Church History
30 Such Grief

Chapter 30

Such Grief

hands of soldier who is blessing the sacrament for himself

The winter of 1944–45 was unbearably cold in Europe. Allied forces were advancing on Germany, fighting battle after battle in the frigid snow. Hitler tried to launch one final offensive against the American and British forces on the western front, but the assault only exhausted his already-weary army. Soviet troops, meanwhile, dominated the eastern front as they pushed deeper and deeper into Nazi-held territory.1

In Berlin, Helga Birth struggled to stay warm in the office of the East German Mission. The original office had caught fire during a bombing a year earlier, so now the mission was headquartered in the apartment of second counselor Paul Langheinrich and his wife, Elsa. Bombs had destroyed the apartment windows, so Helga and the other missionaries covered the empty frames with blankets to keep the cold out. There was no heat or warm water. Food was scarce, and sleep was hard to come by when air raid sirens wailed at night.

With the city virtually under siege, the missionaries could not safely go out and preach. But the acting East German Mission presidency, made up of local Church members, were responsible for all the Saints in the mission. The mission president, Herbert Klopfer, and most of the office staff were away on military assignments, though, so Helga and other women helped maintain mission records and stayed in contact with thousands of German Saints whose lives had been disrupted by war.2

Already, most of Helga’s family and friends had left Tilsit as the Soviet military pushed through Germany’s eastern cities. Her father and youngest brother, Henry, had been drafted into the army, and her mother had found refuge at a cousin’s farm. Other Saints in Tilsit, meanwhile, had held together as long as they could, sharing what little food and clothing they had with one another. Branch president Otto Schulzke and his family had lost their home in a bombing, escaping with only their lives. When the branch met for the last time, they shared a meal and listened once more to President Schulzke.3

Given her many losses, Helga was grateful to have found a place among the Saints in Berlin. But by mid-April 1945, the Soviet military had powered through eastern Germany and now surrounded the city. On a rainy Sunday morning in the city, Helga gathered to worship with a small group of Saints. Bombs and street skirmishes had rattled neighborhoods throughout the night, and few Church members had come to the meeting. Paul Langheinrich spoke about faith. Helga was weary, but the Spirit strengthened her. She thought of the Savior’s words in the book of Matthew: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”4

After the meeting, Paul invited Helga to join him and the branch president, Bertold Patermann, on a visit to another branch in the city. Paul wanted to make sure the members were safe after the night’s attacks.

It took Helga, Paul, and Bertold an hour to walk to the branch meetinghouse. As they got closer to the building, they saw blood in the streets and an air battle raging overhead. They pressed on, making their way to the safety of the Church building. Suddenly the blasts of artillery shells erupted behind them. Remaining calm, they continued down the street and found the Church building empty. One of its walls had taken a direct hit, reducing the side of the chapel to rubble. It looked as if someone had tried to sweep up the debris, only to stop mid-task.

Helga and her two companions checked on a few Church members living nearby and then decided to return to the mission home. Once they were back in the streets, they felt wholly exposed. The sky was still seething, and shells continued to whistle and burst around them. Fighter planes swooped low over the streets, and gunfire tore up beautiful old buildings and bridges, hurling shards of stone and brick into the air.

Seeking whatever cover they could find, Helga, Paul, and Bertold slipped into buildings and under doorways. Once, the only protection they could find was under a leafless tree, its branches brown and spindly. Finally they came to a blown-out bridge with only a tiny strip intact. Helga was not sure she could cross.

“Sister Birth, don’t be scared,” her companions said. She knew they were on God’s errand, and that gave her confidence. Trusting them, she grasped a handrail and crossed the bridge, her soul filled with calm assurance as they made their way home.5

In the days that followed, Helga and the other missionaries living at the Langheinrichs’ apartment rarely went outside. Stories spread that Soviet soldiers had already captured parts of the city, and Bertold warned the missionaries of the terrible things happening outside. They needed to do everything possible to remain safe.

As chaos enveloped the streets, some Saints sought refuge at the mission home. One woman arrived in a state of shock after her husband had been shot in the stomach and died. With Paul’s help, Helga and the others prepared abandoned rooms for anyone who came to them for help.

