“Isolation Didn’t Stop Him,” New Era, Oct. 1978, 35
Bill Hoagland watched through the window as the supply plane approached the tiny island that would be his home for 12 months. Just a dot in the water, he thought, lost in mile after mile of waves. He knew the navigation station was vital to the U.S. Coast Guard, and he knew his job as hospital corpsman on the island would be important too. “Maybe I can get so involved in my work that time will pass quickly,” he thought again. “But look at the island. It’s so small … and what about my wife and the baby?”
Tires screeched on packed coral and sand, grabbing for a hold on the runway. Then there was a whirr as the sound of the motor caught up with the braking plane. Soon Bill was talking to new acquaintances, discovering what men do on Tern Island, one of the French Frigate Shoals 500 miles northwest of Hawaii. Mostly they tried to make time pass more quickly. Of course, there were movies, swimming, and hobbies like collecting glass balls that break from fishing fleet nets and drift ashore. There were weekly steak fries and Ping-Pong tournaments, but nothing to remind anyone about home, except letters that arrived once a week on the supply plane.
Bill went to the barracks to unpack. He shook a book out of his seabag, and fresh memories crowded in on his mind. Before leaving San Diego, California, he and his wife had heard a broadcast from one of the wards of the local Mormon church. Both had been impressed, not just by the speakers and their well-delivered talks, but by something else. Bill and his wife had been searching together for a nameless something that would give meaning to their lives. On their way back to Indiana, where she was to stay with relatives, they had visited Salt Lake City and picked up a copy of the Book of Mormon along with some pamphlets. Now the book lay before him.
The desire to go swimming and fishing tempted Bill for the next few days, but he resolved to study and to use his year alone to advantage. Soon he was absorbed in the story and testimonies of Lehi, Nephi, Mosiah, and King Benjamin. He was also deeply impressed with the testimony of Joseph Smith. Intense reading and long hours of study eventually led Bill to Moroni’s promise. He pondered it, then knelt and prayed. He got up with knowledge in his heart that the book from his seabag did indeed contain the truth. Sleep was sweet that night.
In the morning he wrote a letter to President George W. Poulsen, Jr., of the Hawaiian Mission, and asked how he could be baptized. He knew this would be a problem because he could not leave the island and the only contact with the rest of the world was the weekly plane flight and an occasional visit from a ship carrying heavy equipment.
President Poulsen sent Bill a copy of A Marvelous Work and a Wonder and encouraged him to study it while he tried to make arrangements to get two elders out to the island somehow. Bill read the book and then sent it to his wife, as he had done with other books and pamphlets as he finished them. And he waited, studied, and prayed.
Bishop Hal K. Hess of the Kaneohe First Ward smiled as he chatted with President Poulsen on the phone. He had seen enough in his years of Church work to know that sometimes chance meetings are more than coincidental. He hadn’t been unduly surprised to run into an old LDS friend in the Hawaii Temple a few weeks before. After all, Lieutenant Gerald Foster traveled quite a bit in his work for the Coast Guard. But to think that Brother Foster was now assigned as a pilot at Barber’s Point Air Station, the field where the supply flights to Tern Island originated!
“I’d be glad to help,” Brother Foster said, noting that he could probably arrange to make the flight. But he warned that getting permission to fly two missionaries out to the island would have to come from Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C., and that would mean red tape galore. Wait a minute! There was another LDS pilot at the same base, a friend Brother Foster had introduced to the Church, Lieutenant Anthony Beardsley. Brother Beardsley normally flew to Guam, but perhaps the commanding officer would do them a favor. It was worth a try.
Brother Foster still recalls with amazement: “The Coast Guard is not a large service, and there were certainly not many Mormons in it in 1964. It was fortunate indeed that two pilots, both elders, were stationed at Barber’s Point at that time.”
“Brother Foster and I were classmates at the Coast Guard Academy,” Brother Beardsley remembers. “He helped my wife and me join the Church two years before, and throughout our military careers, we managed to follow each other from one duty station to another. I feel that in Hawaii we were placed in a position to answer someone’s prayer.”
The commander, after hearing the unusual circumstances, granted permission for the pilots to fly together. With instructions and authority from the mission president to interview William Hoagland and, if they found him worthy, to baptize him, the two lieutenants took off on June 4, 1964.
Bill had already been pacing up and down the runway long before the speck appeared in the sky and drew nearer. The plane was only scheduled for a two-hour stop, and there was a lot to accomplish in that short time period. Finally the Grumman Albatross circled in and taxied to a halt.
Brother Foster interviewed Bill in the base’s small library, then the three men went to the sick bay (which was also Bill’s room) and changed into white clothing. They went outside and waded about 20 yards off shore. Fifty yards away, across a narrow lagoon, a reef smothered the fury of 20-foot Pacific waves. Inside, the water pooled, calm, clear, and warm, with gentle breakers lapping at the shore. Sunlight dazzled its reflections across the surface as terns and bosun birds swooped overhead. Everything was silent.
Lieutenant Foster performed the baptism. Bill felt warm inside as the water rushed over him. “I knew it was the greatest day of my life,” Brother Hoagland says. “We were dripping with water and shaking hands as we hurried back to prepare for the confirmation.” Soon Elder Beardsley was inviting Bill to receive the Holy Ghost.
The men had just enough time for lunch, and then the plane flew away. “My new-found brothers were gone,” Brother Hoagland recalls, “but I was not lonely. I had their love and good wishes and the Holy Ghost to comfort me. I felt part of something great and good.” In his two months remaining on the island, he studied a religious correspondence course from BYU and bore his testimony to his wife Kay in his letters. One month after her husband’s baptism, she was baptized in Fort Wayne, Indiana, after receiving the missionary discussions.
Brother Hoagland didn’t forget the lessons he learned on Tern Island. That August he visited his pilot friends in Hawaii and attended his first official Church meetings. His new duty assignment placed him in New York, and he quickly became a deacon, then a teacher, priest, and elder in the Brooklyn Branch. Shortly after becoming an elder, he was called to be a counselor in the then new Staten Island Branch presidency. Then he returned to Hawaii, where he and his family were sealed in the temple. Since then he has been a bishop in New Orleans, Louisiana, and a branch president in Salem, Illinois. He is currently serving in the U.S. Navy at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, where he was recently unanimously elected mayor of the U.S. community and serves as branch mission leader for the Church.