John L. Sorenson
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Getting Serious

part 2 of 8 Like many other young Americans in the military, John Sorenson found himself a minor actor in something much larger than himself. As a rural youth, he had little experience of a broadening nature beyond what he had learned through school, books, and the radio. He had never traveled more than 150 miles from his home. At first his military service meant simply more college eduanon. His six months of pre-meteorology training was in Albuquerque at the University of New Mexico, in what could be termed a semimilitary setting. The students in his group-most of them from Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas, and California-were in college dorms and ate at the campus cafeteria, but wore privates' uniforms and went through daily physical training and dose-order drill to give them a soft version of the basic military training that most servicemen endured. Taught by regular University of New Mexico faculty, they studied English, geography, and courses featuring the primary menu of mathematics and physics. Because all the students had been chosen for their outstanding college records, competition was fierce, and the usual A grades they expected occasionally came out as disappointing Bs and Cs. Part of the incentive to succeed was the rumor that dropouts would be sent to tail-gunner school! After their training in Albuquerque, the class members became aviation cadets (a rank between enlisted man and officer) and were sent to the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena for formal training in meteorology. Regular faculty taught the courses, and Air Corps officers served as laboratory assistants. The classes carried regular Caltech graduate-level credit. Facilities were again a far cry from those in the regular military, for these cadets lived in a large hotel with maid service. Once more only a minor military component was incorporated into the heavy academic grind. This course work added a more intensive dimension to John's previous studies at Utah State Agricultural College and the University of New Mexico. Probably more educational, however, were the occasional weekends John spent exploring the southern California ambience. Hitchhiking on Los Angeles's recently opened first freeway, visiting the Hollywood Canteen and the Rose Bowl, shopping in the glittering Wilshire district-all this was a formative experience for a rural Utahn. During John's time in California, a coterie of four Latter-day Saints in the group gave him comfort and support. When John completed his military training in mid-1944, he was commissioned a second lieutenant. He fulfilled one short assignment at a base in Nevada, his only one as a regular forecaster. "I didn't think anyone could really forecast the weather," he notes. "I certainly couldn't do it with any confidence." Because of his electronics experience, John was soon sent to Air Corps weather headquarters in North Carolina for special training as a communications facilitator. For the next year and a half he instructed and encouraged those in the Air Corps communications field to more speedily transmit weather data from bases on Ascension Island in the South Atlantic and from Natal and Fortaleza, Brazil. These locations were fueling stops for bombers being ferried from Brazil to Africa, the Middle East, and India. "We always said that those of us in the South Atlantic didn't go overseas," John notes wryly; "we just went abroad. John was discharged as a first lieutenant in the spring of 1946, long after the war in Europe had ended. Thirty-nine months had passed since he left Cache Valley.

Missionary in Polynesia

In the summer of 1946 John enrolled for another quarter at Utah State Agricultural College but found himself at loose ends because the sciences no longer seemed attractive to him. Like many other service people trying to settle down after seeing the world, he was restless. John told his bishop in early August that he would like to serve a mission. It was not generally assumed in those years that every young man should serve a mission; in fact, in his hometown during the 1930s, John had seen only a handful of young men leave for missions. Many returning veterans, however, were eager to serve missions immediately, and John was part of the wave. His savings from the military made a mission feasible. When he opened the letter from church headquarters, he found that he had been called to serve in the New Zealand Mission. His departure date was in question, however, because of the lack of civilian transportation. While waiting to leave, John met Kathryn Richards of Magna, Utah, who was living temporarily with her married sister next door to the Sorenson family. The two fell in love in short order and decided to marry immediately rather than wait until after John's mission. They were wed in the Salt Lake Temple in November 1946. There was never any question that John would still serve his mission, and although marrying in such circumstances was unusual, it was not unknown in the wake of the war. After John's departure in early January, Kathryn lived first with her sister and later with her parents, in whose home Kathryn and John's first son, Jeffrey, was born in 1947. Kathryn supported herself by working in Salt Lake City because she did not want to deplete John's savings. The couple would not be reunited until mid-1949. The LDS Church was then still very much a local phenomenon, not the worldwide operation it now clearly is. Conditions in the crowded mission home on State Street in Salt Lake City were indicative of that intimacy. Almost half the General Authorities could take time to speak to the departing missionaries during their three or four days in the mission home. One day when John and two companions were walking past the LDS Church Office Building while returning from the temple to the mission home, someone approached them from behind and put his arms around their shoulders. "Well, boys," he said, "I hope you enjoy your mission as much as I enjoyed mine." It was white-bearded George Albert Smith, president of the church. After a long ocean voyage on a crowded converted troopship, Elder Sorenson arrived in Auckland, New Zealand, where he was greeted by his former stake president who also was a member of his home ward in Smithfield: mission president A. Reed Halverson. President Halverson immediately assigned John to a new field of labor in the Cook Islands, fifteen hundred miles northeast of Auckland. After laboring for some weeks in the New Zealand metropolis while awaiting transport, Elder Sorenson finally boarded a tiny six-passenger ship for the week-long voyage to Rarotonga, the capital island of the isolated Cook group. For the next two years John would live in this little island paradise. With a formerly volcanic peak in its middle and a ring of coral enclosing its lagoon, the ten-mile-long island was occupied by some fifteen thousand Polynesians and a handful of Europeans. The inhabitants lived in six villages situated around the shore of the island. The rain forest, the abundant flowering trees, and the picturesque beach and lagoon provided an environmental experience for John that could hardly be further from familiar Cache Valley. The people were friendly, smiling, and apparently carefree. The entire scene was, in John's words, "absolutely gorgeous-no place in the world is more beautiful." Mormonism already had a foothold on the island. In the village of Muri Enua a small branch met in a whitewashed meetinghouse, a thatched- roof structure that contained three tiny rooms for the missionaries adjacent to a little chapel. Elder Sorenson and his companion, Elder Donlon Delamare of Salt Lake City (also a war veteran), were, along with a New Zealand couple, the first American missionaries on the island. The elders' language study depended mainly on the Bible, the only published item in the Rarotongan Maori language; the translation had been done by missionaries of the London Missionary Society who had arrived on the island 125 years earlier. The elders had no grammar or dictionary of significant value. Despite this lack of resources, John was able to give what he terms a "reasonable" talk within two months. Perhaps a spiritual gift, his mastery of the language was also undergirded by a strong desire and incesstudy. Before John's two years on Rarotonga were over, with local help he had translated two tracts and written a Rarotongan grammar for the benefit of subsequent missionaries. Working as a missionary among a native people to whom the church was new provided John and his companions an intense experience in adaptation. Far from mission headquarters (only two planes per month brought mail, and the mission president visited only once a year), they had to depend on inspiration and the faithful support of loving and admiring but inexperienced members. Another challenge was that relations with the New Zealand government and the country's dominant church were not always smooth. But the missionaries kept their focus on the gospel. They emphasized service to the young in their teaching activities, taught informal English lessons, and organized Primary groups in several villages. In two years more than a hundred new members had been baptized. Although John Sorenson the future anthropologist did not realize it at the time, this was an incomparable field experience, for it forced him to recognize and deal with cultural differences.
A Short Biography by Davis Bitton