Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » “They Are Firing at Us”: A Mission President in World War II

“They Are Firing at Us”: A Mission President in World War II

By: Ardis E. Parshall - May 08, 2013

Wilford Woodruff Emery (1889-1954) was president of Samoan Mission at the outbreak of World War II. He wrote of a harrowing wartime experience in the South Pacific:

While in the Samoan Mission Sister Emery and I had been over to the island of Tutuila for a visit. We had completed our work and prepared to return to Upolu, our headquarters. We were late leaving the harbor of Pago Pago and it got dark on us almost as soon as we reached the open sea. We headed westward for our destination and then made ourselves as comfortable as possible. We lay on the hatchway in preference to the small, ill-smelling bunks inside the cabin. If it should rain we would take to the cabin to keep from getting wet. It was a beautiful night, although pitch dark. The few passengers and two or three of the crew also made themselves comfortable on the hatchway, using their lifebelts as pillows for their heads.

We had been at sea for some time and I thought we were far to the west of the island of Tutuila. All at once a bright light played upon us. It was one of those eight hundred million candle-power lamps operated by the Marines stationed at the west end of the island. We were startled with its brightness. At first we thought it might be a Jap[anese] submarine. Then all at once we were fired upon. The passengers and crew jumped up from the hatchway, [and] placing the lifebelts alongside their heads they ran and hid behind the cabin. Sister Emery arose and cried out: “They are firing at us.” I told her to lie down or they would be sure to hit her. We could see the tracer bullets as they hit the sea just beyond us. The captain said that one tracer bullet passed just four feet in front of him. We put on more speed. Soon the firing ceased, but the light shone on us for quite some time.

A colonel reported to me afterward, that the Marines had fired two hundred and fifty rounds of fifty calibre bullets at us. They were on the point of throwing a five-inch shell at us when they got word to let us pass. They fired at us because they had been commanded to fire on all unidentified ships that were seen. Some official had failed to notify the Marines that our boat had left the harbor and that we should be allowed to pass.

When the firing ceased the passengers and crew who had hidden themselves behind the cabin returned and resumed their former positions on the hatchway cover. During the night I heard them talking among themselves, and they were saying one to another: “It was a good thing these missionaries were on board – we would have all been destroyed otherwise.”

We frequently met one of our fellow passengers of that trip and he always reiterated his statement that he was still alive because we were with them on that occasion.



  1. Great story that brings up a question that I have never really thought about. Were all missions eventually suspended during WWII, or just the missions in the affected countries, such as Germany, Denmark, Belgium, etc?

    Comment by kevinf — May 8, 2013 @ 12:03 pm

  2. As they say, there’s nothing friendly about “friendly fire.” And it must have been some jumpy Marines at that base on Tutuilu, and so early in the war that the “Jap[anese]” must have been everywhere.

    As a matter of fact, other than the attack on Pearl Harbor, and on Atka, in the Aleutians, far to the north, the Japanese never got as far east as Samoa at any time during the war. Guadalcanal, in the Solomon Islands, was the farthest extent of their expansion eastward, and it’s nearly 2,000 miles from Guadalcanal to Samoa.

    Comment by Mark B. — May 8, 2013 @ 12:07 pm

  3. There were no missions in East Asia in 1941 (the Japanese Mission had closed in 1924), so there were none to close when the war started. What about Australia, New Zealand, Samoa, Tahiti, etc.? I don’t know.

    Comment by Mark B. — May 8, 2013 @ 12:10 pm

  4. Missions in the Pacific continued to function throughout the war, but after the first few months “functioning” meant whatever oversight the mission president coud give to local branches, plus whatever member-missionary work might be done. Immediately upon US entry into the war in December 1941, the Church stopped calling draft age men, and women of any age (with three exceptions: a few with stenographic skills to work in mission offices, a few professional teachers to serve in special callings, and a very few wives of older, married missionaries who would serve with their husbands). None of the above-draft-age men called as full time missionaries were sent to the Pacific, South America, or Europe. Elders already in place in the missions could serve out their terms, but then returned home and were immediately subject to the draft. Mission presidents in those missions could therefore precisely anticipate the decline in their mission staffs and the inevitable time (November 1943 for most) when the mission president and his family would be alone, trying to keep the organization afloat with whatever local help they had. I’ve read some letters just this week between two such presidents commiserating with each other over the situation.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 8, 2013 @ 12:35 pm

  5. That story reminds me of a bike accident during my mission. A combination of narrow icy roads and swerving to miss a speeding semi-truck could have ended very differently but it just resulted in a bad sprained ankle rather than a serious accident. Several cars stopped, including a German cowboy* who said, “Do you think you broke your leg?” followed by a lady who kept repeating, “Sie waren geschützt!” (“You were protected!”)

    Anyway, that was a random response to this story, so I guess I’m agreeing with the passengers on the boat.

    * Seriously, he was wearing cowboy boots and a cowboy hat and had a Texas accent, and I wondered if I hadn’t perhaps hit my head, but we got to be good friends with his family. They had spent a decade or two in the United States, something to do with the air force, and had returned to Germany not long before.

    Comment by Amy T — May 8, 2013 @ 2:25 pm

  6. Wilford Woodruff Emery was my Great Grandfather. I have never heard this story in any of his histories. Thank you for sharing it. I’ll make sure more of his family hears it too.

    Comment by Kimberly Huff — June 10, 2013 @ 10:28 pm

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