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Wreath-laying honors WWI German prisoners buried at Fort Douglas

SALT LAKE CITY — With crisp air and a gray sky lending a somber mood to the occasion, Mormon church leaders and German military officers observed the German national day of mourning Sunday by placing wreaths in Salt Lake City's Fort Douglas Cemetery, where the remains of 21 German World War I prisoners of war were interred in 1917-18.

President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, second counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Capt. Paul Roth, German Air Force liaison officer at Utah's Hill Air Force Base, addressed about 100 members of the local German-American community gathered for an annual observance of Volkstrauertag, a holiday in Germany similar to Memorial Day in the United States.

The program and wreath-laying ceremony were conducted in front of a monument in the southwest corner of the cemetery, where the German POWs have their graves among those of U.S. Army soldiers who were based at the historic military installation.

A fighter pilot in the West German Air Force before becoming a commercial jet captain and ultimately a church leader, President Uchtdorf said he felt amazed to be there in the presence of uniformed men, especially those in German uniforms.

He recalled being 4 years old at the end of World War II and said he had vivid memories of the destruction.

"I remember that my oldest brother, who was drafted into the military, was only 15 at the time and served a few months and even was a prisoner of war in the U.S. Army at the time. He managed, since the U.S. were very kind to young people, he escaped and came home to us."

President Uchtdorf noted that the German memorial holiday is only two Sundays before Advent, which, in that land, marks the beginning of preparations for Christmas. "It's the preparation to receive and have the message of the Christ in our lives."

He said he has observed from his global travels that peace is a desire in all nations. "I think a soldier, a military man, has a special desire for peace, because eventually these are the ones who lay their lives on the line and bring the ultimate sacrifice when the time comes to preserve and rescue peace."

President Uchtdorf said when he thinks of Christ, he remembers the message in the Sermon on the Mount, "Blessed are those who mourn."

"It appears at first glance unusual and even contradictory," he said. "But the mourning for someone else, this intense feeling, cannot be hidden from the world or from God. It cannot be eased (except) by love from someone else and by love from God."

For Roth, this ninth Volkstrauertag observance he has conducted in Salt Lake City will be the last, as he and his family will be returning to Germany.

In his address, he told of German World War II widow Dorle Ochsner, who spent 59 years searching for the remains of her husband, killed in action in September 1944. Her investigation finally located his resting place among some unmarked graves in a farmer's field in Latvia. Ultimately, she was present for the excavation of the grave in April 2003.

"What a remarkable, strong woman," Roth said. "What a story about love, about hope. What a story about mourning and commemorating."

He added, "Reconciliation and peace for the world are the intended goals, the motive, the essence, yes, the heading of the Volkstrauertag."

From five decades of living in Germany and Europe, Roth said, he and his family understand that peace does not come about by simply pressing a button.

"We have understood that peace is a continuous learning process, and I know that Germany and all the other Western democracies have successfully walked this road for decades," he said. "After the end of the Second World War, and with tremendous support from our friends, first and foremost the United States of America, we have built a stable democracy and an intact and dependable state firmly rooted in the rule of law."

Participating with President Uchtdorf in the wreath placement were Elder Robert C. Oaks, a former member of the LDS Presidency of the Seventy and a retired Air Force general and NATO commander; Charles W. Dahlquist, former LDS Young Men general president and honorary consul of the Federal Republic of Germany; and Frank Clawson of LDS Military Relations.

Senior Master Sgt. Marko Exner of the German Air Force assisted Roth in the wreath placement.

A local German choir, Harmonie, sang during the observance.