The Chaplain Changed His Mind
July 1988

“The Chaplain Changed His Mind,” Ensign, July 1988, 54–55

The Chaplain Changed His Mind

We bid farewell to our loved ones, shouldered our duffel bags, and walked up the loading ramp onto the Sea Ray, a merchant marine ship docked in San Francisco.

The Philippines, forty-four days away, was our destination, where we would serve as replacements during World War II. Of the 2,500 men who swarmed the decks, at least three of us were Latter-day Saints. More than anything, we wanted to meet together in our own sacrament meeting.

We approached the ship’s chaplain and asked if we could use the chapel for our meetings. We were surprised when he said he didn’t have the time to conduct a special meeting for so few. We would have to attend one of the meetings held for other faiths.

We explained that we would conduct our own meetings, and that we only needed the chapel at a time when it wasn’t in use. He insisted that there were not enough of us to make it worthwhile to occupy the chapel. We responded that it would be worthwhile to the three of us.

We continued to ask. He continued to reject. Finally he left, emphatic that we would have to attend one of the services already scheduled.

So we began looking for a secluded spot on that crowded ship. Every available space on deck was occupied by soldiers who preferred the fresh ocean air to the crowded, stuffy quarters below deck. After searching the ship from end to end, we decided the only way we could meet was to sit cross-legged on the crowded superstructure of the deck and study the scriptures together. We wouldn’t be able to enjoy the privacy and freedom that would allow us to partake of the sacrament and to sing and pray, but at least we could be together.

While we were discussing our options, the ship’s shrill whistle interrupted our conversation. “Now hear this,” the loudspeaker blared. “There will be a church service held at six o’clock in room 45 for all Latter-day Saints.” We were shocked, yet pleased that we had been granted a place to meet, and we wondered what had changed the chaplain’s mind.

It was already ten to six, so we scurried to the stairs and descended into what had been a food-storage area. The large room was cluttered with long, thick shipping planks and small wooden barrels. There was no furniture anywhere. But we were excited to have a place where we could partake of the sacrament, sing, and pray.

We began to make benches of the planks and barrels. Before long, young men dressed in combat green fatigues began to descend the stairs, asking if this was the place for the LDS meeting. They pitched in, and soon the room looked organized and ready for services. The sound of boots on the stairway continued. When we counted, there were thirty of us for our first meeting in what had hurriedly become “our lower room.”

Using the songs and prayers in our servicemen’s edition of Principles of the Gospel, we made all the arrangements for a special sacrament meeting. For the sacrament, we partook of the bread from half of a field mess kit and drank water from the same canteen cup. We felt the Spirit of the Lord rest upon us as we listened to impromptu talks and instructions. Our hearts were touched as we were drawn together in our feelings of love for our Heavenly Father and his Beloved Son. Memories of our families and homes became vivid and warm.

We lingered after the meeting, not wanting the time to end. It was the nearest thing to home we would experience while at sea. All week, we looked forward to the next service. These gatherings became bright spots that carried us through some discouraging days.

Our services continued Sunday after Sunday. Unknown to us, the meetings had attracted the attention and curiosity of the chaplain. When we gathered on fast Sunday in January 1945, we were astonished to see our ship’s chaplain descend the stairs into our room. He asked if he might attend our services, and we made him welcome.

Men in combat green bowed in reverent prayer, sang, blessed the sacrament, and partook of those emblems with humility and sincerity. After the sacrament, one by one, the men stood and bore testimonies that were filled with gratitude for the teachings of good parents, for homes where love and fun and happiness were a part of growing up, for the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the earth, and for living prophets.

After the meeting, the chaplain approached and asked if he could speak to us during our next service. We granted his request without hesitation.

Sunday came, and we turned the time over to the chaplain after administering the sacrament. He stood before us as we sat upon our pews of plank and barrels. “I don’t know who you are or what you’re doing here, but whoever you are and whatever your mission, please continue,” he said. “In all the years I studied to become a minister, in all the services I have conducted, in all the church councils I have attended—I have never been lifted spiritually as I was in your meeting last Sunday. Please continue to set the example for others that you have set here.”

We were impressed by the obvious change that had taken place in his heart and mind concerning Latter-day Saints.

We continued to meet in our sacred lower room each Sunday until we reached the shores of Leyte in the Philippines and the tides of war scattered us throughout the South Pacific. Since then I have often wondered about the chaplain and where he is today. I am thankful to him for providing us with a place to meet. And I am grateful for those special meetings that we held in “our lower room.”

  • Ralph Mortensen, an elementary school principal, is high priests group leader in the Alamosa First Ward, Alamosa Colorado Stake.