On Saturday, April 28, the small group of Saints gathered in fasting and prayer. As they knelt and prayed for strength and protection, Helga was overwhelmed with gratitude to be surrounded by faithful Saints amid so much terror.

By the time the fast ended, Soviet soldiers were everywhere in the streets around the mission office. Fighting still raged in Berlin, but the Soviet military was already working to restore order and essential services to the occupied parts of the city. Many soldiers did not bother the German civilians, but some soldiers were looting buildings and assaulting German women. Helga and the other missionaries feared for their safety, and the men in the mission office took turns keeping careful watch.6

Then, on May 2, Helga awoke to a strange kind of stillness. There had been no bombings that night, and she had slept straight through until morning. Adolf Hitler had taken his own life two days earlier, and the Soviet army had hoisted a hammer-and-sickle flag over the city. With Berlin now in Soviet hands, and other Allied forces seizing more German territory every day, the war in Europe was coming to an end.7

Helga tried to put her thoughts in writing in her missionary journal. “PEACE! That’s what everybody is saying,” she wrote. “I don’t have any particular feelings in my heart. We have imagined something quite different in connection with the word ‘peace’—like joy and celebration—but nothing of the kind is evident.”

“Here I sit, isolated from my relatives,” she continued, “not knowing what has happened with the rest.” So many of her loved ones—Gerhard, her brother Siegfried and cousin Kurt, her grandparents and aunt Nita—were dead. She had no idea how to contact her mother and father, and so much time had passed since anyone had heard from her other brother, Henry, that she could only imagine the worst.8

That Sunday, the Saints gathered again for a prayer meeting. Helga’s missionary companion, Renate Berger, shared a verse from the Doctrine and Covenants. It spoke of gratitude in the face of mortal tribulation:

And he who receiveth all things with thankfulness shall be made glorious; and the things of this earth shall be added unto him, even an hundred fold, yea, more.9

The Allies celebrated “Victory in Europe Day” on May 8, 1945. Neal Maxwell cheered the news, as did other American soldiers battling to capture the Japanese island of Okinawa. But their celebrations were subdued by the reality of their own situation. With kamikaze pilots attacking the Okinawa harbor and artillery fire blazing on the island’s hills, the American troops knew their part in the fight was far from over.

“This is real war,” Neal thought. The battlefront was far less glamorous up close than what the newspapers and movies had led him to believe. It filled him with a dull, sick feeling.10

The Battle of Okinawa was quickly becoming one of the most ferocious battles in the Pacific. The Japanese commanders believed the island was their last defense against an American invasion of Japan’s mainland, so they had decided to leverage all their military might to defend Okinawa.11

Neal and the soldiers with him were assigned to a division as replacements. On May 13, he wrote home to Utah. He was not allowed to tell his parents the specifics of his assignment, but he assured them of his well-being. “I’m all alone as far as spiritual companions are concerned, except for One,” he wrote. “I know He is always with me.”12

Neal was in a mortar squad assigned to fire explosive shells at enemy positions hidden inland. As he and his fellow soldiers trudged single file toward a hill called Flat Top, the Japanese began firing in their direction. The men all hit the dirt and stayed still until they felt it was safe. Then everyone stood up—except a large man named Partridge, who had been marching just in front of Neal.

“Come on, get up,” Neal said to him. “Let’s get going.” When the man still did not move, Neal realized he had been killed by a piece of shrapnel.13

Shocked and horrified, Neal was in a daze for hours. The closer he got to the battlefield, the more the scarred landscape looked lifeless and barren. The dead bodies of Japanese soldiers lay strewn on the ground. Neal had been warned that the area could be rigged with land mines. Even if the ground beneath his feet did not explode, rifle fire split the air above his head.

