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Mormons and Memorial Day

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Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the United States of America are people who are patriotic by nature. They love their country and many devote several years of their life serving in the different branches of the Armed Forces protecting and preserving that which they love. The service that they render is not merely out of duty and obligation, but rather they serve with a sense of honor and respect for the land and the freedoms that they cherish. Each patriotic holiday, such as Memorial Day is another opportunity for Latter-day Saints to celebrate their freedoms, as well as pay honor and tribute to the men and women who have served, and who now valiantly serve to defend those freedoms.

Mormon Helping Hands Give Memorial Day Service

Memorial day, observed the last Monday in May, was originally celebrated to honor Civil War casualties. For those who are members of the Frankfort Illinois Branch of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Memorial Day has a special significance, as it has become an annual tradition to clean off Civil War-era headstones at The Union Burial Society Cemetery in Frankfort, Illinois.

Historical records indicate that the pre-Civil War cemetery was established prior to the 1855 founding of Frankfort Township. The cemetery is located in a heavily wooded area and has about 35 headstones dated between 1848-1869, with more headstones being discovered each time brush is moved away. The cemetery had been neglected for several decades until a local volunteer effort began in the late 1990's.

In the summer of 1999, the Joliet Illinois Stake youth took on the neglected cemetery as a service project. The efforts to clear out branches and clean up the site after winter in order that the headstones can be clearly seen have been ongoing by both the members of the Frankfort Branch, as well as volunteers from the surrounding community ever since. According to the Will Cemetery website, The Union Burial Society Cemetery in Frankfort, Illinois is significant because it is one of the few resources available with the potential to provide information about the early settlement of Frankfort. On 18 November 1999, the cemetery was designated a Will County Historical Landmark.

Gail S. Halvorsen, a Mormon Military Legend

Mormons military

Not only do Latter-day Saints respect and pay honor to those who gave the last full measure of devotion fighting to keep America "the land of the free and the home of the brave" on Memorial Day, but they also honor and salute those who remain to tell their stories. Some have already served their tour of duty and have returned home. Still others remain on the front lines standing a vigilant watch by day and by night. Some of those who have donned the military uniform, in the past or in the present, and are deserving of a fitting tribute on this Memorial Day include the following. Colonel Gail S. Halvorsen was born 10 October 1920, in Salt Lake City, Utah. He is a retired career officer and command pilot in the United States Air Force. He was a former American pilot of C-47s and C-54s during the Berlin airlift, also known as "Operation Little Vittles" from 1948 to 1949. Colonel Halvorsen is most famous for being the original "Candy Bomber."

"Operation Little Vittles" actually began when Colonel Halvorsen started giving a few treats to children watching the planes from outside the Tempelhof base. Wanting to give more, and to help raise the morale of the children during the time of uncertainty and privation, he promised to drop more candy from his plane. Shortly before landing at the Tempelhof airport in the American sector of Berlin, Colonel Halvorsen would drop candy attached to parachutes to children below. This action soon sparked the interest of other crews who began doing the same, and thus the pilots were dubbed the name "the candy bombers." Because the planes would arrive every three minutes, there was no way for the children to distinguish Colonel Halvorsen's aircraft from the others, and so he promised to wiggle his wings to identify himself, and thus he earned the nickname "Onkel Wackelflügel" ("Uncle Wiggly Wings"). The other American "Candy Bombers" became known as the "Rosinenbombers" (Raisin Bombers). Halvorsen's initiative drew the attention of the operation's commanding officer, Lieutenant General William H. Turner, who approved of it and ordered it expanded into "Operation Little Vittles."

"Operation Little Vittles" was soon noticed by the press and gained widespread attention. Support from public donations enabled Colonel Halvorsen and his crew to drop 850 pounds of candy. By the end of the end of the Berlin airlift approximately 25 aircraft crews had dropped 23 tons of chocolate, chewing gum, and other candies over various areas in Berlin. The Confectioners Association of America also donated large amounts to the effort, and American school children helped by attaching the candies to parachutes.

Colonel Halvorsen filled several domestic and overseas assignments during the remainder of his Air Force career. In the early 1970's he returned to Germany in the capacity of Commnader of Tempelhof Air base in West Berlin. As Commander he was required to host official parties at his house, and being a devout member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he soon became famous for his non-alcoholic drinks that were served at those parties.

In 1995, Colonel Halvorsen, along with his wife Alta, served as missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in St. Petersburg, Russia, where their duties included training teachers and visiting institute classes, as well as working with Church youth groups. He and his wife also served as Mormon missionaries in London, England in the 1980s.

Colonel Gail S. Halvorsen has a lasting legacy. In 1974 he was decorated with the "Großes Bundesverdienstkreuz" (Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany), one of Germany's highest medals. On 8 February 2002, during the opening for the 2002 Winter Olympics, he carried the German team's national placard into Rice-Eccles Olympic Stadium. The United States Air Force has helped cement his airlift legacy by naming its next-generation, 25,000-pound capacity aircraft loading vehicle in his honor. The Air Force also named the award for outstanding air transportation support in the logistics readiness career field the Colonel Gail Halvorsen Award. His son, Robert, was an United States Air Force C-130 pilot and is currently a captain with Delta Air Lines. His grandson is currently serving in the Air Force Reserves as an LDS Chaplain at Hill Air Force Base in Utah. The Gail S. Halvorsen Elementary School at Rhein-Main Air Base in Frankfurt Germany was also named in his honor. Rhein-Main Air base has since closed. In 2008, he was honored as Grand Marshal of the German-American Steuben Parade in New York City. The United States military also modeled some of Colonel Halvorsen's actions while in Iraq by dropping toys, teddy bears, and soccer balls to Iraqi children. Colonel Halvorsen is also the author of the book The Berlin Candy Bomber which was published in 1990 by Horizon Publishers in Bountiful, Utah.

