CHICAGO -- Duane Engholm began writing letters two years ago from his home in Osaka, Japan, trying to organize an unusual reunion of his fellow American soldiers in World War II.
His reminiscences of the war, including a bomb-scarred mortuary in the Philippines, had nothing to do with combat.
"I'm lucky to have no memories of having to kill anyone, although I was drafted and would have fought if I had to," said Engholm.
He went overseas as an Army infantryman in 1945, right after V-J Day brought surrender from the Japanese. He remained for two years as part of occupation forces, first in Manila then in Tokyo. He is now a college English teacher in Osaka.
A guiding influence in all he has done since those first days overseas as a soldier, and the driving force in his two-year effort to organize a reunion of dozens of friends from a handful of addresses, was the GI Gospel Hour.
And as Engholm came from Osaka to Trinity College in the Chicago suburb of Bannockburn last week to see the GI Gospel Hour 45-Year Reunion realized, other arrivals spoke fondly of their "Class of '45."
They were men and women bonded in 1945 by the war and a desire for revival-style religion.
The point man for the latter was Army Chaplain George Hixson, who came to the reunion from Kansas.
He recalled how he went to the Pacific in 1944 inspired by fiery Chicago evangelist Dwight L. Moody and a preacher-friend's advice to "enter every door that you can. Whenever the Lord opens a door, you go in."
Desperate to find a building for evangelistic meetings in Manila, Hixson scoured the city in a Jeep. After a large church rejected his request to use space one night a week, Hixson said he was dejectedly heading back to base when "the Lord just seemed to say to me, 'Go to the mortuary.' "
At a bombed and burned Roman Catholic mortuary, with plenty of space but no lights or seats, the GI Gospel Hour was inaugurated.
Bringing their own benches, generators, strings of lights and a portable field organ air-powered by pedals rather than electricity, "we just walked in, right past the caskets, and started singing and preaching," Hixson recalled.
The Saturday night rallies became Sunday night prayer meetings as well and spread to Japan with American forces. At its peak, those at the reunion estimated, 5,000 men and women representing a spectrum of denominations and religious communities from Catholics to Baptists to Pentecostals were attending GI Gospel Hour meetings throughout Japan and in the Philippines.
"There was nothing else like it, so alive and jubilant, with no dirty language and dirty jokes," said Lacita Cook, who came to the reunion from Vermont. Her mainline Protestant religious upbringing had always seemed "cold, distant and formal," she said, but the GI Gospel Hour was different.
"I can remember going to picnics on weapons carriers, singing hymns," she said. "For the first time in my life, I felt Jesus was close to me. He has been my best friend ever since."
Another friend is Dudley Olsen of Wheaton, Ill., one of Duane Engholm's main helpers in organizing the reunion. He was a chaplain's assistant in Manila and an early member of the GI Gospel Hour.
"Chapel meetings were, for the most part, kind of blah, but the Gospel Hour was a lively bunch, trying to reach GIs and not concerned about anyone's background," said Olsen, who is affiliated with the Evangelical Free Church. "To this day, I can't tell you what Duane's denomination is."
Although the GI Gospel Hour faded away along with the American soldiers, its legacy was the Far Eastern Gospel Crusade, with which Engholm served as a missionary, and a Bible college in Manila, whose president spoke at the reunion.
From 28 names and addresses two years ago, reunion organizers were able to build a contact list of 900 people. Nearly a third of them came to last week's reunion. Although Engholm's trip from Japan was the longest, others came from as far as New England, California and Hawaii.
There were plenty of photos and old brochures to remind everyone of the group's history.
And as they stepped inside the Trinity campus chapel for "singing and testimonies," organizer Olsen had added an offbeat touch to instantly erase the years and vividly remind everyone of that cavernous building in Manila where George Hixson opened the first meeting of the GI Gospel Hour.
With the help of a local funeral home, Olsen brought in two caskets to share center stage with the altar.