When Ezra Taft Benson made his post-World War II tour of shattered Europe, he and his party visited Stavanger, Norway, and called on longtime branch president Gustav Wersland. “We learned,” wrote Frederick W. Babbel in his account of that tour, “that Brother Wersland had been a leader in the Norwegian underground resistance forces during World War II. … At Brother Wersland’s home we learned a few details about the life of this exceptional man during the war years. At one point, President Benson happened to mention the word Nazi. Brother Wersland was noticeably disturbed. Without saying a word, he reached across the table, picked up a milk bottle, and crushed it in his bare hand as if it had been a plastic toy.”
In 1947 Brother Wersland published an account of his war experiences:
I have often thought it would be well to write down some of the many things that happened to me during the war, and was very happy to receive this request to relate a few of my experiences.
For Norway, the period of April 9th, 1940, until May 7th, 1945, was one of anxiety, fear, and hardship. To cover this whole period would, of course, be impossible. However, many things seem particularly vivid as did the first days of the war for us. I was at the time an officer in the Norwegian Army. We all could feel the forbidding tenseness that hung over the country. I recall on April 8th, as I was serving my tour of duty at Regimental Headquarters, my superior officer ordered me to particularly watch the telephone. he evidently expected to receive important information momentarily.
At 5:00 o’clock in the morning of April 9th I received word that the Germans had invaded us and that all roads leading from our town, Stavanger, had been blocked. I was home with my wife, anxiously awaiting orders from Headquarters. I later found out that my regiment had left town without notifying me. We were uneasy and felt that something should be done; so, in order to get out of town, I put on my civilian clothing and took my family and headed for my brother’s place in Aagaard. We were lucky enough to get out of town and past the blockades to my brother’s home. Shortly thereafter, I was fortunate enough to locate my regiment which had moved out to Sviland.
It was in Sviland that we first encountered the mighty German war machine. We quickly learned how poorly we were equipped against them, especially in not having a means to counteract their air force. Our first hand-to-hand contact with the Germans gave us a sensation we had never had before. A couple of the young men became so unnerved that they couldn’t move, and would have been shot, but with the help of the Lord, I was able to cross an open field where I was an easy target for the Germans and get those boys to safety. Yet I didn’t even receive a scratch. Time and time again I saw the Lord’s directing hand over us as similar incidents occurred.
We were successful in repelling the Germans on several occasions, for their bravery was dependent upon overwhelming numbers. But when at last they were able to assemble and put into execution their mass of men and war machinery, we were overtaken and I was taken prisoner. Although many of our men were killed or wounded, I came through uninjured. By the “kindness of Hitler” I was later released and allowed to go back to my wife and family.
I recall on the 23rd day of August I was awakened from my sleep by a pounding on the side of the house. I went to the door where a German officer and two armed soldiers stood. The officer told me to get ready as he was taking me with him. I went back to the bedroom where I told my wife of this upsetting news, and tried to gather together a few things. Our thoughts, of course, turned toward the Lord and we knelt down to ask His care and protection, during these terrible times. When we had finished praying it seemed as if a sweet and peaceful feeling came over us and I remember how calm my wife was when I left.
I, with many others, was taken to Kvalaberg Camp, where I was plainly told that I would be shot if I tried to escape. From there, we prisoners were taken to Kristiansand, then to Drammen, and finally to Vals Camp. This camp had been made into a concentration camp and housed about 1,500 prisoners. It was in Vals Camp that I was visited by Acting Mission President Olaf Sonsteby, and also my son and his wife. The visitors to this camp were compelled to stand in line from 5.00 a.m. and sometimes they waited two days before they saw their husbands and sons who were prisoners.
We were eventually sent to Germany. I was among the first group of 600 to go. We were placed on an old ship down in the hold, none of us having an idea where we were going. However, on the way we passed lands that we knew were Denmark and Sweden, where we saw German shipping tied up at the various docks. Finally we sailed up the Elb River and anchored at Stettin. After docking we were placed on a train. Still we had no idea where our final destination would be. After many stops we finally ended up in a little town in Poland called Schilberg. Here we were quartered in an old Catholic Seminary.
The camp we had been placed in was much like any other of its kind, I suppose. The food was bad and there was too little of what there was. But we were able to maintain our humour, and with the help of the Red Cross packages we were able to keep body and soul together. Realising that idleness would make a bad situation worse, we organised groups for playing games, studying various languages, religious classes, and a choir, among others. I availed myself of the opportunity to participate in the religious ground and found that although many could not bear to hear the truth, others were extremely interested in our way of life. There were many opportunities to preach the gospel.
