How the gospel transformed an abusive guard into an ally at a World War II POW camp

I met a former German soldier, Joseph F. Beuchert of Heidelberg, who was a young man when he was conscripted into the German army. He spent four years as a prisoner of war, an experience filled with physical deprivation. In hindsight, he came to regard one of the POW camps as a gateway to an abundant and fulfilling life. In that camp, he found one of his greatest blessings: knowledge of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Here’s the story I heard in 1975 from Joseph Beuchert, who was captured by an American unit — the Thunderbird Division — in southern France in 1944.

One of the first things he told me about his capture was that the American guards allowed the POWs to read the Bible. “I set out to investigate every Bible study group in the camp,” he said. “I went to seven or eight, but none of them seemed to have the complete truth as taught in the Bible.”

The American-operated POW camp was dissolved about a year and a half after Beuchert had been sent there. He was transferred to a French-operated camp, where he noticed a healthy-looking German POW. “I figured he had some connections with the kitchen, so I decided to make friends with him,” he said.

He soon discovered his new friend didn’t have any connections with the kitchen. An elder in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Walter Ruthenberg, told him he lived the Word of Wisdom and that helped preserve his health. “Of course, that didn’t mean anything to me,” Beuchert said.

He saw his bunkmate, Hans Ruckdaschel, reading a book and asked to borrow it. The book was “A Voice of Warning” by Parley P. Pratt. Walter had given it to Hans. “I started reading the book and was convinced I had found the truth,” Beuchert said.

The three prisoners became close friends as they discussed the teachings of the gospel. “Hans and I wanted to be baptized, but the guards wouldn’t give us permission, … so we decided to escape.”

They were captured and sent to another camp. They grieved at being separated from their Latter-day Saint friend, but a while later, Walter was transferred to their camp. The three men spent many hours telling other prisoners about the Church and sharing faith-promoting and character-building experiences. I remember Beuchert’s account of one of those experiences, which I have shared with others many times:

“There was one guard who always picked the three of us for the hardest details. We nearly starved to death in that camp. … This one guard was very abusive. We had been assigned to a road-building detail. When we’d stop to rest, this guard would hit us with his rifle butt. I hated him so much I wanted to kill him.

“Walter … said it would not do any good to kill the guard. I said something had to be done because I couldn’t take any more of his abusive treatment. Walter suggested that we fast and pray in the guard’s behalf.

“Within three weeks, miraculous things began to happen. The guard started giving us 10-minute breaks. Then he started bringing us sandwiches from home, and he eventually arranged to have us work on the kitchen truck with him. This was the most envied position in the camp.

“We went about the countryside gathering food for the prisoners. On the way back to camp, the guard would stop at his house, where his wife usually had snacks fixed for us.

“I’ve never seen anything manifest the power of prayer as much as this to make that guard change so much. By the time we left that camp, we were the best of friends. I’ve often wondered what happened to him; I’d like to see him again.”

After the war ended, Joseph Beuchert went to Freiburg, Germany, where he met Karl Bechert, who baptized him. Beuchert served as a missionary from 1949 to 1951 in Germany and then immigrated to Canada, where he met Fern Baker. They married and later, in 1960, moved to Utah. At the time of our interview, the Beucherts had three sons serving as missionaries.