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War is the antithesis of the Gospel of Christ. Christ is the Prince of Peace. However, we are reminded again and again in the scriptures that war may be necessary in limited circumstances – “In memory of our God our religion and freedom and our peace our wives and our children” (Alma 46: 12).
I have found it a bit ironic that the Prophet Joseph Smith received the revelation we often refer to as the “revelation on war” on December 25th, 1832 – the day set a side in the world as a day of “peace on earth, good will towards man.” That revelation (Section 87) prophesied of the coming Civil War, but it also foreshadowed other wars of our time. No war of our Dispensation has been harder for mankind to bear than World War II.
This is the story of those who have been labeled “the greatest generation.” Some of the heroic accounts I’ll share will show why such high praise has been paid to them. We should note that Latter-day Saints were found in all of the pivotal moments of the war – at Pearl Harbor, D-Day, Midway, the Battle of the Bulge, Okinawa, The Battle of the Rhine, Iwo Jima and all of the others. They were the quiet heroes and many were the modern-day faithful – “sons of Helaman.”
These included men like young U.S. Marine Ted Tuttle, who secured the flag that was carried by others to the top of Mt. Suribachi on Iwo Jima and which became the subject of the famed picture we see.
Of course, the contributions of most Latter-day Saint soldiers have largely gone unnoticed in the history books, but their service is no less remarkable.
First we should say that World War II changed the world – not only during the conflict, but forever afterward. Every facet of life, every aspect of human experience was affected by the war in some way. World War II was not just a pivotal part of a decade, nor of a century, but of all modern recorded history. No war in the history of the world produced more bloodshed and devastation than World War II. By the end of the war many nations lay in ruins and more than fifty million people died.
The predecessor to World War II was World War I. Just twenty years separated the two great world wars. The truth is that those who served in the WWII were the sons of those who fought in WWI. At the time of the war, there were approximately 800,000 members of the Church worldwide. It is interesting to note that at that time, Church membership in Germany ranked third in the world behind the United States and Canada.i
The number of Latter-day Saints in uniform worldwide steadily increased throughout the war years to a high of approximately 100,000 in 1945.ii Several current and recent members of our First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve served in the war. The toll of the war on the Church was high and by the end of the war, approximately five thousand Latter-day Saint servicemen died.
In some LDS homes, more than one son was lost in combat. One poignant example of such loss was the Borgstrom family from northern Utah, who lost four sons within approximately six months.iii
The first story I would like to share is that of Mervyn Bennion, Captain of the USS West Virginia, a battleship in the US Navy. We should remember that for the United States, military involvement in WWII began on December 7, 1941. On that terrible day of infamy, the USS West Virginia was stationed at Pearl Harbor. Captain Bennion was preparing to leave his ship to go to church in Honolulu at the time of the attack. Brother Bennion reminds us that even in war, being prepared in our spiritual lives is what matters.
Wherever Latter-day Saint servicemen could be found in sufficient numbers, the Church designated group leaders to conduct church meetings and other activities. One such group leader was Robert Backman, a future general authority of the Church. Elder Backman recounts the first occasion where he was able to organize a meeting of his comrades:
Worship opportunities for our LDS soldiers were a great challenge. Of course, in war – there are no Sundays. Some of our veterans report never having a chance to meet with other LDS soldiers while away to war. However, others were able to meet regularly. Often such meetings were conducted in foxholes, open fields, or tents.
Occasionally circumstances allowed soldier saints to improve their worship settings. One group of creative Latter-day Saint airmen erected a brick chapel on a small island in the Mediterranean Sea.vi Half a world away, on the island of Saipan, a young group of marines – including future apostle L. Tom Perry – built another chapel.
Where larger numbers of servicemen could be gathered, such as at military bases and other centers, Latter-day Saint chaplains organized servicemen’s conferences. v These gatherings provided a spiritual feast for those who attended. At such conferences, participants engaged in a host of activities, including socials, banquets, and church meetings. The conferences, often organized by LDS chaplains, generally concluded with a testimony meeting. Those in attendance considered it a spiritual highlight of the war years.
Latter-day Saint chaplains provided a crucial link between the Church and its members in the service. Of course, the primary responsibility of all chaplains was to minister to the needs of service personnel of all religions. Still, LDS chaplains sought to keep an eye on LDS soldiers in addition.
A major challenge faced by these chaplains was locating Latter-day Saint servicemen. One group of especially creative Latter-day Saint “chaps” decorated their jeep with a beehive, an Angel Moroni, and a boldly printed Deseret. They then drove among the troops, hoping to be recognized by soldiers who were members of the Church. vi Their resourcefulness paid off as many were located in this way.
World War II had a dramatic impact on full-time missionary work. At the outset of the war, the Church evacuated the missionaries from most of Europe. The stories of the missionaries’ evacuations are filled with miracles. vii Remarkably, all escaped without harm. By the end of the war, full-time missionary service had declined dramatically, and those called were sent almost exclusively to missions within the United States. iii
Of course the war was hard on those left at home. War bonds, rationing, and victory gardens were key in the efforts at home. One interesting note comes from none other than the Hinckley home, where the Hinckleys participated in home industry by raising tomatoes – and lots of them. Sister Hinckley recorded that one particular year the couple planted 3,000 tomato plants. In the end, they harvested so many tomatoes they couldn’t give them away.
In addition to the worries for those away to war, many times family members left on the home front confronted challenges of a different kind. Lucille Laney, a young bride from Utah County, answered the call to care for her newborn niece whose mother died soon after childbirth. This infant’s father was away to war and was unable to return home until after the conclusion of the conflict. A motherly bond developed between this aunt and her little niece as Lucille raised the child through her early years.