As officers we were not required to work and had first, Russians, and then Italians, to perform the necessary tasks about the camp. We found the Russians more refined than the Italians and liked to hear them sing. When they sang of the Volga it thrilled everyone. On the other hand, the Italians seemed to only want to fill their stomachs and would dig for particles of food out of the garbage. Undoubtedly their severe hunger drove away their pride and decency.
We soon learned that idleness was a cause for much evil, and the condition of the camp showed it. But we who wanted to remain clear of all the filth and corruption going on banded together and tried to help one another through these awful times. I found that by seeking the Lord in prayer and receiving His guidance I gained strength to keep on the straight and narrow path.
Once in a while I received word from my wife which was very encouraging. She never gave up the thought that I would return. She sent me all the things I needed. On Fast Sundays I gave my rations to those who needed them worse than I. Although my fellow prisoners could not understand this, it did give me an opportunity to explain my beliefs. Many of these officers whom I have talked with since told me that they noticed I had something greater than they had.
One afternoon as I was lying on my bunk I heard my name called and I jumped to report. A German officer informed me that I was leaving and to be ready in two hours. News like this spreads as a wild fire through the camp and immediately everyone wanted to know why I was leaving. Some thought I was being transferred to another camp so that I could be with others of my faith, but I could give them no answer. I tried to find out from the camp commander where I was going, but to no avail. One of the chaplains thought I was surely to be liquidated and asked how I felt and if I was uneasy. I told him I was feeling fine. He inquired as to what Church I belonged to, and after learning I was a Mormon, said,”Then I’m certain you are with some of God’s men.” We prayed together and said our goodbyes.
I was put on a train with a guard, having no idea where I was going. Many times we changed trains and many times were forced, because of bombings, to go back and take another line. At night I tried to recall what knowledge I had of directions and found out from the stars we were going northwest and thought perhaps we were headed for Hamburg, bud did not know. Once I heard the guard say “Arus.” I had no idea what it meant and repeated it over and over again to see if I could detect what he meant. It was not Russian or anything else that I knew, but suddenly the idea struck me! It was Aarhus. Surely that was the way a German would pronounce Aarhus. I was right, for at last we arrived in Aarhus in Denmark. I wondered if I was going home. I hardly dared entertain the thought of seeing my beloved family and Norway again.
After a couple of days they put me on a troop transport down in the hold. We were soon escorted by warships and aeroplanes out to the open sea. If the boat should be torpedoed I knew I had no chance of escape, but I was ready to meet whatever happened. The ship turned in its course because of mines. Fo r30 hours I did not know exactly where we were going, but on the afternoon of the second day I went up on deck and there I saw the Ferder Lighthouse, which meant Norway. No one will ever know the joy that filled me or the gratitude that was in my heart for the blessings of my Heavenly Father.
Brother Wersland’s published account focuses on his faith rather than on the adventurous events he reported to President Benson’s party. Possibly out of concern for privacy and comrades so soon after the war, the ending of the above account is particularly ambiguous. Brother Babbel’s version discloses these stories:
We learned that after many harrowing experiences as a leader in the Norwegian underground, Brother Wersland was finally captured and sent to a concentration camp in Germany. He was transferred from one camp to another until he finally found himself in Poland.
Wherever he was sent, he was always under heavy guard. He was threatened repeatedly with extermination. Always he taught the gospel to his captors at every opportunity. Eventually he and sixteen companions were sentenced to die at the hands of a firing squad.
Although his companions were killed, he remained alive. Later, with the help of a German officer who had responded to his gospel message, he was permitted to escape. Eventually he reached Denmark, where he contacted underground workers. With their assistance he was able to return to Norway. Here he took up his duties as a leader in the underground.
Finally his valiant band of men found themselves surrounded by three German divisions. Their ammunition was depleted and their food supplies nearly gone. As far as I was able to piece things together from his account, he prayed to the Lord to know what to do. The next morning he told his men that he was going to drive his motorcycle into the nearest city to seek help and supplies. His comrades considered this to be certain suicide, but his mind was made up. As he rode into the city on his motorcycle he was repeatedly fired upon, but miraculously he escaped injury. In a short while he was among friends.
That night, he and these friends were able to commandeer several German supply trucks loaded with food and ammunition. Then they managed to drive these trucks through the German lines without serious incident. These supplies proved to be adequate to enable them to continue their harassing activities and hold out until their liberation by the American forces.
Gustav Wersland, who was born in 1889 and baptized in 1928, passed away in 1980.