WW II ambush was turning point in commando’s life

Robert E. Sackley was a member of Australia's elite commando forces during World War II when he and 10 others were ambushed on New Guinea in the Solomon Islands in the southwest Pacific on Christmas Day, 1944. More than half his patrol was killed and Sackley, then 22, was severely wounded. For hours he struggled to get to safety, but every time he moved, an enemy gunner fired at him.

About mid-afternoon, he heard someone whisper: "Lay still until dark, and then roll into the river. Keep yourself afloat. We've got fellows who will catch you about 100 yards downstream."

The 15-foot plunge from the cliff into the fast-flowing Purari River on the largest island of the Solomons, was the beginning of a journey that led the tough commando to recovery and a new life.

"In the eternal perspective, that ambush was about the best thing that had happened to me up to that point," said the blue-eyed, 5-foot-8-inch former soldier. "Had I not been injured, I would not have met my wife. And had I not met her, I doubt I would have learned of the gospel."

From those events have evolved everything of importance to Elder Sackley, who was sustained April 2 to the First Quorum of the Seventy.

A native of Lismore, New South Wales, Australia, Elder Sackley realizes he came perilously close to not living, meeting his wife or joining the Church. In addition to serious wounds sustained in the ambush, he was suffering from malaria. Also, he was 30 miles behind enemy lines. After he was fished out of the river, he was carried on a litter for six days by tribesmen to an American encampment, moving him by night and hiding him by day. He was later transported by ship and then train to a hospital in Australia.

During an 18-month hospital recovery in Queensland, Australia, he met Marjorie Orth, a Church member who had gone to the hospital with a friend to visit an LDS serviceman. "Marjorie made it very plain that she was a Mormon girl," recalled Elder Sackley. "We became friends, and she invited me to go to Church, so one Sunday I got a pass from the hospital and went. There had been no converts in that branch during all the war years. It was approaching the end of 1945 when I went to Church, wearing my commando color patches. I think I frightened everyone in the branch. They thought, `He's not an ordinary soldier.' Commandos were perceived as really tough.

"I think Marjorie's mother took pity on me because she knew the members were alarmed about me being there. She gave me a little card with the Articles of Faith on it and said, `You're obviously an educated fellow. Why don't you read these and tell me what you think about them.' "

He read the card at the hospital that night. "I don't know whether Latter-day Saints appreciate what a masterpiece the Articles of Faith really are," said Elder Sackley. "I was so intrigued with them that I committed them to memory that night all 13 of them. I've never forgotten them, from that day to this."

The next time he saw Marjorie's mother, she gave him a Book of Mormon. "I went back to the hospital and read all night, and all the next day, and completed it sometime the next night," he recalled. "In about 36 hours, I knew it was true. I knew there was nothing I could do about it except become a member of the Church."

Ever since his baptism on June 16, 1946, he has devoted his life to serving in the Church. "I made up my mind that I just wanted to be an active member," recalled Elder Sackley. He and Marjorie Orth were married March 26, 1947, by her father, John Orth, who was a branch president.

Their determination to be active in the Church cost them financially. Soon after their marriage, he became a forestry officer in the largest forestry district in New South Wales. However, his job required him to move his family, which by this time included a young daughter, to a station 160 miles from the nearest LDS branch. "We had to drive through mountainous country, and we didn't have very much money, so we were able to go to Church only once every few months," recalled Elder Sackley.

To compensate for their isolation, they had their own little family gathering every Sunday, and they read the scriptures and Church books. "But I decided that wasn't satisfactory," he said.

With no job prospects, he gave notice he was leaving the forestry service to move to Brisbane so he and his family could be near the Church. Friends and colleagues warned him against making such a "foolish" move. Many felt he had a promising future with the forestry service, and that he would someday become commissioner. However, career success was no match for gospel commitment.

In Brisbane he went to work with the income tax department, and he and his wife managed to buy a home. Within a year or two, his desire to take his wife and young children to the temple prompted him, once again, to give up everything.

"When I joined the Church, it just broke my mother's heart," he remembered. "She cried for weeks. By 1953, however, she had come to love my wife very much. We had two daughters by then, and my mother was very proud of us. She read Jesus the Christ and told us that it was the most marvelous book that she had ever read, and that she wanted to learn about the Church.

