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They “Shipped the Books”: World War II Missionary Evacuation

By: Steve C - February 11, 2009

[We have recently shared thoughts regarding missionary evacuations, or at least the preparation for them. Steve C sends this report of a time when missionaries were indeed evacuated, from Europe, at the beginning of World War II. Steve C's report will be followed in a few days by the stories of some of the individual missionaries who successfully -- and dramatically -- reached the safety of neutral countries.]

THE FIRST EVACUATION: SEPTEMBER 1938

In the late 1930s war loomed across Europe. In March, 1938, Hitler annexed Austria. In June, M. Douglas Wood took over as mission president of the West German mission. Shortly after Wood’s arrival, J. Reuben Clark, visiting Berlin, met with the German mission presidents; [1] they began drafting contingency plans to evacuate missionaries from Germany in the event of war. Commenting on the irony, Wood stated, “We were just going to our assignment and we were all pepped-up to get excited about starting our mission and here we were trying to find ways to get out.” [2]

In September mission leaders implemented evacuation plans as Hitler threatened war with Czechoslovakia over the Sudetenland. On 13 September, Clark, who had returned to the USA, telegraphed President Alfred C. Rees of the East German mission and ordered the evacuation of the American missionaries to neutral countries—Denmark, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. [3] The American missionaries in both the East and West German missions departed for neutral countries while native Germans took over local Church leadership. [4] In both missions Presidents Rees and Wood appointed “acting mission presidents” in their absence. [5] For the first time since World War I, there was no American leadership among the Mormons in Germany.

On 30 September, the Munich Accord resolved the conflict peacefully in Germany’s favor and within two weeks, the American missionaries returned. Much to their surprise, problems had developed within the German Church. Mission records state that “many details had to be straightened out.” [6] Mission officials found that several newly appointed branch presidents took tithing donations as “payment” for services rendered. They also found cases where women administered the sacrament and participated in other “priesthood functions.” [7] It was obvious to Church leaders that a future evacuation was possible, if not probable. Therefore, the mission presidents began to prepare and train German members for such an eventuality. [8] For the next ten months, both missions prepared instructions and lessons for native Germans so they could take over the leadership functions in the event of another evacuation. [9]

Many German Mormons thought the evacuation in 1938 was a “false alarm.” [10] Other circulated rumors that the Church was planning to evacuate the German Latter-day Saints to America via airships and boats from locations in Switzerland and Hamburg. This hope, however, would lead to disappointment the next year when the Church permanently withdrew the Americans at the beginning of World War II.

THE SECOND EVACUATION: AUGUST 1939

During the spring and summer of 1939, Hitler continued to threaten the peace of Europe. War seemed likely as the Führer turned his attention toward Poland. The tension was palpable. [11] Many within the LDS community had a sense of foreboding. [12]

As the war clouds grew, Church members felt a sense of urgency in their work. Mission leaders accelerated efforts to assemble lesson and training manuals for German Mormons to take control of Church affairs. [13] In the late spring, the West German mission held a mission-wide conference in Frankfurt to strengthen the Saints. [14] At the conference there was a feeling of foreboding and concern about the future. [15]

In Salt Lake City, J. Reuben Clark intensely monitored events in Germany. [16] In July, the First Presidency decided not to send additional missionaries to Germany for fear that if war did break out the Nazis might inter the missionaries in concentration camps. [17] Furthermore, they dispatched Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith to Europe to assess the situation first hand. [18] As tensions between Germany and Poland intensified in August, many German and American Mormons expected another withdrawal of the American missionaries.

The answer came on 24 August 1939 when the First Presidency, having consulted with the State Department and fearing the safety of the American missionaries, ordered another evacuation. [19] Clark sent instructions through the State Department for missionaries to “proceed to neutral countries to await return to [the] United States.” [20] The order came as mobilization of the German armed forces was in full swing. Those in the East German mission successfully fled to Denmark without incident. The West German mission contingent, however, faced greater difficulties. [21] Despite official assurances to Wood, the Dutch government soon closed its borders with Germany, stranding many American missionaries in the Reich. (Some did manage to cross the border and make it to Rotterdam before the closure.) After enduring many difficulties, including insufficient funds and problems securing transportation on non-military trains, the last of the American missionaries from the West German mission entered Denmark early on 29 August. [22]

On 1 September 1939, Hitler invaded Poland, triggering the Second World War. During the next two months, the Church evacuated its American missionaries and personnel from continental Europe. After years under American guidance it was now up to the Germans Mormons to hold the Church together in Hitler’s Reich.