Neal took a position in a foxhole, and after days of back-and-forth warfare, heavy rains turned the scorched landscape into a quagmire. Neal’s foxhole filled with mud, making rest nearly impossible as he tried to sleep standing up. Meager military rations did little to stave off hunger, and the water he received came up the hill in five-gallon tanks and always tasted of oil. Many men drank coffee to mask the water’s foulness, but Neal wanted to be obedient to the Word of Wisdom and refused. He did his best to gather rainwater, and on Sundays, he used water he saved and a biscuit from his rations for the sacrament.14

One night in late May, three enemy shells exploded near Neal’s mortar position. Up until then, the Japanese had not been able to find the location of his squad. But now it seemed the artillerymen had triangulated his position and were closing in. When another shell exploded just a few feet away, Neal feared the next one would find its target.

Leaping from the foxhole, he took cover against a knoll. Then, realizing he was still in danger, he scurried back to the hole to await whatever came next.

In the mud and darkness, Neal got on his knees and began to pray. He knew he did not deserve any special favors from God, and that many righteous men had died after offering fervent prayers during battle. Still, he pleaded with the Lord to spare his life, promising to dedicate himself to God’s service if he survived. He had a smudged copy of his patriarchal blessing in his pocket, and he thought of a promise it contained.

“I seal you up against the power of the destroyer that your life may not be shortened,” the blessing read, “and that you may not be deprived of fulfilling every assignment that was given unto you in the preexistent state.”

Neal finished his prayer and looked up into the night sky. The shattering explosions had ceased, and all was quiet. When the shelling did not resume, he felt in his soul that the Lord had preserved his life.15

Not long after, Neal wrote a few letters to his family back home. “I’m so lonely for you, sometimes I feel like crying,” he said. “All I have to do is be worthy of my patriarchal blessing, your prayers, and my religion. But time and so much action hang heavy on a man’s soul.”

“I can say only God prevented my death at times,” he wrote. “I have a testimony no one can crumble.”16

Back in Europe, the war was over for Hanna Vlam and other Dutch Saints. On the day Germany surrendered, she and her children joined their friends and neighbors in the town square to sing and dance. They made a huge bonfire of the blackout material that had hung in their windows, watching happily as the reminders of darker days went up in flames.

“Thanks, thanks, O Lord,” Hanna thought. “Thou hast been good to us.”

Now that the fighting was done, many people in concentration camps and prisons were set free. Hanna had corresponded with her husband during his imprisonment, and she had reason to believe that he had remained safe. Still, she knew she could not truly celebrate the war’s end until Pieter was at home where he belonged.

On a Sunday evening in early June, Hanna glanced out the window and saw a military truck stop in front of her house. A door on the truck opened and Pieter stepped out. Hanna’s neighbors must have been watching too, because they came running to her front door. She did not want to open it to a crowd, so she waited for Pieter to come in on his own. And when he walked through the door, she welcomed him joyfully.

Soon the Vlams’ neighbors placed flags up and down the street to celebrate Pieter’s safe return. Hanna and Pieter’s twelve-year-old son, Heber, saw the flags and ran to the house. “My father is home!” he cried.

When darkness fell, Hanna lit a candle she had saved for the night of Pieter’s homecoming. The Vlam family sat in the flickering light, listening as Pieter told them of his liberation.17

Months earlier, when Soviet forces had pushed the Germans from Ukraine, Pieter and the other prisoners of Stalag 371 were transferred to a new prison, north of Berlin. It was dirty, cold, and infested with vermin. The drone of Allied planes filled the air, and the sky turned blood red from the fires that burned all over the city.

One day in April, a prisoner had shouted to some Soviet soldiers as they rumbled past the prison in a giant tank. The soldiers stopped, turned the tank around, and smashed through the barbed wire fencing, liberating Pieter and his fellow prisoners. Before they parted ways, Pieter gave a priesthood blessing to all who wanted one. Some of the prisoners who studied the gospel with him returned home and joined the Church.18

Now, together with his family, Pieter felt he had a taste of heaven. It was as if he was reuniting with loved ones on the other side of the veil, and he rejoiced in the sacred ties that bound them together for eternity.19

By the first week of August 1945, Neal Maxwell was in the Philippines, training for an invasion of mainland Japan later that fall. The United States had captured Okinawa in June, and while more than seven thousand American soldiers had died, the Japanese had suffered truly staggering losses. More than one hundred thousand of their soldiers and tens of thousands of civilians had lost their lives in the battle.20

