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Battle lines long forgotten for World War II veterans

Members of opposing forces in World War II brought together for a photo session soon found that they were more unified by their Church membership than they were divided by their past.

The four former servicemen are Masao Watabe, who served in the Japanese Air Force; Erich Vergin, who served in the German Air Force; Norman Sharples, who served in the British infantry; and Lowell Christensen, who served in the U.S. Navy. One common bond they share is that all have devoted years of service to the Church.Doing temple work for those killed during the war has been a motivating factor for Masao Watabe, who has been a missionary or temple worker for 18 years. He served as a counselor in the Taipei Taiwan Temple presidency from 1984-90.

During the war, Masao Watabe, because of his diminutive size, was assigned by the Japanese Air Force to refuel airplanes. He worked at a base in Sendai, willing to die for the emperor and for honor.

As the war drew to a close, he said: "I suffered bombing and shooting. Why I survived I do not know. After the war ended I lost all hope - I lost all meaning for life.

"Like a lost sheep, I wandered in darkness for four years. But then two missionaries came and taught me about Christ. My heart opened as I read the Joseph Smith story. I couldn't sleep all night. Then they brought me a Book of Mormon. I really read the Book of Mormon. I was so surprised to hear of temple ordinances. Many of my friends who had died can be saved through the temple ordinances. I realized this was the true Church and that I must work for them."

He said that his family is now all LDS, and "I am so appreciative of the messengers of the Lord. I made up my mind to be a missionary all my life."

Brother Vergin was a lifelong resident of East Germany until the war ended. When Hitler came to power in 1933, young Erich and other citizens were subjected to propaganda and shielded from the realities of Nazism, he said. He became interested in flying as a youth when the government provided free glider instructions to young people. Later he realized that the government was preparing the youth for war. He joined the air force KG76 Bomber Squad and had completed his training when the war came to an end. Captured by British forces, he was imprisoned until his release in 1945 in West Germany.

He returned to East Germany because "all my relatives were in East Germany, and I was homesick."

He there met his wife-to-be, Esther Riewe, a member of the Church. He was baptized in 1948. They left East Germany six months before the Berlin Wall was built and eventually were allowed to immigrate to the United States. They settled in Salt Lake City.

He worked as a senior accountant for the Church until retiring. He and his wife recently returned from a full-time mission in Berlin and are ordinance workers in the Salt Lake Temple.

"We have learned to accept and understand each other," he said. "We have no prejudice - we proved it can be done."

Norman Sharples, an ordinance worker at the Jordan River Temple, served in the British infantry for three years. He helped build pontoon bridges in France, Belgium, Holland and areas near Germany.

He joined the Church after meeting his wife, and they later immigrated to Utah.

"As we know in the Church, we are all God's children so we all work to help each other, and we can't condemn anybody," said Brother Sharples. "We are all part of the human race."

Lowell Christensen belonged to the 31st Naval Construction Battalion. He served in the South Pacific, helped construct airfields, and was part of the force that invaded Iwo Jima.

"We only knew that we were going to an island about the shape of a hand, and it had a volcano on one end. They figured it would take three days to take the island, but after three days we hadn't made any progress. It took 26 days to take the island."

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