[1]  In attendance at the meeting were Wood and Rees, Franklin Murdock of the Netherlands Mission, Mark Garff of the Denmark Mission, Thomas McKay from the Swiss-Austrian mission and Wallace Toronto of the Czechoslovakia mission. “East German MSS History,” entry for 24 June 1938.
[2]  Wood, Oral History, 2.
[3]  Telegram from Cordell Hull to U. S. Embassy in Berlin, 13 September 1938, U. S. State Department Document, 362.116.M82/49A, National Archives. The telegram stated: “Pending developments wish you to move missionaries into Denmark and Holland. Please notify Wood same. Effect immediately. Signed First Presidency.” See also, “East German MSS History,” entry for 14 September 1938; “West German MSS History,” entry for 14 September 1938; Quinn, 80.
[4]  All the missionaries from the East German mission evacuated to Copenhagen. 24 missionaries from the West German mission who were closer to Denmark than to the Netherlands, also evacuated to Copenhagen. The rest of the West German missionary force went to Rotterdam. See “West German MSS History,” entry for 14 September 1938.
[5]  “West German MSS History,” entries for 14 and 16 September 1938; Petty, Oral History, 33.
[6]  “West German MSS History,” entry for 4 October 1938.
[7]  Petty, Oral History, 34.
[8]  Scharffs, Mormonism in Germany, 91.
[9]  Wood, Oral History, 10-11. In the months preceding the outbreak of World War II, Evelyn Wood worked 30 hours a week compiling lesson material and training manuals to leave for the German Mormons if and when the Americans were evacuated again.
[10]  Scharffs, Mormonism in Germany, 92.
[11]  Letter from Erma Rosenhan to J. Richard Barnes, 19 February 1985, J. Richard Barnes Papers, in custody of Mrs. Afton Barnes, Littleton, Colorado, copy in author’s possession.
[12]  Dahl Oral Interview, 27.
[13]  Scharffs, Mormonism in Germany, 91; Wood Oral History, 11.
[14]  “West German MSS History,” entry for Saturday 27 May and Monday 29 May 1939.
[15]  Dahl, Oral Interview, 27.
[16]  Scharffs, Mormonism in Germany, 91; Quinn, 80-81; Van Orden, 138.
[17]  Quinn, 80-81.
[18]  Scharffs, Mormonism in Germany, 92.
[19]  Scharffs, Mormonism in Germany, 91; Quinn, 81; Van Orden, 138.
[20]  See documents relating to evacuation in U. S. State Department Documents, 362.116.M82/51-60, National Archives.
[21]  For a detailed account of the evacuation of the West German mission, see Terry Bohle Montague, Mine Angels Round About: Mormon Mission Evacuation from Western Germany 1939, (Murray, Utah: Roylance Publishing, 1989).
[22] Ibid., 84.



23 Comments »

  1. As one who enjoys reading the history of WWII, this story is very interesting to me. In addition to some of the end notes, Pres. Wood was given some time in General Conference to recount this event (can’t remember which one at this time, but you can look it up, either 1939 or 1940). There is also a very good Thesis available from BYU which reviews the evacuation of ALL missionaries around the time of WWII, including all the European missions.

    David F. Boone, August 1981, The Worldwide Evacuation of Latter-Day Saint Missionaries at the Beginning of World War II.

    Comment by Zionssuburb — February 11, 2009 @ 6:55 am

  2. As was the custom at the time, mission presidents spoke in general conference upon their return. The European mission presidents, including Wood, spoke in the April 1940 conference.

    Comment by Steve C. — February 11, 2009 @ 7:47 am

  3. Great stuff, Steve. And some interesting tidbits: the telegram directing evacuation during the Sudetenland crisis in 1938 went as a diplomatic cable–presumably it was therefore secure from prying eyes. I wonder whether the State Department made its secure facilities available to other organizations, or if J. Reuben Clark used his influence with former colleagues to get a special favor.

    Also, I can understand wanting to get to neutral countries, but, why not France? Not a prospective neutral, but it’s close. Was the border already closed? Was it a transport problem? (I can imagine that SNCF would have been busy with mobilization and removing French civilians from the frontier.) Or did the Church leadership “know” that the French were likely to collapse shortly after the Germans attacked?