Throughout the conflict, the Church emerged as an important spiritual beacon in America. One interesting side note to the war is that two Liberty class merchant ships were named for Latter-day Saint Church Presidents. The USS Brigham Young was launched on August 17, 1942, and the USS Joseph Smith on May 22, 1943.viii
In October of 1942, the Church organized the Servicemen’s Committee and named Church Apostle Harold B. Lee as chairman and Hugh B. Brown as servicemen’s coordinator. ix The purpose of the committee was to assist and aid Latter-day Saints in uniform wherever they were stationed.
The Servicemen’s Committee issued a pocket-sized Book of Mormon and the Church publication entitled Principles of the Gospel. Additionally, a small servicemen’s edition of the Church News was distributed. x The servicemen’s edition of the Book of Mormon in particular provided a great source of strength for servicemen far from home. Many soldiers reported often turning to their scriptures for spiritual strength. Of course, some did not have access to the institutional support of the Church and had to rely on other ways of surviving the ordeal of war.
Latter-day Saint prisoners of war were one such group that often endured living lives of quiet desperation and often for long periods. Ace Christensen is one such example. He was taken prisoner as one of thousands who endured the Bataan Death March in the Philippines. For three and one-half years he endured the terrible conditions of his imprisonment. He remembers that his enemy was the loss of hope. At one point, he lost hope. He resigned himself to die. But in desperation, he found spiritual answers in his moment of greatest need. These answers sustained him during life’s darkest moments.
Of course, the challenges of Church members were great internationally. Many Saints experienced great deprivations of food, clothing, and shelter. Despite their challenges, they persevered, and where they could, they met for Church meetings in homes or bombed-out buildings. In Germany, the toll upon the Saints was especially heavy. By the end of the war, 85 percent of German members were rendered homeless. v More than 550 German members died, most of whom were soldiers.
The war in Europe raged for nearly six years before it finally concluded on May 8, 1945. Of course, the end of the war in Europe did not mean an end to all of the hostilities. The war in the Pacific continued to rage on. In fact, some of the highest casualty rates of the war came in the summer of 1945.
Finally, on August 15, 1945, three months after the end of the war in Europe, the Japanese surrendered after atomic bombs were dropped by the United States on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Until the bombs were dropped, many had anticipated a full invasion of Japan. Included in the invasion force were many Latter-day Saints who expressed gratitude that their anticipated missions were abruptly aborted. Near the end of the war, Clarence Bramley from California recounts an unusual and inspiring story. He and others of his pals who had also endured years of being POW’s determined they would stay up into the night for the purpose of sewing an American flag. This they did and it was a prized item that he was invited to keep.
Following the conclusion of the war in the Pacific, the Church swung into action administering relief to war-torn regions of the world. In November of 1945, newly sustained Church President George Albert Smith met with U.S. President Harry S. Truman to make arrangements to dispatch humanitarian relief to starving Latter-day Saints and others in Europe.
At the request of the First Presidency, Elder Ezra Taft Benson traveled throughout Europe and assisted in providing aid to Latter-day Saints and others in destitute conditions. From February until December 1946, Elder Benson traveled more than 61,000 miles and administered more than four million tons of food and supplies to war-ravaged Europeans. iii As Elder Benson traveled the missions of Europe and of the British Isles, he was impressed by the resilience of the local members. Devastation was everywhere, but a spirit of faith and hope filled the hearts of the Saints.
Relief came not only from Church headquarters, but from various Church units and individual members. One of the most poignant stories of the postwar period occurred when Saints from the formerly occupied Netherlands sent truckloads of potatoes to assist members in Germany. iii The healing process was greatly aided by such acts of Christian service and love.
What is the legacy of World War II for Latter-day Saints? The legacy for the Church is found in the contributions of its courageous and faithful members who committed their all to the preservation of freedom during the horrific conflict. Two great statements have stayed with me through my research into the service of LDS and others who fought in WWII. The simply says, “All gave some and some gave all.” This summarizes a lot. The other statement says, “We gave our todays, so you would have your tomorrows.”
Both current and future generations of Latter-day Saints must hold in sacred remembrance the sacrifices of the faithful Saints who fought in World War II. May the day be hastened in which “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isa. 2: 4). Truly we hope for the dawning of a brighter day.
i Gilbert Scharffs, Mormonism in Germany: A History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Germany Between 1840 and 1970 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1970), 222.
ii Heber J. Grant, Deseret News: Church News Edition, April 7, 1945, 6.
iii Thomas S. Monson, “Becoming Our Best Selves,” Ensign, November 1999, 18-21. On June 26,1948, United States General Mark W. Clark presided at a service convened in Garland, Utah, to honor the four young men.
iv Deseret News: Church News Edition, May 20, 1944, 10.
v These conferences varied both in size and location.
They were held in such locations as the Philippines, the Pacific Isles, Hawaii, the Marianas, Italy, and Britain.
vi On one occasion, one group of chaplains decorated the
front of their jeep with the symbols of a beehive, an angel Moroni, and the word Deseret in hopes that Mormon soldiers would identify themselves to the chaplains. Deseret News: Church News Edition, September 2, 1944, 10.
viii News of the inauguration of these ships was carried in the Deseret News: Church News Edition, August 22, 1942, 1: and May 29, 1943, 2.
ix Deseret News 1999-2000 Church Almanac (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1998), 136-137. Hugh B. Brown also presided over the British Mission during the last years of the war. One and a half years earlier, in May 1941, Hugh B. Brown was assigned as Latter-day Saint servicemen’s coordinator.
x Deseret News: Church News Edition, May 15, 1944, 1.