It was a simple gesture.
During World War II, LDS chaplain Reuben E. Curtis helped establish a cemetery for American servicemen in an area on Attu, Aleutian Islands, called Little Falls. He arranged for a photograph to be taken of the cemetery's location and sent it with a letter to the soldier's next of kin. Several families responded with heartfelt gratitude.
"I received my picture of the Little Falls Cemetery, where my son's body lies. I have thought so many times if I could only have a picture of the place, never dreaming I would ever get one. These things help so much," one parent wrote and is part of a compilation at scholarsarchive.byu.edu.
"I did not know that anyone ever thought to do things like this for those who lost their dear ones in service far from home," another parent wrote. "You make it seem as though I have the whole army backing and sort of helping me to carry on."
Curtis' kind act is just one example of how chaplains who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have played a special role in helping soldiers and their families cope with death and other aspects of war. In commemoration of Memorial Day, we remember these chaplains for their honorable service in the United States Armed Forces over the last 125 years.
Elias S. Kimball, younger brother to J. Golden Kimball, was serving as president of the Southern States Mission in Tennessee when he received a letter from LDS Church Headquarters. He was released as mission president and immediately called to be the first full commissioned chaplain during the Spanish-American War. His service helped open a new door for the LDS Church — Latter-day Saint chaplains, according to the 2007 book, "Nineteenth-Century Saints at War."
Three LDS chaplains served in World War I, including Herbert Maw, who later served as Utah's governor; B.H. Roberts, a general authority; and Calvin S. Smith, a son of President Joseph F. Smith. An exhibit on the BYU Library website at exhibits.lib.byu.edu, features photos, information and a recorded interview with Maw. Some of their experiences have been documented in a BYU Religious Studies Center article by Kenneth L. Alford.
Pictured is the headstone of Stanford Hinckley, half-brother to LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley. He died just before the end of World War I. LDS chaplain B.H. Roberts attended to Stanford Hinckley in his final hours. | Provided by Robert Freeman
Roberts, who served as a chaplain at the age of 60, ministered to many soldiers afflicted by the flu during the 1918 outbreak, including Stanford Hinckley, the half-brother of future LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley.
Stanford Hinckley contracted the flu and died just weeks before the end of the war. He was buried near Paris, France. In his final hours, he was attended to by chaplain Roberts, according to "Saints at War: Inspiring Stories of Courage and Valor."
Approximately 45 LDS chaplains served during World War II. Among their duties, chaplains cared for the spiritual needs of members, conducted services and funerals, visited the sick or injured, sought to uplift the morale of the men, corresponded with families to locate soldiers, and when possible, dedicated the graves of those who died in battle.
Chaplain Curtis served in Attu, Kwajalein, the Philippines and Okinawa, according to a master's thesis by Richard T. Maher, which online at scholarsarchive.byu.edu and includes the ab. In Attu, Curtis climbed a mountain to recover the body of an aviator who had crashed. Unable to get the body down the steep slope, he dug a grave on the hillside, sang a hymn and held a simple graveside service.
"I could see in every direction and all seemed so peaceful and beautiful that I could hardly bring myself to believe the distant roar was anything but thunder and the flashes of fire anything but lightning," Curtis said.
Chaplain Capt. Reed G. Probst served in Australia, Biak, New Guinea and the Philippines. While at Biak Island on June 8, 1944, Probst risked his life on the battlefield and was awarded the Silver Star. His citation, found in "Saints: at War: Experiences of Latter-day Saints in World War II," reads:
"With severe artillery fire bursting all around him, chaplain Probst stood in the open without protection and calmly conducted, in a normal manner, funeral services for soldiers killed in action. While the area around the beachhead was smothered with fire, chaplain Probst moved about without regard for his safety giving aid and assistance to the wounded. Throughout the battle he never stopped his work among the dead and wounded except when there were none to care for. This inspiring display of courage won him the admiration and respect of the officers and enlisted men of the regiment in which he serves."
Chaplain Vernon A. Cooley served in North Africa and Italy. His correspondence with American families during the war is accessible in the LDS Church History Library. Cooley diligently sought to speak comfort and healing to each family upon news of their loved one's death, as shown by his letters.
Silhouetted in the golden glory of a Pacific sunrise, crosses mark the graves of Americans who gave their lives to win a small atoll on the road to the Philippines. A Coast Guardsman stands in silent reverence beside the resting place of a comrade in 1944. | Courtesy of National Archives
One letter, dated Aug. 12, 1944, was sent to the widow in Utah mourning the loss of her husband.
"Frank’s attitude towards death was one of the most wholesome that I have ever experienced. He had no fear of what lay beyond. He wanted to live to return to you and your fine child but often said that if he were called upon to make the supreme sacrifice, that he would be unafraid ... because he knew that you too, would be unafraid. His feeling was that this is but a small part of eternity and that a few short years of separation in a world that is endless was a small sacrifice when one was loved as he was loved, and when one loved as he loved," Cooley wrote.
"You have this satisfaction which should be your most priceless possession — that Frank is yours for all time to come and that your love will be sanctified and even refined by the sacrifice of your present separation. God Bless you and give you courage to live for two, sincerely your brother, Vernon A. Cooley."
Another letter, dated Nov. 23, 1944, was written to the mother of a soldier in San Diego.
"We have received an answer to your inquiry concerning your son. His body was recovered and he now rests in a nicely kept American cemetery near the spot he was killed. Chaplain Eldin Ricks made a trip to this cemetery some time ago and dedicated quite a number of the LDS boys graves," Cooley wrote.
"I cannot hope to take away any of your sorrow with this information. It may give you some comfort and satisfaction. By this time you have made the adjustment which gives you strength to continue in the face of your loss," Cooley continued. "Time may heal the wound, but time will not replace that hope that you will yet see him. Your faith has given you a haven in this storm and your master will give you rest."
Upon learning of her son's death, a mother from Layton, Utah, wrote to Cooley saying she would "feel so much better" if he could dedicate his grave. Cooley responded on Feb. 9, 1945.
"We were able, yesterday, to visit the cemetery where the body of your son is buried. We located his grave and dedicated it, along with other LDS boys' graves who are also in that cemetery," Cooley wrote. "The cemetery is a nicely located one and is in the process of being beautified. The burial of soldiers there is as elaborate as those at home, in a time when so many thousands of young men are left to die and their bodies never recovered from some unknown spot. Ned has been well cared for. ... God bless and comfort you always, and may you know that Ned still lives."
In another letter to Elder Harold B. Lee, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Cooley detailed efforts by chaplains dedicate other graves belonging to LDS soldiers.
"It is our heartfelt hope and prayer that they and many others have not sacrificed life in vain. In the present world-wide battles there have been some of our servicemen lost who were perhaps far more worthy than many of us who remain alive."