During World War II, the German air force constructed a prison camp consisting of three compounds to house enemy air force personnel shot down over Germany. Situated in eastern Germany near a town called Sagan, it was a bleak and somber place. They called it Stalag Luft Three.
In October 1943 a fourth compound, called the south compound, was added to the camp. Between five and six hundred American prisoners were gathered from among the other compounds and moved into the south compound when it was completed; among them were seven known members of the Church. The camp’s stark barracks were a grim place to hold a church meeting, but the tiny group of Latter-day Saint prisoners had no other place to gather. They began to meet informally immediately upon their arrival in the south compound, and soon determined to strengthen their numbers and prepare for a more formal meeting schedule in the future.
William E. McKell had arrived at Stalag Luft Three in June and was one of the Americans moved to the South Compound in October. One of his first acts as a prisoner was to take one of his allotted three postcards per month and write to Max Zimmer, president of the Swiss Mission. He briefly explained their situation in camp and requested that Church literature be sent to the group.
Bill McKell’s father had died when Bill was in his mid-teens, and the financial burdens of helping the family had precluded his going on a full-time mission. Now, as he moved around camp among the LDS prisoners, a genuine sense of mission filled him. Here was a need to get things organized, to comfort, to spiritually enhance the lives of others. He had found his mission.
7 November 1943 was a red-letter day for the little group of Latter-day Saints—the day of their first formal camp meeting. By this time they had located a total of thirteen LDS prisoners, all of whom were present. They discussed the group’s organization and government, then elected officers and sustained them. The presiding elder chosen was William E. McKell, with Bud H. Hinckley as first counselor and Homer P. Anderson as second counselor. David Farrell was appointed group secretary.
The first item of business was the nature of the weekly meeting they would hold. They decided that it would be an evening meeting, similar to a fireside, with a weekly lesson taught by different individuals on a rotating basis. The sacrament would be passed. Each of these men had known the threat of imminent death as they had been shot down, and all were now enthusiastic for a meaningful life in camp.
The strains of confinement and inactivity were very real at Stalag Luft Three, and some prisoners suffered psychological problems brought on by the difficulties of camp life. The LDS prisoners were more fortunate than most in this respect, however. With block teaching, lesson preparations, and various other activities, they were kept “anxiously engaged” in good works. This prevented the stresses of camp life from having severely debilitating effects on them.
There was one primary activity among all prisoners. They felt that their major contribution to the war would be to tie up the time of as many guards as possible by continually attempting to escape. A permanent “escape committee” had been formed, and all plans were cleared through them. When a plan was approved, the necessary volunteers were recruited to carry the plan forward. The LDS prisoners took part in this effort, although none participated in an actual escape. Frequently they acted as lookouts or carried dirt from the tunneling activities.
An early concern was the sacrament. The standard bread they received as rations was German black bread. While they recognized that they could have used this bread, the LDS group decided instead to save the Canadian crackers that came with the food parcels. Occasionally, too, prisoners who went on sick call were issued French bread, which was saved and used for the sacrament.
Although the first “fireside” meeting brought five visitors and one previously unknown member of the Church, only nine of the original thirteen men appeared. The group turned their attention to determining why the attendance had dropped off. They concluded that it was due to the newness of the meetings and the length of time since some of the men had had contact with the Church. It was agreed that for a time they would partake of the sacrament only once a month, and would focus their lessons on the Book of Mormon.
The second meeting went much better. The “branch” leadership had obtained permission to announce their meetings at daily roll call. As a result, two more members appeared. Absenteeism at this meeting was down to two, and there were nine or ten visitors.
As the group grew and progressed, many of the men wrote home with instructions on how to send books through the Red Cross. As time went on, they managed to accumulate quite a Church library.
One favorite pastime for the prisoners was “walking the circuit.” There was a single strand of barbed wire about fifteen feet inside the first of two twelve-foot-high barbed wire fences enclosing the compound. That wire marked “no man’s land”; you could walk along it, but not step over it. Prisoners were allowed to walk around the camp inside the wire, although they could not stop or congregate. As the prisoners approached the sides that were close to adjoining compounds, they could talk across the wire to people in the other areas. Since they could not stop, it was often necessary for both men to walk all around the camps before completing their conversation. For the LDS prisoners, it brought them another member.
Leo Frazier had wound up in the predominantly British compound. He was from Oakley, Utah, and once the LDS group found out about him, they began the procedures to get him into their compound. By February of 1944 he had joined the group and was fully participating in group activities.
Patterns now began to develop for the little group. A representative always went to the gate when new prisoners arrived at camp, looking for LDS arrivals and news of the war. The Germans frequently made newspapers available to the prisoners, but the news was not regarded as reliable.
At the weekly meetings, Marion F. Barnhill served as “singing director.” Brother Barnhill’s “choir” usually consisted of everyone present. The men were genuinely interested in learning and mastering as many hymns as they could, and hymnals from home allowed them wide selection.
Meetings were open to all and had significant value as a missionary tool. The group enjoyed the company of Lt. Harold W. Porter, who was not then a Latter-day Saint. Brother Porter had been interested in the Church before joining the armed forces, and when the group began to function he readily joined in, taking an active part in teaching some of the lessons. Brother Porter joined the Church upon his return home.
Eventually a recreation hall was completed in the southwest corner of the south compound. It even sported such niceties as a blackboard, and the group made arrangements to meet there each Sunday evening. During the winter they met in the afternoons, apparently to take advantage of the sun’s warmth, since heating the hall was a problem. The barracks were heated by burning bricks of pressed coal dust supplied by the Germans. There was never an abundance of these bricks.
