The unknown and almost forgotten story of the construction of the first house of worship of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Italy.
History books are filled with the narration of the events which took place on Italian soil during the second World War. Sixty years after the cessation of war operations in Italy, many events, both great and small, are still part of the memories of the "Great War Generation" and their descendants. They are dramatic memories of death and suffering, as well as more comforting memories of rediscovered hope, determination and rebirth.
Worth mentioning, among the latter, is a story which took place on the Italian island of Sardinia in 1944. It is a little story about an equally little building of tile and bricks which in fact became the first chapel of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Italy.
Although the existence of this little chapel and the story of its builders is very important in the historical context of the church, they went virtually unnoticed for many years, and risked being forever forgotten.
The Liberation of Italy
A brief overview of the greater events of W. W. II's "Italian Campaign" will help to place this little story in its proper context.
On July 10, 1943, the U.S. VII army, under the command of General George S. Patton and the British VIII army, lead by General sir Bernard L. Montgomery, landed on the Italian island of Sicily. The invasion was known under the code name "Operation HUSKY".
On September 3, 1943, while the British troops advanced in Calabria, an armistice between Italy and the Anglo-Americans was signed at Cassibile, in the province of Syracuse. News of the armistice was officially broadcasted on Italian radio at 7.45 P.M. on September 8.
On the morning of September 9, the Anglo-Americans landed in Salerno, while the Germans carried out their plans of military occupation of Italy. From this moment on, the allied troops, side-by-side with the Italian anti-fascist forces, engaged in the liberation of Italy from German military control.
On October 1, 1943, the Allies entered Naples.
On October 11, in the name of the legitimate Italian Government, Marshall Pietro Badoglio announced a state of war against Nazi- Germany , effective October 13.
The landing in Sicily, as well the one in Salerno, and the advancing of the troops up to Naples were all supported by the Anglo- American air-forces. Among the protagonists of these operations were the 320th, 319th and 17th Bomber Groups of the United States of America Air-Force (USAAF).
These groups, equipped with Martin B-26 "Marauder" bombers, were previously stationed in Tunisia, and were transferred, in November 1943, to airfields located in the province of Cagliari. The 17th group was stationed at the field in Trunconi, (near Villacidro) while the 319th and 320th went to Decimomannu (near Villasor).
The field of Decimomannu comprised a village made of tents situated among cactus plants and olive trees. An immense expanse of flat dirt allowed six B-26 bombers to comfortably take off and land in parallel formation. This peculiarity earned the base the nickname of "Col. Randy's Flying Circus".
Some Latter-day Saint servicemen from these airfields, tried to gather together to find comfort in the exercise of their common faith. Gathering, however, wasn't an easy endeavor, considering the logistics of the ongoing war operations.
In the beginning of 1944 (most likely after the Anglo-American landing at Anzio and Nettuno, which took place on January 22), some LDS aviators stationed at "Decimo" and "Trunconi" started holding regular meetings inside the chaplain's tent. Here they began plans to build their own little meeting house, with the help of some local stone masons.
An article, appearing in the "Church News," on May 20, 1944, listed excerpts of several letters, written by Lieutenant Marvel F. Andersen, and addressed to the L.D.S. Servicemen Home Office in Salt Lake City.
The excerpts read as follows:
Spreading "The Good News"
A news bulletin on the construction of the chapel was spread by the Acme Press Agency, which characterized it as, "The first of its kind in Sardinia, and probably the only Mormon gathering place in this theater of operation".
Besides the "Church News" article, another article and a picture of the chapel appeared on the back cover of the June 1944 issue of the magazine "The Instructor".
A picture and more details on the construction of the chapel were provided by (then) Captain "O.K." Earl (the same man who played the portable organ) in his books "The Thunderbird goes to War" and "For the Good Times".
In the chapter entitled "Our Chapel at Decimo," found in the latter book, (yet to be published) Captain Earl wrote:
"Each week everyone was issued cigarette rations, beer rations and, if available, some candy or other goodies. We usually gave the contra- Word of Wisdom items to friends, but then in January 1944, we had the bright idea of using them to build an LDS chapel down at Decimo where the 319th and 320th were located. We got permission for a particular location and then traded our cigarettes and beer rations in return for labor, brick, mortar and a tile roof. When the building, which was probably 12 x 20 feet in size, was completed in April 1944, I invited LDS Chaplain Eldin Ricks to come over from Naples on our B-26's and dedicate the chapel. He did so and we had a large turnout of LDS servicemen from the three groups for the dedication. We used it for our services from then until we moved to Corsica."Witnesses
In a March 24, 2005 interview with former Staff Sergeant Wiford A. Coon a few more details on the construction of the chapel surfaced:
"They found a brick yard. It was stacked with bricks. They used to ship a lot of it across the channel to the mainland of Italy, but during the war it was too dangerous to ship. They were sinking everything! So, they had a real big stack of it. We found out we could buy it real cheap... for cigarettes. We had an allotment of cigarettes which we traded for bricks and work. And those men built us a building for a carton of cigarettes... They also built us a nice mess-hall, down there, and then at night we had shows, [movies] down there...Some more memories of the chapel at Decimo are also preserved in the journal pages of former Staff Sargent Alfred K. Knutson who, at the time was 26 years old and a recent convert to the Church.
The April 2, 1944 date is of particular relevance among these pages, since it was the day that Chaplain Eldin Ricks officially dedicated the chapel and called Knutson to be the group leader for that zone.
In a letter dated April 4, 1944, and addressed to circa 650 LDS soldiers stationed in Italy and North Africa, Chaplain Ricks wrote, in part:
"Good news came unexpectedly from Sardinia a few days ago in the form of an invitation to dedicate a chapel that the small group of L.D.S. men on the island have just finished building. It is an attractive little stucco type structure with a tile roof, cement floor, a seating capacity of about twenty-five, a gasoline stove, and electric lights. In the States it would, perhaps [...] thoroughfare of any of our western cities. They finished it by contributing from the group and by pooling their cigarette rations which, they explained, seemed to have a most remarkable buying power. They are to be congratulated for their resourcefulness and faith and also for building what probably is the first permanent L.D.S. chapel in Italy. My personal appreciation goes as well to Captain Ken Earl who made all the arrangements for transportation by automobile and by air and showed me a very delightful two day stay on the island."The small chapel, located alongside the airport's runway, besides representing a distinctive building of the military base, became a point of reference for Church members and sympathizers alike.
On July 24, 1944, the Decimo congregation, along with many other LDS servicemen spread along the Mediterranean region, travelled to Foggia to participate in an historic first area conference.
Following the steady northward advance of the Allied troops, on September 23, 1944, the Anglo-American air-forces left the Sardinian bases to relocate at Alto, Poretta and other airfields just south of Bastia on the northeast coast of Corsica.
After only five months from its dedication, the little church building was abandoned to the inclemency of weather and other circumstances. As of today, no one knows what happened to it after it was left behind.
Today, Decimomannu is one of the most important NATO bases of the Mediterranean area. A four-lane road leading to the entrance of the base covers the area where the first Mormon chapel in Italy was located.
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