Larry James Chesley: Seven Years in Hanoi

Another Latter-day Saint who is worthy of a salute is Larry James Chesley, a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Air Force, and a returned P.O.W. Larry was born on 27 September 1938 to Verl R. Chesley and Susie Baugh Chesley in Burley, Idaho. He graduated from Burley High School in May 1956 and enlisted in the United States Air Force on 19 June 1956, and was trained as a teletype and crypto operator.

He began his career at Parks Air Force Base (AFB) in California. From there he was assigned to F.E. Warren AFB in Wyoming, and then to Scott Field in Illinois. In March 1957 he was sent to Shiroi AFB in Japan where he spent the next two years. While in Japan he served with the 6901st Security Wing. From Shiroi he was sent to Frankfurt, West Germany where he stayed until 1960 and served for almost two years with the 6900th Security Wing. He was honorably discharged on 14 June 1960 and enrolled in Weber State College in Ogden, Utah in September 1960. He remained in Reserve status while he completed college.

In October 1960 he married JoDene Neilson and their daughter, Debbie, was born in August 1961. He finished college in less than three years with a BS in History and Political Science. At that time he was working full time for Boeing (Minute Man Missile) at Hill AFB in Ogden, Utah. After graduating college with honors he decided to go back into the Air Force and went to Officer Training School (OTS) in November 1963 and graduated as a Distinguished Military Graduate (DMG).

His son Don was born in December 1963 while he was attending OTS. After receiving his commission on 4 February 1964, Lt. Chesley went to Webb AFB, Texas for Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) and earned his pilot wings in March 1965. From there he went to Davis Monthan AFB, Arizona for F-4 Phantom II Combat Crew Training. He graduated as the outstanding pilot of his class. While attending combat crew training he met Jim Elliot who became his Aircraft Commander (AC). The two of them went to Eglin AFB, Florida for two months. It was there that Jim was drafted to go to Southeast Asia, and so Lt. Chesley volunteered to go as well. The two of them went to Ubon Air Base, Thailand with a squadron from George AFB, California. They arrived on 16 December 1966. Lt. Chesley began flying combat missions with the 433rd Tactical Fighter Squadron in December 1965. On 16 April 1966, four months and 76 missions later, Lt. Chesley was forced to eject over North Vietnam and was taken as a Prisoner Of War. After 2,495 days in captivity, he was released during Operation Homecoming on 12 February 1973.

Of his experience as a prisoner of war, then Captain Chesley recounts:

Major Sam Johnson and I were on a "milk run" mission about 30 miles north of the DMZ. This started my long stay in North Vietnam-almost seven years. I was sick much of the time during those seven years. My illness was caused by my bout with beri beri from December 1966 to April 1967 which left me in such a weakened condition that I caught everything that came along. I lost approximately 60 pounds, leaving me weighing only 100 pounds. While in prison, I received news that my wife had remarried. Because I had not been allowed to write for four years, neither my wife nor my family knew I was alive. I received my first letter four and a half years after my shoot down. Though I was tortured, beaten, and generally mistreated, I was not treated as harshly as some of the others. ("We Came Home," 1977, Captain and Mrs. Frederic A Wyatt (USNR Ret), Barbara Powers Wyatt, Editor P.O.W. Publications, Toluca Lake, CA).

Of his Mormon faith he has said:

I am a Mormon and I believe deeply in my religion. It was one of the strengths I clung to during those dark days. I believe in a God who is like a Father, One who cares about His children. I had a patriarchal blessing when I was young (about 14) and it said that if I were ever called into war that no matter what would come or what would go, I would be returned to my loved ones. So I never doubted for a moment. I knew that I would come home someday. ("We Came Home," 1977, Captain and Mrs. Frederic A Wyatt (USNR Ret), Barbara Powers Wyatt, Editor P.O.W. Publications, Toluca Lake, CA).

Lieutenant Colonel Larry James Chesley retired from the United States Air Force on 1 January 1982. He is the author of the book Seven Years in Hanoi which was published in 1973. He served as a State Senator in Arizona from 193 to 1997. He and his wife Judy have raised nine children and they have 29 grandchildren. He and his wife currently reside in Arizona.

Mormons Honor their Deceased Heroes on Memorial Day

There are no doubt a myriad of other brave individuals who have honorably served their country and are deserving of a salute and a thank you from all Americans for their loyalty and service to this great nation. Story after endless story can be told about such heroes as Colonel Bernard F. Fisher (USAF, retired) who was an A-1E pilot during the Vietnam War. During a run over the A-Shau Valley on 10 Mar 1966, supporting the ground based Special Forces, enemy resistance shot down his wingman, Major Wayne Myers. Without time to get aid, Major Fisher landed his plane on an all-but-destroyed airstrip, picked up his wingman, and flew him to safety. In total, nineteen bullet holes were found on his plane. On 19 June 1967 he was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Lyndon B. Johnson for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.

By day and by night, by land, air, and sea, men and women of the past and still at this very hour don the military uniform with pride. They tirelessly stand vigilant watches to ensure that the shores of this great nation remain safe from any harm or threat. To all of those who have served and are now serving, the Latin phrase, "Semper fidelis. Fidelis Deus terram et cognationem" (Always faithful. Faithful to God, country, and family) is befitting of them all.

A website, Saints at War.org, honors Mormons who have served their country as soldiers.

Additional Resources