Elder Ezra Taft Benson's Incredible Experiences in Postwar Europe
Elder Ezra Taft Benson’s Incredible Experiences in Postwar Europe
Reviewed by Larry E. Morris
CFI (Cedar Fort,
Incorporated) has done a great service by reprinting this outstanding book,
which was originally published by Bookcraft in 1972.
The author, Frederick Babbel, accompanied Elder Ezra
Taft Benson on a mission to war-ravaged Europe early in 1946, just months after
the end of World War II. Drawing largely on his diary entries, Brother Babbel produced an inspiring and compelling book.
As Sheri Dew writes in her biography of President Benson,
Three days before Christmas 1945, President George Albert
Smith convened a special meeting of the First Presidency and Council of the
Twelve. With World War II over, it was necessary to
reestablish contact with the Saints in Europe and distribute much-needed
welfare supplies, he said, and the First Presidency had determined that a
member of the Twelve should go to Europe for an undetermined length of time to
supervise this delicate assignment.
forty-six-year-old Ezra Taft Benson had been an apostle for only two years and
had the largest and youngest family of anyone in the Twelve, he received the
call to preside over the European Mission. Frederick W. Babbel,
a young married man who had served in the German-Austrian mission from 1936 to
1939, and who had then served in the U.S. armed forces, was called as secretary
to President Benson.
“Before President Benson and I left for this mission in
Europe,” Babbel writes, “we had been set
apart and given special blessings by the First Presidency” (p. 15). In
addition, the First Presidency—George Albert Smith and his counselors, J.
Reuben Clark Jr. and David O. McKay—had promised President Benson in his
letter of appointment that “your influence [will] be felt for good by all
you come in contact with, and . . . you and they [will] be made to feel that
there is a power and spirit accompanying you not of man” (p. 43).
Throughout the book, the author offers moving descriptions of how this promise
was fulfilled. Although he and President Benson faced seemingly insurmountable
obstacles in attempting to visit the Saints so soon after the war, a special
spirit accompanied them. As one Latter-day Saint chaplain noted, “President
Benson, you have more influence, more power and authority with government
officials, than any general in the United States Army!” Babbel adds that he “certainly felt to concur with
this remark. With each passing day the evidence continued to mount and assure
us that the Lord was truly with this dedicated servant and his watchcare was over us daily” (pp. 9–10).
President Benson and Brother Babbel’s experiences with two American army officers illustrated how blessed they were
in their callings. In Paris they called on a colonel and explained that they
wished to visit the Saints in Germany, reviewing with the colonel “our
projected itinerary for traveling through all the four military zones in
Germany and Austria as well as making a trip into Czechoslovakia.”
The colonel was astonished. “Mr. Benson, are you crazy?”
he exclaimed. “Don’t you realize there has been a war here and that to
civilian travelers have been permitted to enter these military areas
to conduct the kind of work you suggest?” (p. 26,
emphasis added). The colonel further announced that the military had no
provisions for taking care of visitors and that all food, accommodations, and
travel facilities were restricted for military use.
In an attitude that was typical during his service in
Europe, President Benson was neither deterred nor discouraged. He “quietly
asked whether or not permission might be granted if we could purchase a car to
make the trip.” The colonel replied that such a thing was simply not
possible because of an acute shortage of automobiles. Furthermore, no gasoline
was being made available to civilians in Germany.
“After the colonel had made several other incredulous
outbursts, President Benson asked: ‘If I could arrange for transportation,
food, and military permission, do you think we might make it?'”
The exasperated colonel could hardly contain himself. “If
all those things could be arranged, you might get into the American Zone, but
to arrange for these things is impossible!”
Thinking he had seen the last of Ezra Taft Benson, the
colonel sent the men on their way. But in another response that also proved
typical, President Benson said, “Let’s get busy!” (pp.
26–27). Get busy they did, and before the day even ended they had
purchased an army truck from the Army Liquidation Commission. President Benson
next attempted to obtain automobiles. After visiting thirty French government
officials and industrial executives, he arranged to buy two new French Citroen
cars. The French government also made a limited supply of gasoline available.
With this information in hand, President Benson and Brother Babbel “approached a rather surprised colonel. There
was something about President Benson’s humble, confident manner that struck a
responsive chord this time, and within a few minutes the necessary military
orders had been prepared for us to enter the American Zone of Germany and pass
through the French Zone en route.”
The two men thus became
the first Americans not on government assignment to enter these areas after the
war. “What a glorious demonstration of the power of the Lord! A few days
previously, all of these developments were considered to be impossibilities,
humanly speaking. Today they had become realities” (p. 31).