In a letter to his family, Neal wrote soberly, his former bravado gone. He wanted nothing more than for the fighting to stop. “I have a strong desire to destroy this thing that causes such grief,” he said of war. He believed the message of Jesus Christ could bring lasting peace, and he longed to share it with others. “That’s an opportunity I want more than ever,” he wrote.21

After leaving the front lines, Neal began participating in gatherings of Latter-day Saint servicemen from a variety of units. While still on Okinawa, he had been thrilled at the thought of finally worshipping again with other members of the Church. But when he finally had a chance to attend a meeting, he realized that men he expected to see were not there. The chaplain, a Latter-day Saint named Lyman Berrett, gave a comforting talk, but the whole time Neal kept one eye on the door, waiting to see friends walk through it. Some never did.22

During this time, Neal found out that President Heber J. Grant had passed away. In the five years since his stroke, President Grant had met regularly with his counselors and had spoken several times at general conference.23 He had never fully recovered, though, and on May 14, 1945, he had succumbed to cardiac failure at the age of eighty-eight. George Albert Smith was now the president of the Church.24

In early August, Neal and the rest of the soldiers in the Philippines learned that an American plane, acting on direct orders from the president of the United States, had dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Three days later, another plane dropped a similar bomb on the city of Nagasaki.

When Neal heard about the bombings, he was filled with joyful hope that he and his fellow soldiers would not need to invade the Japanese mainland. He later realized how self-centered his reaction had been. More than one hundred thousand people, most of them Japanese civilians, perished in the blasts.25

After Japan surrendered on September 2, 1945, the world war was officially over. Neal was still going to Japan, though, as a member of the Allied occupation. In the meantime, his superiors had noticed his writing talents and given him a special assignment to compose letters of comfort and condolence to the families of fallen soldiers.

“The memory of black days sorta hangs over a guy,” Neal wrote his family, “especially when you write letters of condolence to the bereaved ones of your buddies.” While he was honored by the responsibility, he did not relish it.26

Neal and nearly one million Latter-day Saints around the world now faced a new future as they grappled with how to rebuild after experiencing so much grief, deprivation, and overwhelming loss. In President Grant’s final public address, read aloud by his secretary at the April 1945 general conference, he had offered the Saints words of comfort and perspective.

“Into many of our homes sorrow has come,” he said. “May we be strengthened with the understanding that being blessed does not mean that we shall always be spared all the disappointments and difficulties of life.”

“The Lord will hear and answer the prayers we offer to Him and give us the things we pray for if it is for our best good,” he declared. “He never will and never has forsaken those who serve Him with full purpose of heart, but we must always be prepared to say ‘Father, Thy will be done.’”27

  1. See Kershaw, The End, 129–34, 155–61, 167–82; and Weinberg, World at Arms, 765–71.

  2. Minert, In Harm’s Way, 17, 20–21, 25, 27–33; Meyer and Galli, Under a Leafless Tree, 107, 110; Meyer, Interview [2016], 16.

  3. Meyer, Interview [2016], 8–13; Meyer and Galli, Under a Leafless Tree, 108; Kershaw, The End, 172–76; Minert, In Harm’s Way, 328.

  4. Mawdsley, World War II, 403; Weinberg, World at Arms, 819–24; Meyer and Galli, Under a Leafless Tree, 105, 110–12; Meyer, Interview [2016], 15; Matthew 18:20.

  5. Minert, In Harm’s Way, 44–45, 52; Meyer, Interview [2016], 4, 15–17; Meyer and Galli, Under a Leafless Tree, 112, 187–88.

  6. Meyer and Galli, Under a Leafless Tree, 188–91; Birth, Mission Journal, Apr. 21, 1945; Minert, In Harm’s Way, 70; Large, Berlin, 374–76; Moorhouse, Berlin at War, 375–79; see also Naimark, Russians in Germany, 10–17, 20–21, 78–85, 92–93, 100–101. Topic: Fasting

  7. Meyer and Galli, Under a Leafless Tree, 191; Weinberg, World at Arms, 825; Overy, Third Reich, 359–65; Antill, Berlin 1945, 80–81; Large, Berlin, 364.

