World War II is a time many LDS veterans speak little about. Some say their experiences are too personal or too painful to recount, others say they are too mundane to remember.
Robert Freeman and Dennis Wright, however, believe that all the experiences of LDS men and women who served during World War II are too important to forget.
The BYU professors of Church history are not only working to document the experiences of Church members involved in the war, but also to identify the silver linings — the missionary work, the priesthood in action and the humanitarian efforts. They want others to know that Church meetings were held in fox holes, that 45 commissioned LDS chaplains made heroic efforts to locate young LDS soldiers and that one Church group desperate for more favorable circumstances actually built their own chapel in Italy. They want Church members to know that amidst war, many LDS soldiers actually found peace.
"One of the things that we hope will come out of our research is the message that those who defended righteous principles sacrificed much and that even amidst the madness of World War II, there were miracles," said Brother Freeman.
World War II began Sept. 1, 1939, when Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Two days later Britain and France declared war on Germany. Then in December 1941 the United States entered the war, after a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
At the height of the war, an estimated 100,000 LDS servicemen, from numerous countries, fought on both sides of the battlefield. And while exact numbers are not known, Brother Freeman estimates that more than 5,000 LDS servicemen were killed in combat.
World War II touched the lives of so many Church members that even today approximately half the members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve are World War II veterans, said Brother Wright. If the inspiring stories of LDS soldiers are lost, he added, so will be an important chapter in Church history.
Horst Kurt Hilbert, an LDS German soldier who fought in the war from 1939 to 1945, was attacked by Russian troops while on guard duty one January day. He recounts the events of the attack, where he found shelter in a little shack with a straw roof.
"I was afraid and since I was forbidden to leave the post, I wanted to pray. . . ," he wrote in his history. "All I was able to say was: if my mother could pray for me right now, so the Lord might hear the prayer of a righteous woman. With this thought I looked to the east, and felt prompted to look north. When I did this and turned, a [b]ullet passed and in passing hit the coat at my stomach. Had I not turned it would have struck my stomach. After this incident the shooting stopped.
"Some days later I received a letter from my mother. In this letter she wrote me, that in the night of January 6 she woke up my 4 sisters and said: we have to pray fast, Horst is in mortal danger and needs our prayers. . . . After the prayer, my mother told my sisters to go back to sleep and be of good cheer. Horst has been in danger, and the Lord has helped him."
Brother Freeman and Brother Wright have heard numerous stories of faith and courage. They have learned about men who found their testimony of the Church during the war, and, unfortunately, of some who in the madness never found the Church or other LDS soldiers.
However, they say, many LDS soldiers made it through the war with help from the Church through the servicemen's committee, formed in 1942 with Elder Harold B. Lee as chairman and Hugh B. Brown as servicemen's coordinator. The committee, explained Brother Freeman, was instrumental in providing support to those in uniform, with such things as the servicemen's edition of the scriptures, a servicemen's directory and a servicemen's edition of the Church News.
Years ago, Brother Freeman was teaching an adult religious education class and talking about historical events. During one lesson, he briefly mentioned World War II and was preparing to move on when a member of his class asked if he could make a comment.
The former serviceman talked about the Church's outreach program during the war, when he felt lonely and lost. " 'I was confronting death each day and the letters, packages and other remembrances turned my life around. From that time to this, I committed myself to Christ,' " the student explained to Brother Freeman.
The student's story, said Brother Freeman, left an indelible imprint.
LDS Chaplain Vernon A. Cooley and his LDS assistant, Claude Burtenshaw, painted the word "Deseret" visibly on the front of their jeep while serving in Italy during the war. In addition, the two men painted a picture of the Angel Moroni on one of the jeep doors. It was their hope that no Latter-day Saint would see the jeep without approaching them and asking questions.
The tactic worked. Everywhere they traveled in their "Deseret" jeep, LDS soldiers hailed them to stop. "Hey, are you guys Mormon?" they asked, according to the book, "For God and Country, memorable Stories from the Lives of Mormon Chaplains." The pair located hundreds of LDS servicemen in Italy with the aid of their jeep.
Brother Wright and Brother Freeman feel an urgency to their World War II research. They are recording stories of men in their 70s and 80s, many of which are being told for the first time. Brother Wright's father and father-in-law served in the war, and Brother Wright is just beginning to realize what affect the war may have had on them. Neither shared their war experiences without first being asked to.
Brother Wright said he is also seeing veteran's children and grandchildren, who like himself, are interested to learn more about the experiences their fathers and grandfathers had during war.
Brother Wright said through research he has read of young men who, weeks before walking onto the battlefield, were attending Mutual or who had married days before leaving home. He is afraid if he waits any longer to collect such stories it will be too late. Currently, he said, veterans of World War II are dying at the rate of 1,100 a day in the United States alone.
Their stories, along with the stories of their families and the people who helped them, are in danger of being lost to history, he explained.
Ken Schubert was classified as a bomb aimer in the Canadian Royal Air Force during World War II. While on a mission to destroy a railroad marshaling yard in southern Belgium, the plane he was in was shot down, killing the pilot. Of the six others on the plane who bailed out, only two, including Brother Schubert, were not captured. Scattered over about 20 miles, the men were separated and Brother Schubert was found by a Belgium farmer, who took him home.
"They were in constant danger with me there. As the Gestapo was constantly searching for me," wrote Brother Schubert of the farmer, his wife, and four children in his history. "These good people would have been shot for harboring me if I had been found. I was with them for four months and came to appreciate and love them dearly. . . . To evade the Gestapo, I often hid in the attic where I sat and unstitched my parachute and my vest. The material was stuffed into pillows and after the war, was made into dresses for the three daughters.
"One day I was in the back yard and heard the father and mother excitedly speaking in loud tones in front of the house. . . . I immediately entered the goat shed . . . where I squeezed myself in the corner next to the door. The door opened and a big black boot came through, the goat lunged forward on her chain and the boot withdrew. When I had entered, the goat remained quiet, although she had never been a great friend of mine. Since then I [have held] all goats in high esteem as she, no doubt, saved me and the family from the Gestapo."
Don Norton, a BYU English professor, has also been working to record and preserve the stories of LDS servicemen. He hears constantly from people who "again and again say, 'I was in the war, but I didn't do anything.' They say, 'I was just a mechanic' or 'I was just in the trenches.' "
However war, he explained, "is not necessarily the outstanding heroes. The war was fought by the ordinary soldiers."
These are the stories he and Brother Wright and Brother Freeman are after, the kind that grandfathers and grandmothers should be telling their grandchildren. "A lot of men are reluctant to talk and haven't talked for years. Many are reluctant because it is painful."
But these stories, said Brother Freeman, illustrate courage and faith. They reveal the quality and quantity of LDS service.
The BYU professors are gathering letters, journals, photographs and verbal or written accounts of the war. They not only want to document the stories of the men and women who served in any branch of the military or for any nation, but also the stories of the families they left behind. They want to talk to the veterans or even their children who may know their stories. They hope to eventually create an extensive database.
"The LDS perspective as relates to World War II is important because it allows us to learn about the experiences of disciples of Christ who answered the call of their nations and participated in the devastation of the worst world war in recorded history," said Brother Freeman.
For more information about the LDS Veterans of World War II Project, please contact Robert Freeman or Dennis Wright: phone, (801) 378-2484; address: LDS Veterans of WWII Project, 375 JSB, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, 84602; Internet e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or Internet Web site: http://reled.byu.edu/ldsvets