Military missionaries: Mormon soldiers spread the gospel in post-war Japan

Published: Monday, Dec. 6 2010 11:00 p.m. MST

The lives of, from left, Boyd K. Packer, Norton Nixon, Tatsui Sato, C. Elliott Richards and Chiyo Sato, with the Satos' son Yasuo in front, were brought together in Japan at the end of World War II.

Courtesy of C. Elliott Richards

SALT LAKE CITY — They wore dog tags, not name tags, and instead of white shirts and ties, they were recognizable by Army fatigues and dusty boots. As occupation troops in Japan after World War II, soldiers were tasked with evaluating the damage, beginning the rebuilding process and organizing the transport of soldiers going back home.

Yet, for LDS Army servicemen like C. Elliott Richards and now President Boyd K. Packer, their military experience became more like LDS missions as they dedicated themselves to teaching and testifying to former enemies about the love of Jesus Christ.

"If there is true love and understanding of our Heavenly Father's plan, then it doesn't matter what color people's skin is," said Richards, who since his Army days has served as an LDS mission president of the Philippines Cebu Mission, an LDS temple president of the Jordan River Utah Temple with his wife Margaret as matron, and still meets weekly around Salt Lake City for lunch with fellow LDS soldiers who served in Tokyo. "The souls of (Japanese) people are just as rich and inviting and needing as anyone else's."

During the war, Richards, a second lieutenant, trained troops in Oklahoma, Texas and Georgia, and was sent to Japan only after the war's end, for which he was grateful. Upon arriving at the 11th Replacement Depot, around 17 miles north of Narumi, (now called Midori-ku Nagoya-shi) the Salt-Lake-City boy found a group of LDS servicemen, including Ray Hanks, Mel Arnold and Reed Davis.

The men excitedly told him of an English-speaking Japanese man they'd met in a silk shop, then later in a tea shop.

When the three politely refused a warm drink of tea on the cold night stating they were Mormons, the Japanese man was intrigued, and invited them to his home to teach him more about their religion.

Richards immediately joined the LDS soldiers in their frequent gospel discussions with the Japanese man, Tatsui Sato, and his wife, Chiyo, and their 6-year-old son Yasuo. A 3-year-old daughter, Atsuko, had died during the war.

"And thus began for me, one of the most memorable experiences of my life," Richards said, quoting from his personal history. "I shall never forget my first night in their humble home, sitting on the floor with my feet under a quilt, absorbing heat from the single charcoal pot in the center of the room. It was cold and snowy outside, but inside we were all burning with the Spirit of the Lord."

The Satos learned quickly and even began holding Sunday School in their home with neighborhood children. Along with lessons, the U.S. soldiers often brought army rations for the Satos and their starving neighbors.

Richards remembers leaving the depot in March 1946 with a sad heart, knowing there was no one nearby to continue teaching the Satos. Yet he, and the other soldiers, continued to write letters, sharing their testimonies and encouraging them to keep praying and reading the Book of Mormon.

A few months later, Richards was in Tokyo at a Sunday meeting, when he became riveted by one of the speakers. After the meeting he introduced himself to Lt. Boyd K. Packer, who was also serving in Japan, and the two began studying the scriptures together. A few days after, Richards said he showed Lt. Packer the letters from Tatsui Sato.

"I always thank the Lord for my privilege of being informed of the true gospel," Sato wrote. "Being selected, out of, truly, scores of hundred thousand people as a believer or a seeker of the true Gospel, I am always looking for a chance to do some good work that would be nice before the Lord. I make it a rule to read the 'Joseph Smith Own Story' as it is my favorite story and I read it repeatedly and also I am reading the Articles of Faith which you left to me as your memorial book."

Lt. Packer was so impressed that he and Richards began praying that the Satos could be baptized.

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