  8. Meyer and Galli, Under a Leafless Tree, 108, 117–18, 191. Part of quotation edited for readability; original source has “I didn’t have any particular feelings in my heart. We had imagined something quite different in connection with the word peace—like joy and celebration, but nothing of the kind was evident.”

  9. Meyer and Galli, Under a Leafless Tree, 114, 194–95; Doctrine and Covenants 78:19.

  10. Overy, Third Reich, 365; Maxwell, Personal History, box 1, folder 3, 10. Quotation edited for readability; original source has “this was real war.” Topic: World War II

  11. Spector, Eagle against the Sun, 532–40; Costello, Pacific War, 554–61; Hafen, Disciple’s Life, 103–5.

  12. Maxwell, Personal History, box 1, folder 3, 10; Hafen, Disciple’s Life, 102, 105.

  13. Maxwell, Personal History, box 1, folder 3, 10–11; Maxwell, Oral History Interview [1976–77], 117; Hafen, Disciple’s Life, 106–7.

  14. Maxwell, Oral History Interview [1976–77], 117; Maxwell, Personal History, box 1, folder 3, 11–12; Hafen, Disciple’s Life, 107–9, 112; Freeman and Wright, Saints at War, 358.

  15. Hafen, Disciple’s Life, 109–10; Maxwell, Personal History, box 1, folder 3, 10, 12; Maxwell, Dictation, 3. Topic: Patriarchal Blessings

  16. Hafen, Disciple’s Life, 112; Neal A. Maxwell to Clarence Maxwell and Emma Ash Maxwell, June 1, [1945], Neal A. Maxwell World War II Correspondence, CHL.

  17. Wachsmann, Nazi Concentration Camps, 595–97; Bischof and Stelzl-Marx, “Lives behind Barbed Wire,” 330–31, 338–39; Vlam, Our Lives, 107, 109.

  18. Vlam, Our Lives, 105, 108; Vlam, “Life History of Grace Alida Hermine Vlam,” 9, 11; Gordon B. Hinckley, “War Prisoner Teaches Truth to Officers,” Deseret News, Mar. 30, 1949, Church section, 14.

  19. Vlam, Our Lives, 107.

  20. Maxwell, Personal History, box 1, folder 3, 13; Spector, Eagle against the Sun, 540; Mawdsley, World War II, 412; Weinberg, World at Arms, 882. Topic: Philippines

  21. Hafen, Disciple’s Life, 114.

  22. Maxwell, Oral History Interview [1999–2000], 31; Maxwell, Personal History, box 1, folder 3, 13. Topic: Servicemember Branches

  23. See Heber J. Grant to Francesca Hawes, Dec. 6, 1944, Letterpress Copybook, volume 83, 271, Heber J. Grant Collection, CHL; Heber J. Grant to M. J. Abbey, Jan. 22, 1945, First Presidency General Correspondence Files, CHL; Clark, Diary, Feb. 4 and 25, 1945; Mar. 11, 1945; Heber J. Grant, in One Hundred Eleventh Semi-annual Conference, 95–97, 130–34; One Hundred Twelfth Annual Conference, 2–11, 97; One Hundred Fourteenth Annual Conference, 3–12; and One Hundred Fifteenth Annual Conference, 4–10.

  24. Death Certificate for Heber J. Grant, May 14, 1945, Utah Department of Health, Office of Vital Records and Statistics, Utah State Archives and Records Service, Salt Lake City. Topics: Heber J. Grant; George Albert Smith

  25. Costello, Pacific War, 589–93; Spector, Eagle against the Sun, 554–56; Maxwell, Oral History Interview [1999–2000], 30–31; Hafen, Disciple’s Life, 118.

  26. Spector, Eagle against the Sun, 559–60; Hafen, Disciple’s Life, 117–18. Quotation edited for readability; “hung” in original changed to “hangs.” Topic: World War II

  27. J. Reuben Clark Jr., Heber J. Grant, in One Hundred Fifteenth Annual Conference, 3–4, 6–7.