    (One additional irony of course is that both Denmark and the Netherlands were occupied before the fall of France–but I suspect that the missionaries were long gone back to America by then.)

    Comment by Mark B. — February 11, 2009 @ 7:48 am

  4. Mark B.: You bring up some interesting ideas. As for secure diplomatic cables, I’m not sure if any other organization had the access JR Clark had. Clark maintained close contact with the State Department (quite a bit of correspondence between the First Presidency and State). I’m sure that it was quite a bit easier for Clark to send word to the German missions through the State Dept than it was for other organizations to.

    Why not France? That is a good question, although France had guaranteed Poland it would go to war if Germany invaded Poland. This was well known. So if war broke out, France would be involved from the very beginning. The Netherlands and Denmark were viable neutrals. I should also mention that a few missionaries in southern Germany evacuated to Switzerland, another neutral. There are several other factors that make NL and DK better options than France. The bulk of the missionary force was in the northern part of Germany and therefore closer to NL and DK. Also, these countries had seaports that were available and it would be easier to get the missionaries back to the USA on neutral vessels. France’s ports would soon be blockaded by German subs.

    Thanks for your comments.

    Comment by Steve C. — February 11, 2009 @ 9:06 am

  5. One more thing, the missionaries were all out of the Netherlands and Denmark by October, 1939–long before those two countries were occupied.

    Comment by Steve C. — February 11, 2009 @ 9:08 am

  6. Thanks for the additional info. As you can see, I’m operating here in a vast sea of ignorance.

    Though there would have been risks from U-boat activity, I don’t think the Germans (in either war) started off attacking neutral shipping, even if it was headed into or out of a port in England or France. Still I think I would have preferred to take my chances sailing from Rotterdam or Copenhagen than Le Havre or Southampton.

    I should ask my dad about his brother, who served in the British Mission in the late 1930s. He would have been 21 in May, 1939, so he may have been finished and home before the war started.

    Comment by Mark B. — February 11, 2009 @ 9:42 am

  7. I don’t know by which route he eventually left Europe, but the last elder left in the Paris mission home was a Belgian, who closed the office and then went to Belgium to say goodbye to his family. He had previously emigrated to the U.S. and gone back as a missionary. I wonder what complications that might have added to his evacuation?

    That elder eventually ended up working in the Church Historian’s Office and living in the ward where I now live. He had passed away before I moved here, but about once a month one of the old-timer European members of the ward will point to a certain corner and remember affectionately that that’s where Gaston Chapuis used to live.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 11, 2009 @ 10:07 am

  8. I don’t know anything to add, but I like this. Thank you.

    Comment by Darren — February 11, 2009 @ 11:15 am

  9. I just heard my uncle’s story. He completed his service in the British Mission in late May or June 1939. As was customary in those innocent days, he then traveled for 10 days or 2 weeks on the continent. So, just a few months before the missionaries in Germany were “shipping the books,” he was spending two weeks as a tourist in Germany, Italy and France!

    Comment by Mark B. — February 11, 2009 @ 12:54 pm

  10. The Church and Nazi Germany is such a great topic. My dad interviewed one of his ward members who was one of those evacuated. He had some great stories about going to various train stations looking for missionaries. If I recall correctly, they were encouraged to walk around whistling Mormon hymns as they looked for “lost” missionaries. I guess more of those stories will be forthcoming.

    I would be interested to know how many of those missionaries were pro-Nazi before the war began. I guess we’d need to go back and look at letters home and journals to get a real sense of that.

    Comment by Alan — February 11, 2009 @ 2:22 pm

  11. I don’t know by which route he eventually left Europe, but the last elder left in the Paris mission home was a Belgian, who closed the office and then went to Belgium to say goodbye to his family. He had previously emigrated to the U.S. and gone back as a missionary. I wonder what complications that might have added to his evacuation?

    Boone’s thesis (140-141) indicates that he and his wife returned to Paris, where they stored mission property, and then they were ordered out of the country by German leaders and church officials. They left France in August 1940, traveled to Spain, and then took the Excalibur liner to the U.S. (I believe the Excalibur regularly sailed between Lisbon and New York). The November 1940 IE reported that they arrived in SLC in late September 1940.