The heating problem had a unique resolution. It seems that in their haste to construct the facility, the Germans had left in the ground any tree stumps that did not directly affect the building of the barracks. As winter set in, the camp’s senior officer proposed that the Germans supply the prisoners tools so that they could remove and use the stumps to supplement their allotment of coal-dust bricks. The escape-conscious Germans were very hesitant about giving such tools to the prisoners, and insisted on stringent regulations. But the prisoners were happy to comply, since it materially aided them during the severe winter.
As the Latter-day Saints began to use the hall for meetings, they applied to the camp’s senior officer for an assignment of stumps to help them warm their meetings. His affirmative reply provided the group with its first welfare project!
By April 1944, the group had completed its study of the Book of Mormon. Since that coincided with April conference, the group decided they should sustain their own group of officers. Each was unanimously sustained and no changes were made in the leadership. It was also decided that the first Sunday of the month should be a sacrament meeting with a short sermon rather than a lesson. This meeting quickly became a fast and testimony meeting. Even far from freedom, the men could testify of God’s influence in their lives.
The lessons now followed other texts that were arriving in almost monthly book parcels. A study of Evidences and Reconciliations by Elder John A. Widtsoe or discussions of the meaning of the Articles of Faith kept the men mentally active. The book parcel system was going so well that by June of 1944 the group had received the Improvement Era with President Heber J. Grant’s April conference address in it. It was promptly made the subject of the following Sunday’s lesson.
As time passed and things went poorly for Germany, an odd situation developed. The Red Cross food parcels were bringing in items that the German guards could no longer obtain, and they bartered secretly with prisoners to get favorite food items. Through careful trading the prisoners were able to construct a small radio with which they could receive broadcasts from England. While the location of the radio was guarded, the news it brought into camp was quickly shared and helped to maintain morale.
On 15 October 1944, presiding elder Bill McKell reminded the group that their leaders had been in office for almost a year and suggested that they consider a change of officers. Three weeks later the group unanimously selected Marion F. Barnhill as presiding elder, with Parley Madsen as first counselor and Frank D. Bailey as second counselor. David Farrell was retained as group secretary, and Bill McKell was selected as choirmaster.
It had been a very eventful year. They had started with seven members; now there were twenty-four. Attendance had been about 72 percent for the year with four brethren not missing a single meeting. An excellent library had been obtained. Communications had been established with Church leaders outside the war zone. Several serious investigators had appeared. Even under adverse conditions, the Church had helped the lives of its members.
Brother Hal Gunn was called to head a committee which was to create a book of remembrance for this experience. Brother Gunn had skill as an artist; and, although there always seemed to be a shortage of paper, he was charged with preserving material of both a religious and cultural nature from Stalag Luft Three.
In the beginning of December, as yet another Christmas approached, Bill McKell gave a thought-provoking lesson on the spirit world, using the men’s current situation as an example. Just as the residents of the spirit world had to wait for the help of others, he explained that these men far from home were dependent on others to do work to free them. Such waiting is difficult wherever it is done, no matter who is doing the waiting. Little did they know that the nature of their wait would soon change dramatically.
Saturday, 27 January 1945, was an unforgettable day. At 8:10 P.M. the camp exploded into frenzied activity as the guards announced that the camp would be evacuated in thirty minutes! Although such contingencies had been discussed, no one had taken them seriously. The various compounds now held about ten thousand prisoners, and moving them in the dead of winter, over unsheltered terrain, seemed unthinkable. But the order stood, and there was precious little time to get anything organized.
The LDS prisoners were faced with abandoning most of their library. They struggled to ensure that everyone took something different; but since the books would have to be carried along with food and clothing, few could be accommodated.
The camp set march about 9:45 P.M. They tramped through freshly fallen snow, the temperature registering -24 degrees Centigrade, until 3:30 A.M. when a halt was called. The stop was in a barren field with no fires permitted. All the prisoners were severely chilled and weakened.
The next few days were a blur of unheated barns and buildings, scanty rations, and paralyzing cold. When the prisoners finally arrived at the railroad, they were herded into railroad cars designed for forty men—fifty-one men to a car, with no heat and little ventilation. Lying down was impossible and sitting was accomplished with great difficulty, so the men spent three days and two nights standing in the box cars. The trip was a grim chronicle of endurance and survival.
The camp was being moved to Stalag Seven, about twenty-five miles north of Munich, just outside the little town of Moosberg. Although the prisoners were never told why the move took place, they speculated that the Germans wanted to detain them for negotiating with the Allies as the war wound to a close. Had they stayed in Sagan, the camp would have undoubtedly been captured by the Russians.
It was a month before the little LDS branch could hold another meeting, since the members had been scattered through several compounds. This time there was no recreation hall to meet in. The text the group had been using was left in Sagan, so another was used. By the end of March, conditions in the camp were so overcrowded that the group had to meet on a sports field and hold open-air meetings. Many new members from other camps appeared and joined in. Brief sermons and short lessons marked these meetings.
The sounds of war told of the approach of the Allied armies. On 29 April 1945 the prisoners’ attention was drawn toward the town of Moosberg. The top of the town hall was visible from camp; and as the awestruck prisoners looked on, the Nazi swastika was pulled down from the flagpole. With feelings far beyond expression, the prisoners watched as an American flag was raised. Tears of joy flowed freely in the compound. Some there had been captured at Dunkirk, some during the raid on Dieppe.
That afternoon, the gates of the camp swung open. A Sherman tank of the United States Army roared into the compound. It was quickly engulfed in prisoners. A short time later, resplendent in dress uniform, General George S. Patton visited the camp. Freedom had come to claim her own.