"But then she had some health problems and had to undergo a series of operations. She died during the third operation. Marjorie and I were heartbroken. My mother had gained a testimony of the gospel, but she died before she had an opportunity to be baptized. Since Marjorie and I had not been sealed in the temple, we decided it was time to go for our own temple work and to do work for my mother."

Elder Sackley said they could not afford round-trip passage to Hawaii, the nearest temple at that time. "I knew that wherever we went to the temple, I would have to stay at least a year to work to earn money for our return," he said. "Since few jobs were available in Honolulu, we decided to go to the Salt Lake Temple. However, there was a 12-year waiting list for Australians to get work permits in the United States."

When he was unable to get a U.S. work permit, they decided to go to the temple in Alberta, Canada. On May 24, 1954, they boarded the Oronsay, a passenger ship, and sailed for Canada. The ship stopped in Auckland, New Zealand, and the Sackleys went with other Church members to attend a wedding. The newlyweds Douglas J. and Wati Crawford Martin boarded the same ship to go to the Hawaii Temple. Unbeknownst to any on board, the ship carried two future General Authorities: Douglas J. Martin was called to the First Quorum of the Seventy in April 1987, and Robert E. Sackley was called to that same quorum just a year later.

After a 21-day voyage, the Sackleys landed in Vancouver, and proceeded immediately to the temple in Cardston, Alberta.

After doing whatever work he could find, he eventually applied for and was offered a job as an accountant for a national wholesale grocery company. However, when he learned he would have to move to Medicine Hat, some 150 miles from the temple, he declined to take the job. When the company's president asked why he didn't want the position and good jobs were hard to find he explained his desire to do genealogy and temple work and said, "I didn't come halfway across the world to move away from something we've dreamed of doing for years."

He then applied for, and was given, the position of business administrator in a school district in Cardston. "After a year of working in the school district, I decided we had enough money to return to Australia," he recalled, "but the school board said, `We'll make it difficult for you to leave we'll offer you more money.' "

He stayed with the district for more than 25 years. Ironically, he spent the last years of his education career in Medicine Hat. "A government college was being developed there," he said. "I had received a degree and background in municipal administration. I was asked if I would go to the college as vice president of administration. I turned down the offer, saying my family and I were happy in Cardston. However, about three weeks later, I received a telephone call from the chairman of the board of governors, asking me to change my mind.

"We had a family council and decided that perhaps we could do more missionary work in Medicine Hat, so we decided I should take the position at the college."

The Sackley family then included two daughters and three sons. He was serving as a bishop when, after the college president resigned, he was offered that position. "I felt I was too busy with my Church responsibilities, so I declined the offer," he said. However, the board of directors drafted him to serve the college as its president in 1973.

He served for five years and had a contract on his desk to sign for another five-year-term when he received a telephone call from President Spencer W. Kimball and President N. Eldon Tanner of the First Presidency. President Kimball said, "We need you."

That was all Elder Sackley needed to hear. "I said goodbye to the board of governors on Dec. 18, 1978, and we've been in the mission field pretty much full time since then," Elder Sackley said. "I have been fortunate to have found good work. I had a good career in education, and, before that, a promising career in forestry, but my work has been very incidental and insignificant compared to the gospel. In the days of my conversion and during our early married life, my wife and I decided we would give our lives to the Lord's work."

In 1979, he and Sister Sackley went to the Philippines to open a mission in Quezon City. Later he opened another mission in Baguio.

Soon after they returned from the Philippines in July 1982, they were called to serve in the Salt Lake Temple he as administrative assistant and she as an assistant matron. They served in the temple until 1983, when they were called to direct the Washington Temple Visitor's Center for 18 months.

Immediately after they completed that assignment, they were called to serve in the Sydney Australia Temple. With that call, it seemed, they had come full circle. They had left their homeland in order to go to a temple; now they had returned to serve in a temple in their native country.

In January 1986, while in Australia, the First Presidency telephoned them and asked them to return home to Canada to await another assignment. Within a few months they were on their way to Africa, where he was called to preside over the Nigeria Lagos Mission. He will continue in that position until July, when he will assume other full-time responsibilities in the First Quorum of the Seventy.

"The Church has motivated our entire life together," said Elder Sackley. That motivation is reflected in a letter he wrote to the ministry of education when, in 1982, an inquiry was made to see if he would consider returning to his career in education. His response was, "If we have anything left in life, we give it to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to which we owe our allegiance."