry. I didn't actually. They are now buried in a backyard in Minneapolis."

The scientists called it a severe degree of "semi-starvation neurosis." The experiment's final report said Legg was desperate to end the ordeal, but despondent about the prospect of failing. With his sewn-up hand, Sam Legg went back to the lab and finished the experiment.

World War II ended in early September 1945. The announcement of Japan's surrender interrupted the men while they were eating.

"This went through the group and we kept on eating," says Jay Garner. "The food was the important thing. We didn't care whether the war was over or not as long as we got our food."

A page of Harold Blickenstaff's diary during his participation in the starvation experiment. Here, Blickenstaff tracks his weight loss. Courtesy Harold Blickenstaff

Garner started the experiment weighing 165 pounds. At the end he weighed 119. When the men finally got to eat whatever they wanted, Harold Blickenstaff and some of the others binged so heavily they got sick, the same kind of phenomenon the Allies were seeing from survivors of the concentration camps.

Some men say it took a year or more to recover their strength and get back to a normal weight. Half a century later, none of the test subjects believe that starving for more than six months did any major, long-term damage to their minds or bodies. Over the years, many of the conscientious objectors stayed active in some kind of public or church service. Most of them left Minnesota and became teachers, biologists and businessmen. When researcher Leah Kalm interviewed 18 of the surviving volunteers, they all said the starvation experiment had been a defining moment in their lives.

"All of them had this lovely combination of pride and humbleness in the way that they spoke about their participation in the experiment," says Kalm. "They stood by their convictions, thought of it as an accomplishment. But they really all stressed that they didn't have it as bad as the people who were really starving or were out in the field being shot at."

Because the test subjects were conscientious objectors, not soldiers, the U.S. government never paid them. And they didn't qualify for veterans benefits.

At the end of World War II, millions of people around the world lived on the edge of starvation. In 1946, President Harry Truman asked Americans who had already lived through years of rationing and shortages to sacrifice awhile longer so food could be shipped to famine-stricken countries. But the battle against post-war world hunger would be largely fought without the findings of the Minnesota starvation experiment. The main study would not be published until 1950, five years after the war ended. The timing was a disappointment to many of the scientists who worked on it.

"The starvation crisis was over sooner than they thought it would be and it took longer than they thought to publish the experiment," says author Todd Tucker. "They published some interim studies with their early results. But most of the lasting value of the study came out later."

The Minnesota experiment revealed that starving people needed raw calories - up to 4000 a day, rather than some exotic mixture of vitamins and proteins. Bottom line: hungry people should get plenty of food. The study became a research classic because of the deep level of scientific detail in the heavy two-volume report. Researchers today who study eating disorders still cite Ancel Keys. That's partly because after the world learned of the horrific experiments that Nazi doctors conducted on prisoners, the ethics of human experimentation went through a revolution.

"Keys did this study because nothing like it had been done before," Todd Tucker says. "And because of ethical restrictions after WWII, nothing like it has been done after and probably never will be done."

Ancel Keys would go on making important discoveries in human nutrition. He revealed the connection between cholesterol and heart disease. He and his wife Margaret also popularized the now-famous Mediterranean diet; low in fat, high in vegetables, olive oil, fish and red wine. Ancel Keys died in 2004 at the age of 100.

Perhaps none of the 36 men was changed more by the year-long starvation experiment than Max Kampelman, who started the experiment believing love could overcome evil. That changed on August 6, 1945, when the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.

"What the atom bomb illustrated was that the perpetrator never sees the victim," Kampelman says. "So the victim can have all kinds of love but it will have absolutely no impact. There is such a thing as evil in the world. The power of love is inadequate to defeat it. "

Max Kampelman eventually joined the Marine Reserve and had a long, distinguished career in public service. He was a diplomat in the Carter and Reagan administrations and worked on arms control with the Soviet Union. More than half a century later, Kampelman can't really explain why the Nazi persecution of fellow Jews did not shake his faith in pacifism during the war. But it's easy for him to explain why he decided to starve.

"Why do people who were drafted go to fight wars, without escaping? Because there's a duty," Kampelman says. "It's the same kind of a thing, just a different battlefield. And from our point of view at the time, it was a battlefield consistent with what our conscience would tell us. But it was a battlefield. And battlefields are not supposed to be easy."

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