Servicemen's groups continued to provide a great source of strength and camaraderie for LDS soldiers, sailors and airmen as World War II wound to a close in 1945.
Besides bolstering servicemen in their difficult and often dangerous circumstances far from home, group activities also provided encouragement and fellowship for local members in various lands and were springboards for missionary activity. Groups were sometimes formally organized, but they also evolved spontaneously in a wide variety of wartime conditions - including imprisonment - when Latter-day Saints came together with other members.Accounts received at Church headquarters in Salt Lake City indicated that not only were small groups meeting with regularity to worship and partake of the sacrament, but also that larger conferences were being held as hostilities diminished.
Often these larger meetings were conducted under the direction of LDS chaplains working with the group leaders and their assistants. Some of these events were reported in the Church News, often with accompanying photographs. Here is a sampling of some of those gatherings from various issues of the paper in 1945:
Jan. 13: 190 servicemen gathered for a "spiritual feast" on Saipan in the Mariana Islands, representing 115 wards, 81 stakes and four missions. During the conference additional group leaders were set apart by chaplains.
Jan. 20: Lt. Col. Reuben Emerson Curtis wrote of landing on an island in the Philippines and building a small meetinghouse of bamboo, Nipa and coconut palm matting with the assistance of 20 local residents. The rustic chapel seated 100 men and "was filled to overflowing five times Christmas Eve and Christmas day" with members from two groups. A 26-voice choir that sang Christmas carols "brought tears to the eyes" of those in attendance.
Jan. 20: A report of 65 "Mormon soldiers" holding a conference in India indicated that all were edified through two worship services and a testimony meeting. Another account on this date indicated that 25 members in a Japanese prison camp had a copy of the standard works and were meeting regularly, with permission from their captors.
March 10: LDS meetings resumed in Paris, France, under the direction of group leader Sherman S. Brinton after four years of interruption due to the fighting. Upwards of 45 people, including several local members, had attended any given meeting. One local member who met with the servicemen was Evelyn Kleinert, a resident who had been secretary of the Paris Branch before the war.
April 28: 120 attended a conference in Hawaii, where it is reported that 29 active groups are "fully organized and holding regular meetings in the Hawaiian area."
May 5: 150 attended a two-day conference in Paris. "The speakers elaborated on the theme by calling attention to the necessity for holding fast to true principles, by being prayerful and valiant in meeting the rapidly changing situation under which we work and live. Those who bore their testimonies expressed renewed determination to serve the Lord and keep His commandments."
May 12: 344 attended a conference on the Mariana Islands, where they "raised their voices in song, listened to inspirational messages delivered by several of their number and bowed their heads in gratitude for the gospel, a way of life that teaches of life eternal."
July 14: Lt. Lorin G. Folland reported from a troop transport sailing toward the Pacific Theater "under tropical skies" that a group of some 60 Latter-day Saint soldiers and sailors on board "enjoyed the spirit of the gospel as it was spoken by themselves in their sermons to each other for the four consecutive Sundays of their voyage."
Aug. 4: 283 gather for a conference on Okinawa. "Our Church can well be proud of her soldiers who are carrying the gospel to all parts of the world. Many of them, who have distinguished themselves on the field of battle, attribute their courage to their faith in God, our ever-present help. They live near to Him and feel confident in His presence. Their testimonies are thrilling to hear. They realize that this is more than a war of men; it is also a war between decency and evil within every man's soul. Some of them may lose several battles in this latter conflict, but most of them realize with Solomon that he that ruleth his spirit is greater than he that taketh a city."
Aug. 11: Pres. Hugh B. Brown, president of the British Mission and coordinator for LDS servicemen, traveled from London to Paris to preside over a conference attended by 1,000 at three Sunday sessions. People attended from throughout the European Theater, some traveling close to 600 miles using means "from airplane to boxcar." About 75 percent of those at the conference held the Melchizedek Priesthood. This was the first stop for Pres. Brown on a three-week visit to the continent to visit servicemen and members in various locations.
One who remembers well that conference with Pres. Brown, and who helped spearhead the servicemen's group in Paris beginning with those first meetings there on March 10, 1945, was Group Leader Brinton, who recently told his story to the Church News.
A physician and member of the Army Medical Corps, Brother Brinton had arrived in Paris in August 1944. He had been in medical school at the University of Maryland in Baltimore when Pearl Harbor was attacked, completed his schooling and internship before being called into active duty. A returned missionary and high priest who was married, he had served as bishop of the Baltimore Ward under the leadership of Washington Stake Pres. Ezra Taft Benson.
His bishopric had just finished a meeting with Pres. Benson on Dec. 7, 1941, when they heard about Pearl Harbor. Interestingly, it was four years later, following the conclusion of the war, that Elder Ezra Taft Benson toured Europe and visited Paris, where he was accompanied by Brother Brinton. The physician was then serving as assistant coordinator of Servicemen for the European Theater, helping Pres. Brown in locating and providing support for LDS servicemen and their LDS groups.
Brother Brinton had not been designated as a group leader when he arrived in Paris, and he had found no evidence of a servicemen's group. He had put a hand-written notice on a bulletin board at U.S. headquarters encouraging any Church members to contact him. Within a week, four or five had made contact, and they began to meet in November 1944. Those present suggested that Brother Brinton serve as group leader. He wrote to Pres. Brown, who told him that was fine and to proceed with meetings.
The group grew and included a few local members, who had not been able to meet for several years. Soon the group was functioning almost like a branch with auxiliaries as Army nurses and members of the Women's Army Corps attended. "That gave a very basic sense of home to us," Brother Brinton recalled. "We kept very complete records and had a close tie with the civilian members."
Men and women stationed toward the front would go into Paris on assignments, or when they were wounded, would see the notice and would attend the group meetings. Brother Brinton and his assistants published a monthly newsletter that reached a peak circulation of 1,600 during the summer of 1945. It was during that summer that Pres. Brown visited.
"That conference had a huge attendance and was a big success," Brother Brinton said. "Pres. Brown was just marvelous."
The first bulletin sent out by Brother Brinton and his assistants, Thomas L. Adams and Charles E. Yorgason, included an invitation and encouragement that was obviously accepted by many and was indicative of the spirit of gathering and unity embodied in servicemen's groups throughout the world:
"How would you like to attend a real Mormon Church service again? Your opportunity may come much sooner than V-Day, for a trip to Paris is all you need. Here we are conducting a full-fledged sacrament meeting every Sunday night at 7:30 at the Hotel Louvois and have started a Sunday School which meets at the same place at 11 a.m.
" . . . May you be enabled to carry on wherever you may be located, and may you be returned safely to your loved ones in Zion very soon. Remember, `The race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong, but to him who endureth to the end.' "