In the dark days of World War II, U.S. service personnel found themselves suddenly far from home, uprooted not only from the physical safety of their native soil but also from the nourishment of loved ones and religious fellowship. In the spiritual desert of war, Latter-day Saints in the military did what they could to tap into the wellsprings of their faith, as these photographs of Mormon meetings attest.
The war that brought about unparalleled devastation around the world also resulted in unparalleled numbers of photographs, making World War II the best-documented event up to that time in history. Of these millions of photographs, the most familiar are the shocking images such as those of the attack on Pearl Harbor, which will be forever printed on the public consciousness. However, even in the midst of the brutality, some happy moments were recorded on film. We present here a few of those hopeful images, now returning to light from dusty albums, old trunks, and long-forgotten personal records, images memorable as testimonials to faith that shines through the long night of war.
Historical Context of the Photographs
All the branches of the military immediately established services to document every theater of war. The United States armed forces recorded every aspect of recruiting, training, deployment, and combat activities. Additionally, the U.S. Government allowed more magazines, newspapers, newsreel producers, news photo services, and wire services to cover the war than in World War I. Finally, individual service personnel also documented their own activities.
In this context, Latter-day Saints in military service made their own record. In the midst of the great conflict, members of the Church gathered to pray, sing, and perform the ordinances of the gospel, overcoming obstacles by ingenuity and faith.
Provenance of the Photographs
The images printed here come from an increasingly large collection resulting from the Saints at War project. This collection includes records in various media of the life stories of Latter-days Saints who served in the military during World War II.
The Saints at War project began two years ago when two faculty members in the Church History and Doctrine Department at Brigham Young University were moved by the work of recent historians retelling the story of World War II veterans. Professors Robert C. Freeman and Dennis A. Wright wanted to honor war veterans of their own acquaintance, including former scoutmasters, bishops, home teachers, schoolteachers, and owners of hometown businesses. Many of these were faithful Latter-day Saints who, after the war, returned home to build productive lives for themselves and their families.
The Saints at War project is the largest attempt to collect the stories of Latter-day Saint service personnel in World War II. The chief objective of the project is to create an archive at the L. Tom Perry Special Collections housed in the Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University. This archive will preserve the personal histories, journals, letters, photographs, and other documents contributed by the veterans and their families. More than 1,400 life stories have been documented in the project; when cataloging is completed, the collection will be available to researchers. Some of the images from the collection were published in 2001 in the book Saints at War.1
The images that follow give us glimpses of the worship and activities among Latter-days Saints that provided light to penetrate the daily darkness known as World War II. These photographs show soldiers and support personnel attending baptismal and sacrament meetings, conferences, and holiday gatherings. Published here for the first time, these images show some gatherings that may not have been noted by anyone besides the attendees and those who knew them.
However, at least two of the meetings shown here came to the attention of Church leaders in Salt Lake City. A small congregation of Saints stationed near San Francisco received a surprise visit from a General Authority (fig. 13). And, after reading a report of a 1944 conference in Foggia, Italy (fig. 5), the First Presidency sent a letter to four Latter-day Saint chaplains in the European theater, praising them and blessing them. Presidents Heber J. Grant, J. Reuben Clark, and David O. McKay wrote:
We rejoice in the loyalty and the steadfastness of you brethren who are in the Armed Forces and who are remaining true to your principles and to your covenants. We invoke upon your heads the blessings of our Heavenly Father and ask Him to bestow upon you His Spirit to help and to guide you. We pray that you may have the peace of the Master.2
In these photographs we see men and women caught up in a worldwide war, yet seeking the peace of the Master in worship, wherever they were.