In the summer of 1943, units of the British and American armies invaded Italy, beginning with the southern island of Sicily, and began the long, slow battle to push the German army up the Italian peninsula and out of the country. Air support was a key factor in the campaign, and the American Air Force established two large airfields – Trunconi and Decimomannu – on the Italian island of Sardinia from which their B-26 “Marauder” bombers could operate.
A few dozen LDS servicemen were stationed at those airfields. It wasn’t easy for them to gather for Sunday services, given the conditions of their military service, but whenever possible, a few did meet. One of them, Marvel Farrel Andersen (1908-1991) of Utah, wrote about those meetings in his letters home:
February 12, 1944
We have been holding meetings for the last few Sundays, and though we don’t have very many out to our meetings we seem to get along fine. Last Sunday I took charge, and we had the sacrament. Then three of us talked for a while. We were the only ones present, but we had the chaplain of the group [LDS Chaplain Eldin Ricks (1916-1992) of Idaho, and later a BYU professor] visiting with us. We sang a song, and also sang a song at the close. I blessed the water and closed with prayer, and gave a talk for about 20 minutes. We will probably have more members out from now on. At least I hope so. We are studying the book Jesus the Christ. It seems good to get together, and have a good meeting.
February 14, 1944
At our meeting last night, we thought we would all put in a few dollars and build a brick chapel in which to meet. We are checking up on the costs during the week, and will make plans for its erection during the next week. If we make it, it will be at least the first L.D.S. Chapel built in Sardinia, and for the six members here who were at the meeting last night, that won’t be so bad for us to do. Do you think? When we build our place, we were thinking of getting a few fair-sized pictures of the First Presidency, and of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, and a couple of Deseret Song Books so we can use them. So if you have any chance to see any of them, and it isn’t too much trouble, I would like you to send them to me. There is a good need for them to decorate our place up with. Then Captain [Owen Ken] Earl [(1919-2004) of Nevada] has a portable organ which he takes with him, and we will have it in our meeting-house, and we will be able to use it also to a very good advantage. We will probably have 25 to 50 fellows who we can get to come out and join us, and perhaps do a lot of good.
The men found that building supplies (other than lumber) and labor were readily available on Sardinia, even in wartime – but at a price. The LDS servicemen had an extra source of barter, though. While they had previously passed their weekly rations of cigarettes to friends as gifts, they found that the local brickyards and masons were delighted to provide materials and labor in exchange for the American tobacco. Their tiny chapel, about 12 x 20′, large enough to seat about 25 men in rows of four, with a narrow center aisle and a speaker standing at a tiny podium in front, was soon built, stuccoed, steepled and roofed with Mediterranean tile. (Before the roofing tiles were laid, the men created a center beam and rafters from the only lumber they could find: a telephone pole which carpenters sawed down the middle. One side made the ridge, and the other was cut to form rafters.)
Brother Andersen again:
February 28, 1944
Last night we had another good meeting and had a couple more out – that made eight of us. It seems as if each week we get another one or two. We are starting to build our chapel this week. We may have it done by next Sunday. I surely hope so. Then we can get a few more out, and we will have a nicer time. I’ll take a few pictures of it, and send them to you when the chapel is completed.
March 10, 1944
We have our chapel almost finished, however, it won’t be ready for use this Sunday. We won’t be able to move into it until next week. We will certainly have a nice place to meet in now. At last week’s meeting we had twelve fellows out. That wasn’t so bad, was it? We keep getting more each week. I took a few pictures of the new place on my day off yesterday, and so I’ll send them on to you as soon as they are finished. We have a tile roof on our chapel, so it is quite nice looking. It is quite small, but it will hold about 30 fellows. I’m going to town tomorrow, and try to have some windows made and the frames, and have the glass set in the frames.
March 27, 1944
Last night we opened our new chapel and had quite a nice time. We had the organ and that helped quite a lot. Next week we are trying to have the chaplain come over from Italy to meet with us. I hope that he can make it.
Chaplain Ricks did come to dedicate the chapel, on April 2, 1944. In a circular letter addressed to all LDS servicemen under his chaplaincy, he wrote:
Good news came unexpectedly from Sardinia a few days ago in the form of an invitation to dedicate a chapel that the small group of L.D.S. men on the island have just finished building. It is an attractive little stucco type structure with a tile roof, cement floor, a seating capacity of about twenty-five, a gasoline stove, and electric lights. … They finished it by contributing from the group and by pooling their cigarette rations which, they explained, seemed to have a most remarkable buying power. They are to be congratulated for their resourcefulness and faith and also for building what probably is the first permanent L.D.S. chapel in Italy.
In addition to those already named, LDS servicemen known to have worshiped in the tiny chapel are Alfred K. Knutson (1918- ) of South Dakota and Idaho, Andrew L. Bergman, a Capt. Terry, and Lieuts. Wing, Harmon, Gardiner and Jacobsen. If anyone can further identify these men or name others, it would be appreciated.
The little LDS chapel next to the runway on the Decimomannu airfield was used for only five months. In September 1944, American forces were moved to new airfields nearer the scene of the progressing military action. Decimomannu is now a NATO base, and a broad paved road covers the site where the first dedicated LDS chapel in Italy once stood.