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Faithful soldiers in Korea gave Church a foothold following World War II

Set the stage for missionary work

It was an unostentatious announcement on the passenger bulletin board of a U.S. Army transport ship headed for Korea in 1946:

"If there are any Latter Day Saints Church members on board, please meet Lt. Col. JAMES R. BARKER on the main deck in front of Transportation Agents window at 1000 hours Saturday."

But for those who fit the description on the notice, it was the ship's spiritual lifesaver, according to Dick Harris of the Del Norte Ward, San Diego California North Stake. Brother Harris, who served a tour of duty during the occupation of Korea immediately following World War II, was among those who responded to such a note.

Brother Harris said members who were part of the military occupation forces were the first established Church presence in Korea, setting the stage for missionary work done by LDS soldiers during the Korean War, and the arrival of the first full-time missionaries in 1954.

Charged with facilitating the withdrawal of the Japanese military from Korea, some 73,000 U.S. troops were sent to Korea. Of those, there were enough Church members to organize some groups — as the Church military units were called — to take care of their spiritual needs. Brother Harris was involved in group leadership as a young family man whose wife and child were left at home.

In recent years, the professional journalist and owner of a public relations firm has turned his thoughts back to the time he was in Korea. He has researched and chronicled much of the Church's operation during 1945-48.

Lt. Col. James R. Barker who encouraged Church members in the military to be active in Church groups
Lt. Col. James R. Barker who encouraged Church members in the military to be active in Church groups wherever he was stationed. | Photo courtesy Dick Harris

"We thought of ourselves as being missionaries," he said during a Church News interview. As much as anything, they reached out to the member-servicemen and invited them to Sunday meetings and Mutual on weeknights. There were no known Korean members at that time, he said, and the first baptism he knows of was of a U.S. soldier. "We kept the flame glowing while we were in a foreign country," he said.

Col. Barker was a key figure for the Church in Korea during the time, Brother Harris said. He grew up on a farm in southeastern Utah and then became a coal miner before he was drafted during World War I.

After gathering with the members aboard the transport ship, Col. Barker posted another notice at division headquarters in Seoul after arriving in Korea: "Attention LDS, Church Sunday Services, 9 a.m., Room 319, Banto Hotel, Bring a friend."

A loosely organized group quickly grew and flourished with the colonel's help. "He would make it his point, wherever he was stationed, to organize groups," Brother Harris said, making the member-soldiers feel at home. "He was a motivator."

The hotel room used as a meeting place was humble, but sufficient, though a bit crowded.

"Every time we showed up, Col. Barker had found another straggler," Brother Harris said, recalling that a peak of about 35 members attended. Often, members would bring Korean friends to the meetings.

He wrote in his history, "Col. Barker usually outranked the others in these small groups on military bases in the states and abroad. He didn't need rank to get respect. In the Church, all were equal. In his first meeting as group leader on Oct. 22, 1946, he put us all on notice: 'We'll all serve, capable or not.' None failed."

Brother Harris had access to a jeep and was able to go out and pick up members. He remembered one soldier who never seemed particularly excited to see Brother Harris pull up, but would get in and go with him anyway. "Later he told me he joined [the service] to get away from the Church, 'but you wouldn't let me get away.' "

John Robert Ferrara, the first LDS baby born in Korea. His mother was in Korea with his soldier fath
John Robert Ferrara, the first LDS baby born in Korea. His mother was in Korea with his soldier father. | Photo courtesy Dick Harris

A counselor to Col. Barker in the group leadership, Brother Harris became the group leader when Col. Barker left, serving until going home himself.

"We were there to do a job for Uncle Sam," he said, "and also to be an example for the Koreans. The missionary theme carried through for all of us."

Brother Harris said the group was greatly blessed by the arrival of Major Earl Kingdon and his family. Major Kingdon balked at taking his wife and children to Korea, but his wife, Ellen, insisted. They generously opened their home to weary and homesick soldiers who benefited from home-cooked meals in a familiar setting.

Major Kingdon followed Brother Harris as group leader in Seoul, and his counselors, Theris Astle and Alma Baird, were returned missionaries.

The first LDS child born in Korea was John Robert Ferrara, born to Mabeth Price Ferrara who was in Korea with her husband, John Anthony, according to Brother Harris. John Robert was born in a military hospital in Seoul on Dec. 11, 1947. He was blessed in a group meeting later that month.

That baby grew up and served a mission, and has so far sent three sons on missions, an example of how the missionary spirit of the soldiers has continued, Brother Harris said.

Speaking of the Church in Korea, he concluded, "We'd like to say we opened the door; we paved the way."

There are now about 74,000 members of the Church in South Korea.

E-mail: ghill@desnews.com

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