    Comment by Justin — February 11, 2009 @ 3:06 pm

  12. I wonder if Victor Laszlo and his lovely wife Ilsa were on the same ship.

    Comment by Mark B. — February 11, 2009 @ 3:11 pm

  13. A number of missionaries were turned away as the Dutch closed the border. Most did not have any more money with them to purchase tickets to Copenhagen. In Frankfurt, Pres. Wood asked one missionary, a former football player named Norman Seibold, to take mission funds, find the stranded Elders and get them on their way to Denmark. Seibold began at the train station in Cologne. He walked up and down the platforms whistling the mission song, “Do What Is Right.” This attracted the stranded missionaries. Seibold did this in various train stations until he had found all the stranded Elders and got them on the train to Copenhagen.

    I could not say how many missionaries were “pro-Nazi” as that is a bit of a loaded term and who would admit that they were pro-Nazi? Nevertheless, there were missionaries who while they were on their missions were dazzled by the Nazis to one degree or another.

    Comment by Steve C. — February 11, 2009 @ 3:12 pm

  14. #12 Undoubtedly, but they wouldn’t have run into the missionaries, since they would have spent most of their time in the bar singing As Time Goes By.

    Interesting overview, Steve C., as well as the follow-up comments.

    Comment by Researcher — February 11, 2009 @ 3:59 pm

  15. #12 & 14: I’m sure they’d all be sitting around saying to each other “We’ll always have Paris.” I wonder if Rick helped the missionaries escape from Europe. Something I might want to research further.

    Comment by Steve C. — February 11, 2009 @ 4:24 pm

  16. I knew Flora Chapuis and she would tell us about their problems in getting out of France to Spain. She was proud that they left the mission home in good condition and very clean. She sewed money into her coat lining so they could get out and still pay for the ship tickets.

    I also have former German members in my ward and they don’t believe the reported “problems” when the missionaries left. They had been members of the Church for several generations before the War and would not have had women blessing the sacrament. They also said that if there were candles on the sacrament tables it was becuase there was no electric lights. One of the members is a son of the counselor in the acting mission presidency and he feels that the Church programs were well run during the War. They continued their home teaching, meetings and youth activities.

    Comment by Jeff Johnson — February 11, 2009 @ 4:55 pm

  17. Jeff Johnson: Thanks for the insight into the evacuation of the Chapuises.

    The problems mission leaders reported in the mission records after the first evacuation in 1938 ultimately benefited the German Church. Throughout most of 1939 until the war began mission leaders and missionaries were involved in training local members to run the Church. The result was that from this training local Germans ran the Church in a very commendable fashion. Six years later, when American LDS returned, they found the Church in order.

    Comment by Steve C. — February 11, 2009 @ 7:50 pm

  18. Steve, thank you for your interesting post. I printed it off for my husband, who is very much interested in war history.

    Comment by Maurine — February 11, 2009 @ 9:10 pm

  19. Re: 15

    If it’ll give me a chance to spend a few hundred hours looking at pictures, moving or still, of Ingrid Bergman in 1942, I’ll volunteer to help with that research.

    Comment by Mark B. — February 12, 2009 @ 8:32 am

  20. Mark B: I agree!

    Comment by Steve C. — February 12, 2009 @ 10:05 am

  21. So interesting. Thank you.

    Comment by Michelle Glauser — February 13, 2009 @ 12:44 pm

  22. HI I would like any info on the mission and the evacuation from West Germany in 1939.my mother was the daughter of President and Sister Wood
    my Mother`s name was Anna Wood i have a copy of
    the Book Mine Angels round about and i would like to know more about how thing`s were for them in the mission home and the evacuation my mother was not one to talk about her life in Germany.i would
    like any info or photo`s she would have been about 15 or 16 while she was over in germany .
    she passed away in 2005. my Email is
    moonlake3 [at] yahoo [dot] com

    Thank-you
    Barbara North Smith

    [Email address edited to obscure it from spam email harvesters -- AEP]

    Comment by Barbara Smith — March 1, 2009 @ 12:09 am

  23. My father was one of the missionaries that was evacuated at the first one in 1938. My family has copies of telegrams and a 3 page typed letter from my dad to his parents detailing the whole story. The secret police had my fathers “papers” and he had to go to them 3 times to get them back.

    He heard the whistle of Do What is Right and the church historical records now have the original letters.

    My dad was latter drafted into WWII to go fight the people he went to save!

    Comment by Becky Rose — March 19, 2012 @ 6:16 pm

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