As serviceman Willis Wright first made landfall in Okinawa, Japan, in 1952, he focused on the rusted remnants of World War II cluttering the harbor. Seven decades later he can still describe the scene — abandoned ships and other equipment left in a place that felt remote and desolate.
Three years later as he submitted missionary papers for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he couldn’t shake the feeling he would not only return to Japan, but to Okinawa — the same Japanese island that bore the scars left by World War II’s Pacific Theater.
As Wright later opened his missionary call a piece of paper caught his eye; it was instructions to obtain a Japanese visa.
He knew he would never be the same.
Wright arrived in Okinawa for a second time as a young missionary on Aug. 31, 1956.
He already loved the people, was determined to learn the language and felt the promise the gospel of Jesus Christ would bring to the Ryukyu Islands in the west Pacific Ocean; on March 17, 1957, he was called as an early president of the Naha Branch.
Now as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints prepare for the Nov. 12 dedication of the Okinawa Japan Temple by Elder Gary E. Stevenson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Wright looks back on those early days.
“The Church has come 360 degrees since then — from nothing to a temple,” he said.
Latter-day Saint work in Okinawa is more than coincidence, he added. “It is a miracle.”
The first missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints landed in Tokyo, Japan, in 1901, according to a short history of the Church in Japan. Almost 45 years later, during World War II, American servicemen became the first Church members to arrive in the Ryukyu Islands in Okinawa.
On July 8, 1945 — just after the Battle of Okinawa ended — those servicemen began meeting regularly for Church meetings and conferences.
Wright remembers the early days of the Church in Okinawa; when he first arrived as a missionary, there were only three Japanese Latter-day Saints — Nobu Nakamura, Ayako Nakamura and Kuniko Tamanaha. He still has his original passport, his English to Japanese dictionary, and his ticket to board the ship named for President Woodrow Wilson that carried him to Japan as a missionary.
He also has a photograph of the missionary conference taken when President Joseph Fielding Smith visited Okinawa and formally dedicated the island for the preaching of the gospel. Wright is sitting cross-legged on the ground directly in front of the Latter-day prophet.
“When I arrived there, I didn’t realize I would be making a little bit of history,” he said.
Numbering the miracles he witnessed, Wright spoke of accompanying Northern Far East Mission President Paul C. Andrus as he sought to purchase land for a meetinghouse in Futenma, Okinawa — a site that had been identified by President Joseph Fielding Smith during his visit the year before. Servicemen had bought some property, but the plot was too small to build the chapel they needed. So President Andrus called on the neighbors to see if they would sell them additional land — knowing how Americans would be perceived so close to the end of the war.
President Andrus’ account is recorded in a history of Latter-day Saints in the area: “As we entered the landowner’s humble home, I was keenly aware that we were going to ask him something impossible for him to even consider,” President Andrus wrote. “This man had suffered through the battle of Okinawa in 1945 and had witnessed the American military forces bombard and invade his beloved homeland and then kill and wound over 100,000 Okinawan civilians and Japanese soldiers, probably including members of his own family and relatives and friends. Now we three Americans were going to ask him to sell his precious land to an American church which he had probably never even heard of. However, knowing we were on the Lord ‘s errand gave us confidence to proceed.”
The man, however, had spent time in Salt Lake City years earlier. He agreed to sell the property and ask his neighbors to do the same.
“You can just see the hands of the Lord in preparing Okinawa for what it is,” Wright said.
Wright also saw miracles in his personal life. After embarking on missionary service in Japan, he tried to learn the language — practicing each day. Finally, he read in 1 Corinthians 12 about spiritual gifts and fasted and prayed for the gift of tongues.
Two weeks later, he attended a district conference that included an invitation to speak at a street meeting. Mission leaders “located a box, and we stood on the box. It was my turn to speak. I can still see all those people stopped in the street listening. I felt totally weightless. … And the words just came out — all the words I had been studying and hearing.”
Afterwards a local sister questioned Wright; “‘I didn’t know you could speak Japanese,’” she said. He simply replied, “I didn’t either.”
The Okinawa temple
For years, Okinawan Latter-day Saints traveled first to Hawaii and then to Tokyo to attend the temple.
This is a land and a people that treasure family and family relationships. “The Ryukyu Island ancestry is a rich ancestry — rich in culture, rich in tradition, rich in art,” Wright said.
Wright’s late wife, Afton Wride Wright, waited for him while he served his three-year mission to Japan. They also returned to the country after their marriage.
Now he will return to Japan again to participate in the Okinawa temple dedication.
When he thinks of Okinawa, he remembers his first visit, where he saw the remnants of war — abandoned ships and other rusted equipment — in the harbor.
Now, years later, as he returns to Okinawa he will be greeted by a temple — a symbol of peace and hope. He knows he will think of the generations of faithful members who have sacrificed for the Church and prayed for the house of the Lord.
“I look forward to sharing the dedication with my brothers and sisters there — sharing the joy of the temple,” he said.