[We have recently shared thoughts regarding missionary evacuations, or at least the preparation for them. Steve C sends this report of a time when missionaries were indeed evacuated, from Europe, at the beginning of World War II. Steve C's report will be followed in a few days by the stories of some of the individual missionaries who successfully -- and dramatically -- reached the safety of neutral countries.]


In the late 1930s war loomed across Europe. In March, 1938, Hitler annexed Austria. In June, M. Douglas Wood took over as mission president of the West German mission. Shortly after Wood’s arrival, J. Reuben Clark, visiting Berlin, met with the German mission presidents; [1] they began drafting contingency plans to evacuate missionaries from Germany in the event of war. Commenting on the irony, Wood stated, “We were just going to our assignment and we were all pepped-up to get excited about starting our mission and here we were trying to find ways to get out.” [2]

In September mission leaders implemented evacuation plans as Hitler threatened war with Czechoslovakia over the Sudetenland. On 13 September, Clark, who had returned to the USA, telegraphed President Alfred C. Rees of the East German mission and ordered the evacuation of the American missionaries to neutral countries—Denmark, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. [3] The American missionaries in both the East and West German missions departed for neutral countries while native Germans took over local Church leadership. [4] In both missions Presidents Rees and Wood appointed “acting mission presidents” in their absence. [5] For the first time since World War I, there was no American leadership among the Mormons in Germany.

On 30 September, the Munich Accord resolved the conflict peacefully in Germany’s favor and within two weeks, the American missionaries returned. Much to their surprise, problems had developed within the German Church. Mission records state that “many details had to be straightened out.” [6] Mission officials found that several newly appointed branch presidents took tithing donations as “payment” for services rendered. They also found cases where women administered the sacrament and participated in other “priesthood functions.” [7] It was obvious to Church leaders that a future evacuation was possible, if not probable. Therefore, the mission presidents began to prepare and train German members for such an eventuality. [8] For the next ten months, both missions prepared instructions and lessons for native Germans so they could take over the leadership functions in the event of another evacuation. [9]

Many German Mormons thought the evacuation in 1938 was a “false alarm.” [10] Other circulated rumors that the Church was planning to evacuate the German Latter-day Saints to America via airships and boats from locations in Switzerland and Hamburg. This hope, however, would lead to disappointment the next year when the Church permanently withdrew the Americans at the beginning of World War II.


During the spring and summer of 1939, Hitler continued to threaten the peace of Europe. War seemed likely as the Führer turned his attention toward Poland. The tension was palpable. [11] Many within the LDS community had a sense of foreboding. [12]

As the war clouds grew, Church members felt a sense of urgency in their work. Mission leaders accelerated efforts to assemble lesson and training manuals for German Mormons to take control of Church affairs. [13] In the late spring, the West German mission held a mission-wide conference in Frankfurt to strengthen the Saints. [14] At the conference there was a feeling of foreboding and concern about the future. [15]

In Salt Lake City, J. Reuben Clark intensely monitored events in Germany. [16] In July, the First Presidency decided not to send additional missionaries to Germany for fear that if war did break out the Nazis might inter the missionaries in concentration camps. [17] Furthermore, they dispatched Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith to Europe to assess the situation first hand. [18] As tensions between Germany and Poland intensified in August, many German and American Mormons expected another withdrawal of the American missionaries.

The answer came on 24 August 1939 when the First Presidency, having consulted with the State Department and fearing the safety of the American missionaries, ordered another evacuation. [19] Clark sent instructions through the State Department for missionaries to “proceed to neutral countries to await return to [the] United States.” [20] The order came as mobilization of the German armed forces was in full swing. Those in the East German mission successfully fled to Denmark without incident. The West German mission contingent, however, faced greater difficulties. [21] Despite official assurances to Wood, the Dutch government soon closed its borders with Germany, stranding many American missionaries in the Reich. (Some did manage to cross the border and make it to Rotterdam before the closure.) After enduring many difficulties, including insufficient funds and problems securing transportation on non-military trains, the last of the American missionaries from the West German mission entered Denmark early on 29 August. [22]

On 1 September 1939, Hitler invaded Poland, triggering the Second World War. During the next two months, the Church evacuated its American missionaries and personnel from continental Europe. After years under American guidance it was now up to the Germans Mormons to hold the Church together in Hitler’s Reich.

[1]  In attendance at the meeting were Wood and Rees, Franklin Murdock of the Netherlands Mission, Mark Garff of the Denmark Mission, Thomas McKay from the Swiss-Austrian mission and Wallace Toronto of the Czechoslovakia mission. “East German MSS History,” entry for 24 June 1938.
[2]  Wood, Oral History, 2.
[3]  Telegram from Cordell Hull to U. S. Embassy in Berlin, 13 September 1938, U. S. State Department Document, 362.116.M82/49A, National Archives. The telegram stated: “Pending developments wish you to move missionaries into Denmark and Holland. Please notify Wood same. Effect immediately. Signed First Presidency.” See also, “East German MSS History,” entry for 14 September 1938; “West German MSS History,” entry for 14 September 1938; Quinn, 80.
[4]  All the missionaries from the East German mission evacuated to Copenhagen. 24 missionaries from the West German mission who were closer to Denmark than to the Netherlands, also evacuated to Copenhagen. The rest of the West German missionary force went to Rotterdam. See “West German MSS History,” entry for 14 September 1938.
[5]  “West German MSS History,” entries for 14 and 16 September 1938; Petty, Oral History, 33.
[6]  “West German MSS History,” entry for 4 October 1938.
[7]  Petty, Oral History, 34.
[8]  Scharffs, Mormonism in Germany, 91.
[9]  Wood, Oral History, 10-11. In the months preceding the outbreak of World War II, Evelyn Wood worked 30 hours a week compiling lesson material and training manuals to leave for the German Mormons if and when the Americans were evacuated again.
[10]  Scharffs, Mormonism in Germany, 92.
[11]  Letter from Erma Rosenhan to J. Richard Barnes, 19 February 1985, J. Richard Barnes Papers, in custody of Mrs. Afton Barnes, Littleton, Colorado, copy in author’s possession.
[12]  Dahl Oral Interview, 27.
[13]  Scharffs, Mormonism in Germany, 91; Wood Oral History, 11.
[14]  “West German MSS History,” entry for Saturday 27 May and Monday 29 May 1939.
[15]  Dahl, Oral Interview, 27.
[16]  Scharffs, Mormonism in Germany, 91; Quinn, 80-81; Van Orden, 138.
[17]  Quinn, 80-81.
[18]  Scharffs, Mormonism in Germany, 92.
[19]  Scharffs, Mormonism in Germany, 91; Quinn, 81; Van Orden, 138.
[20]  See documents relating to evacuation in U. S. State Department Documents, 362.116.M82/51-60, National Archives.
[21]  For a detailed account of the evacuation of the West German mission, see Terry Bohle Montague, Mine Angels Round About: Mormon Mission Evacuation from Western Germany 1939, (Murray, Utah: Roylance Publishing, 1989).
[22] Ibid., 84.

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