Saints at War: Two More Lives
Meridian continues its feature on Saints at War: Memories of LDS Soldiers in World War II. Today, read about Elder L. Tom Perry and Joseph Banks’ experiences in the Second World War.
Servicemen involved in the building and dedication of the Saipan chapel. L. Tom Perry is fourth from the left on the back row, directly under the lightbulb. (Click to enlarge image.)
L. Tom Perry
Six weeks after Tom returned from his mission, he determined that he could volunteer for the Marine Corps. He was with the first occupation troops that entered Japan.
Coming off a mission, I wanted to be certain I didn’t get out of the great environment of being on a mission, and that I had a chance to be with the LDS men.
I’ll never forget the first Sunday that I was in boot camp in San Diego, seated in the little group church service that we were having, and in walked the first missionary companion of mine, a direct answer to prayer.
We had sacrament meeting on hillsides, in foxholes, in tents, and later, we built our own chapel. What a comfort that was.
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We went out and fought with generals and colonels to get pieces of material so that we could construct our own LD S chapel on the island of Saipan, just about the time the war was ending. After our dedication at Saipan of our lovely chapel, many of us moved out the next day aboard a ship for occupation duty in Japan. We had constructed the chapel, completetd it and had our dedicatory service on Monday night, and the next day we wend town and boarded ship and went into occupation, never to see the chapel again.
After we’d been in Japan a few months I remember receiving a letter from a Mormon chaplain who had been assigned to the island of Saipan, stationed where the servicemen were coming from the islands of the Pacific to be processed for returning home. His base of operations was set up just a short distance form this chapel, and all the servicemen coming back from the Pacific had an opportunity of having church service on their way home. He thanked us for our efforts in building that chapel.
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I was among the first wave of Marines to go ashore in Japan after the signing of the peace treaty following World War II. Entering the devastated city of Nagasaki was one of the saddest experiences of my life. A large part of the city had been totally destroyed. Some of the dead had not yet been buried. As occupation troops, we set up headquarters and went to work.
The situation was very bleak, and a few of us wanted to give more. We went to our division chaplain and requested permission to help rebuild the Christian churches. Because of government restrictions during the war, these churches had almost ceased to function. Their few buildings were badly damaged. A group of us volunteered to repair and replaster these chapels during our off-duty time so they would be available for the holding of Christian services again.
We had no command of the language. All we could accomplish was the physical labor of repairing the buildings. We found the ministers who had been unable to serve during the war years and encouraged them to return to their pulpits. We had tremendous experience with these people as they again experienced the freedom to practice their Christian beliefs.
An event occurred as we were leaving Nagasaki to return home that I will always remember. As we were boarding the train that would take us to our ships to return home, we were teased by a lot of the other marines. They had their girlfriends with them saying good-bye to them. They laughed at us and indicated that we had missed the fun of being in Japan. We had just wasted our time laboring and plastering walls.
Just as they were at the height of their teasing, up over a little rise near the train station came about two hundred of these great Japanese Christians from the churches we had repaired, singing “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” They came down and showered us with gifts. Then they all lined up along the railroad track, and as the train started down the tracks, we reached out and just touched their fingers as we left. We couldn’t speak; our emotions were too strong. But we were grateful that we could help in some small way in reestablishing Christianity in a nation after the war.
2001 Covenant Communications
In September 1944, Joseph’s parents received a telegram indicating that he was missing in action. As a crewmember of a B-17 bomber that had been shot down, he had become a prisoner of war.
In spite of the danger, my buddies, Lloyd, Bob, Roland, and I decided to attempt an escape. We were successful and had been traveling together several days when we had to go through a town. There was no light anywhere since everyone used blackout curtains. It was late enough that we figured most everyone would be asleep. We crept along slowly with about ten feet between each member of the team. All at once I was startled by a voice in the darkness. As I instinctively turned to look, a door opened from a house on my left side. The light from inside shined on me, and it was such an unexpected contrast from the darkness that it blinded me temporarily. I stood there like deer caught in headlights, unable to move or to do anything. Suddenly, a German soldier came striding out of the house straight for me, followed by a woman. Fortunately, the field of light was restricted enough so that they could only see me, giving my three partners a chance to take cover.
As the soldier got closer, his shadow shielded my eyes enough that I could see a huge German tank parked next to the house, and I could see the excited look in his eyes. I just stood there transfixed, unable to move or to even make a sound. I didn’t know whether to run, put my hands up, or fall to my knees to beg for mercy, so I just stood there! As he reached me he shouted something unintelligible to me in German. Before I could think of what to do, I was startled beyond words to hear myself respond with a calm, confident, German phrase that obviously was appropriate to what he’d asked me. He then replied to whatever I’d said with an almost cheerful, “Ya, Ya, Ya!” And then he put his arms around the woman, turned his back on me, and went back into the house and closed the door. I was so astonished and frightened that I just stood there with my mouth hanging open.
My buddies had seen and heard the whole thing, and when I didn’t move, they came out and grabbed me and pulled me behind a nearby outbuilding where we could hide.
The whole encounter had taken just a few seconds, but it was absolutely unbelievable. The first thing my buddies asked was, “What on earth did he say to you, and what did you say when you talked back to him?” I told them that I had no idea what either he or I said, since I couldn’t speak German. I do know that I didn’t use any of the few German words that I’d learned in the POW camp, like hello; yes, sir; or no, sir. Even if I had, my accent would have been so terrible that a German would have recognized me as a foreigner immediately. Yet, whatever I had said satisfied him. All of us stood there marveling in disbelief at what had just happened. I was standing fully exposed to this soldier with my straggly beard, tattered clothes with no coat, and bright white letters painted on my trousers and shirt indicating that I was a POW; it was just impossible that he didn’t recognize me as an escaped prisoner. Instead of shooting me or calling for help, though, he looked straight at me, spoke to me in his native language, listened to my response in a foreign language that I had never spoken before or since, and accepted my answer as legitimate. Even if the guard hadn’t figured it out, there was the woman who also stared at me and heard the words that passed between us. Why didn’t either of them figure out what was going on?
As all of this settled in my mind, I felt a burning in my heart that told me that I had been blessed once again, and that the Holy Ghost had interpreted what the German had said to me and put the appropriate words in my mouth to respond. In other words, I’d been blessed with the gift of tongues. I don’t know what those two Germans saw, but obviously they didn’t see the letters on my clothing, even though they would have stood out like a neon sign in the bright light that shone through the door. The Spirit may have also changed what they saw. I think in some unknown way my appearance had been transformed so they did not recognize me.
I’ve heard it said that for something to be a miracle there can be no logical or earthly way to explain it. If that’s true, then in this case I was clearly the beneficiary of a miracle, and it thrilled me to know that God was still watching out for me and that He cared for me.
Joseph Banks miraculous wartime experiences are also recorded in the new book A Distant Prayer by Joseph Banks and Jerry Borrowman, available at bookstores everywhere or at covenant-lds.com.
2001 Covenant Communications
2001 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.