And although the colonel was helpful, he was skeptical of
how four-star general McNarney, stationed in
Frankfurt and in command of all American forces in Europe, would respond to the
situation. Still, President Benson and Brother Babbel inched their way through war-torn Germany, confident they could accomplish
Finely crafted prose brings vivid images of what the two
experienced: “The city of Freiburg in the French Zone of Germany presented
a sickening sight of stunned, listless people shuffling among the blackened,
twisted ruins of this once-beautiful city. It was in an almost complete state
of ruin. . . . We were horrified by the wanton
destruction that greeted us” (p. 33).
When President Benson and Brother Babbel finally reached Frankfurt and managed to meet with General McNarney (despite the best efforts of one of the general’s aides to delay such a
meeting), “it was evident that [the general] regarded the interview as
strictly a perfunctory one which he was anxious to terminate as quickly as possible
so that he might get on with more pressing matters.” But President Benson,
with his unique combination of gentleness and power, warmly shook the general’s
hand and stood there “looking squarely at him and talking very earnestly.
This was a crucial moment. So much of our future success seemed to hang on the
outcome of this interview.”
At first, the general was simply irritated, but when he
heard that the two hoped to travel through all four military zones in Germany
and Austria, as well as in Czechoslovakia, he was shocked they would even
consider such a thing. President Benson, however, “continued to gaze
intently into the general’s eyes as he talked with him, and he spoke with such
feeling and conviction that the general’s eyes became moist with tears and his
cold militaristic manner gave way to a warm, spirited expression of ‘Mr.
Benson, there’s something about you that I like. I want to help you in every
way that I can!'”
Although the military had previously processed all relief
supplies, the general said the regulations could possibly be altered to accommodate
relief from the church. He then suggested that President Benson begin gathering
supplies. “When President Benson informed him that we had ninety large
welfare storehouses bulging with food and clothing, which could be ready for
shipment within twenty-four hours, one could fairly feel the general’s
astonishment. He then agreed to give us written authorization to make our own
distribution through our own channels.” In exchange, President Benson
offered to give a good deal of food to an existing program for feeding needy
children. After this, “General McNarney seemed
willing to consider favorably our every request” (pp. 43–44).
In the months that
followed, President Benson and Brother Babbel journeyed throughout Europe, administering spiritual and material relief to the
beleaguered Saints, many of whom were on the verge of
starvation. “By the end of the first year we had received and, for the
most part, distributed 92 railway carloads of welfare supplies (about 2,000
tons). These consisted of food, clothing, utensils, medical supplies, and a
host of sundry items. . . . Welfare supplies and
packages were shipped primarily from the United States and Canada. Distribution
was made in Britain, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Poland,
Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Germany” (p. 164).
President Benson departed for the United States in December
of 1946, and Brother Babbel remained for a few months.
In a ten-month period, they had traveled more than 60,000 miles, as one report
said, “by plane, train, automobile, ship, jeep, truck, bus, and horse and
buggy” (p. 178). Virtually all of this travel was made under difficult and
uncomfortable circumstances. Going by air, for example, often meant surviving
turbulence and frigid temperatures in the unheated cargo compartment of a
military plane. Brother Babbel recalled, “At
seven thousand feet altitude it was so intensely cold that we had to resort to moving
around in the plane to keep our blood circulating. Finally we were so
thoroughly chilled that we were unable to move without extreme effort” (p.
Through a highly readable narrative and an excellent eye for
detail, the author tells a compelling story, one that deserves a wide
Wings of Faith shows the power of faith and also shows just how
inspired the First Presidency was when they called Ezra Taft Benson to this
assignment. As Brother Babbel concludes,
Miracles? . . . They just seemed to take place almost hourly. There’s
hardly a thing you can read about in the Old or New Testament but what I have
been blessed to see or participate in a parallel experience. I have seen the
blind healed, the lame made to walk, the barren blessed to have children. I
have seen people at the point of death restored to life. I have seen the power
of faith in the lives of men and women and children under some of the most
difficult circumstances you can imagine, but the power of God was there.
(p. 181, emphasis in original)
Taft Benson: A Biography (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1987), 197.
Ezra Taft Benson died in 1994 at age ninety-four; Frederick Babbel died in 2001 at age eighty-five. For a recent article on Elder Benson’s experiences
in Europe, see Gary James Bergera, “Ezra Taft
Benson’s 1946 Mission to Europe,” Journal of Mormon History 34/2