Fifty years ago this week, in August 1939, an unprecedented event in Church history occurred at the brink of World War II as all American missionaries were evacuated from Europe.
It was the first time that an international conflict had prompted such a massive evacuation, and the only time in 100 years that all missionaries were pulled from the European continent. During World War I, only a partial evacuation took place.On Aug. 24, 1939, the First Presidency instructed Elder Joseph Fielding Smith of the Council of the Twelve, who was then touring the European missions, to evacuate all American missionaries. That night President Heber J. Grant recorded in his journal: "Telegrams were sent warning our mission presidents in Europe to be ready. . . . The dispatches today showed that war seems to be almost inevitable and that England and France are recommending that Americans leave for home at once." (The Worldwide Evacuation of Latter-day Saint Missionaries at the Beginning of World War II, Master's thesis, David F. Boone.)
Gertrude Garff, wife of Mark B. Garff, president of the Danish Mission at the time, recalled that just prior to the evacuation order, "everything was a little jittery; people were expecting something to happen soon."
A week after the evacuation order, Hitler invaded Poland, and in reprisal, France and Great Britain declared war on Germany.
During this interim week, the effort to safely move nearly 800 missionaries and their 23 presidents and families became a logistical nightmare. Although missionaries in western Europe were able to leave through seaports on the Atlantic coast, those in Germany particularly faced great problems: nearly all countries surrounding Germany had quickly closed their borders, communication lines were constantly jammed, and many missionaries lacked sufficient funds with which to travel. The German government only allowed departing foreigners to take with them a maximum of 10 Reichmarks – about two American dollars.
With the Dutch border closed, Denmark was the only country adjacent to Germany with its border still open. Pres. Garff's mission home in Copenhagen immediately became the new headquarters for all German missionary evacuees, as well as those from Sweden, Norway, and Czechoslovakia.
One of the missionaries trying to leave Germany was Elder Charles Jenkins.
"We received a telegram ordering us to leave the country immediately," he recalled from his home in Kaysville, Utah. Unaware that entrance to the Netherlands was being denied to all but those with British visas, Elder Jenkins and several fellow missionaries boarded a train for Holland, only to be forced off at the border.
"We were returned to Germany, locked up in the train station and guarded by soldiers," he wrote in his journal. "We spent the night on wooden benches with a group of refugee Jews. During the night we were joined by two other elders. Elder Alder (Jenkins' companion) took my last silver dollar that I had hid from the Germans and phoned the mission headquarters for help."
With the assistance of President M. Douglas Wood of the West German Mission and after countless more attempts to leave Germany, the elders made it to the Danish border only seven hours before it, too, was closed. They arrived in Copenhagen that night, having gone three days and two nights with no food, except candy bars, and little sleep. They had traveled on 17 different trains, and been arrested twice.
The missionary assigned by Pres. Wood to help Elder Jenkins and the other stranded missionaries was Elder Norman Seibold. "Elder," Pres. Wood told him, "we have 31 missionaries lost somewhere between here and the Dutch border. It will be your mission to find them and see that they get out."
With that injunction, Elder Seibold boarded a train, and only stopped at various stations along the way when he felt so impressed. The young missionary had no idea where or who to look for, but at the first stop he simply jumped up on a baggage cart and began to whistle the hymn, "Do what is right." Soon, stranded missionaries began to appear, and by using the same method of whistling in other railway stations, he found all the unaccounted-for missionaries.
Another group of missionaries called the president asking for help. By this time it was impossible to send money to the missionaries, and the only counsel Pres. Wood could give them was, "You must have more faith, that's all I can say." After a short wait, the group was approached by a German soldier who had identified them as Mormon missionaries. He had known some of the elders in his hometown and had taken some of the discussions.
When they explained to him their situation, he gave them 50 marks, telling them that he was on his way to the Polish front and was sure he would not need the money anyway. The 50 marks was enough to help them arrive safely in Denmark. (Boone's thesis.)
Czech Mission President Wallace F. Toronto and his family made it to Copenhagen on the last train out of Czechoslovakia the day before war was declared on Germany. By early September, all missionaries were out of Germany and Czechoslovakia.
The problems, though, weren't over yet.
Tens of thousands of people in Great Britain, Denmark and Holland were lined up at the piers, hoping to get passage to America, and the missionaries had no reservations. Somehow, space miraculously appeared. Pres. J. Reuben Clark, first counselor in the First Presidency, reported that "every time a group was ready to embark there was available the necessary space, even though efforts to reserve space a few hours before had failed." (Conference Report, April 1940)
Earl E. Olson, a missionary serving in Denmark, now living in Salt Lake City, remembered that although they were certainly happy to have gotten aboard, conditions weren't very favorable. "There was room for about 20 people on some empty freighters, but 200 of us were on," he recalled. "They put bunk beds in the cargo room and in the hallways."
The S.S. Scanyork, Scanpenn, Mormachawk, Mormacwren, and other freighters carried the missionaries, having removed their cargo of cheese and cod liver oil to make room. Sister Garff made the journey with their 2-year-old son, while her husband stayed to hand over the mission organization to local members. Only a few weeks before, the Garffs had celebrated their fourth anniversary.
"A large U.S. flag was painted on the sides of each ship and illuminated at night so German U-boats could tell we were American," she said. "A German pilot took us through the mine fields as far as Bergen, Norway, and from there we were on our own. " Although the United States was a neutral country at the time, they entered the war two years later.
At one point, Pres. Wood, who was on the same ship, asked one of the missionaries if he were anxious about going home on a freighter, piloted through the mines. The missionary answered, "That is child's play after the things we went through in getting out of Germany. I don't think after all the trouble the Lord went to there, He is going to let us down in the middle of the ocean."
On the S.S. Washington, a liner which carried missionaries leaving Britain, elders conducted religious services for passengers on board, and the "Millenial Chorus" sang. So impressed was the crew that permission was granted for the choir to go to first class and entertain there. (Boone's thesis.)
It took 18 days and nights for Sister Garff to cross the Atlantic. She said of that event,"It was absolutely a miracle. Certainly a very rich experience, but I wouldn't want to go through it again!" When Pres. Garff himself finally made it home with the remaining elders, he recorded in his journal: "We rejoiced. We were now home; all of our missionaries were safe. They had returned, hundreds of them, without accident, without loss of life or serious sickness."
The ship that carried Pres. Garff, however, was torpedoed and sunk by a U-boat on its return trip to Norway.
The European evacuation was completed by February 1940, although the majority of missionaries had returned to America by October 1939.
In the meantime, Japanese expansionism brought war to Asia and was threatening the Pacific. In 1940, missionaries were withdrawn from the South Pacific and South Africa. By 1943, no new missionaries were being called to South America.
The evacuated missionaries were either re-assigned to Stateside missions or released. Sister Garff reports that many of their missionaries still get together annually for reunions.
By 1945, only 400 full-time missionaries were serving, and only in North America and Hawaii. Before the war broke out, 2,000 had been serving.
With communication cut off between Church leaders and the saints in most war-affected areas, local leaders found a challenge in holding the members together without direction from any higher authorities. When the war ended, Church leaders in the United States were eager to re-establish contact with the European saints, resume missionary work, and provide badly needed welfare supplies.
In early 1946, Elder Ezra Taft Benson of the Council of the Twelve was appointed to preside over the European Mission. In addition to re-establishing the missionary work, he organized distribution of welfare food, clothing, and bedding, which continued for two years.