Gerry Avant: How nearly dying in WWII led to a life-changing encounter

I interviewed Elder Robert E. Sackley after he was sustained to the First Quorum of the Seventy during the April 1988 general conference. During that interview, he told me of a nearly life-ending experience he’d had 44 years earlier. 

He was a member of Australia’s commando forces during World War II when he and 10 others were ambushed on New Guinea in the Solomon Islands on Christmas Day, 1944. More than half his patrol was killed, and Sackley, then 22, was severely wounded. He struggled for hours to get to safety, but every time he moved an enemy 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-moving Purari River 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 evolved everything of importance to Elder Sackley. A native of Lismore, New South Wales, Australia, he told me he had come perilously close to dying. 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, being moved by night and hidden by day. Then he was transported to a hospital in Australia.

During an 18-month hospital recovery in Queensland, Australia, he met Marjorie Orth, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who had gone to the hospital with a friend, who was visiting a Latter-day Saint serviceman.

Elder Sackley said he and Marjorie became friends, and she invited him to go to Church. One Sunday he 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.” 

Marjorie’s mother gave the young soldier an Articles of Faith card that day, and on his next visit, she gave him a Book of Mormon, which he read in two nights and a day.

“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,” he said.

After his baptism on June 16, 1946, he devoted his life to serving in the Church. “I made up my mind that I just wanted to be an active member,” he said. He and Marjorie 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. When his job as a forestry officer required them to move to a station 160 miles from the nearest branch of the Church and they could attend Church only once every few months, they moved — with no prospects of a job — to Brisbane.

His desire to take his wife and children to the temple caused him to give up his job in Brisbane. He said they couldn’t afford a round-trip ticket to the temple in Hawaii, which was the nearest temple at that time. “I knew wherever we went to the temple I’d need to stay at least a year to work to earn money for our return,” he said. “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.”

In May 1954, they embarked on a 21-day voyage to Canada. They landed in Vancouver and proceeded immediately to the Cardston Alberta Temple. He found work and was offered a better position, but it would require a move to Medicine Hat, some 120 miles from the temple, and the Sackleys had a lot of family history work to do. He told the company’s president, “I didn’t come halfway across the world to move away from something we’ve dreamed of doing for years.” 

After a year working as an administrator in a Cardston school district, he felt he had earned enough money to move his family back to Australia. When the school district offered him more money, he worked another 25 years there. He spent the last years of his education career in Medicine Hat, where he was offered a job as vice president of administration at a new college.

Later, he served five years as college president, the position he held when he received a telephone call from President Spencer W. Kimball and President N. Eldon Tanner, who told him, “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.”

In 1979, Elder and Sister Sackley went to the Philippines, where they opened a mission in Quezon City and, later, in Baguio. Three years later, they were called to serve in the Salt Lake Temple. In 1983, they were called to direct the Washington D.C. Temple Visitors’ Center. 

In 1986, the Sackleys were called to preside over the Nigeria Lagos Mission. He was president of that mission when he was called to the First Quorum of the Seventy. 

In 1982, the Canadian ministry of education inquired if he would consider returning to his career. 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.”

Elder Robert E. Sackley died Feb. 22, 1993, near Brisbane, Australia, at age 70 while serving as a counselor in the Pacific Area presidency