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They're not as spry as they once were. Some shuffle along using canes. One says he's lost 8 inches from his once-5-foot-10-inch frame. They've visited each other in hospitals and have buried one of their own, as well as a handful of wives.

But together the surviving members of "the missionary 13 group," as some call them, share memories and a place in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"I'm confident that there's never been a single ward before or since that has had that many [missionaries] go at the same time," says Richard VanOrden, 78.

On June 23, 1948, VanOrden and 12 other young men from what was then Salt Lake City's Yale Ward stepped into North Temple's Mission Home, the facility that predated the Missionary Training Center. Their calls were to places that spanned the globe from Hawaii, Canada and various regions across the U.S. to South Africa, Europe and Australia. And though their missions, and their lives, took them in different directions, they share a bond they can't deny.

Six of them grew up within two blocks of one another, on Yale Avenue between 1300 and 1500 East. Some were older than others, but all attended the University of Utah and many were in the same fraternity, Sigma Chi. Their ward was 1,400 members strong and counted among its ranks the likes of then-LDS President George Albert Smith and future LDS President Ezra Taft Benson. Coming from that neighborhood, going on a mission was, as VanOrden put it, "a foregone conclusion." At one point in 1948, more than 45 missionaries from the Yale Ward - including couples - were serving.

LDS Church missionary work was on an upswing back then. During World War II, only those deferred from military service for physical reasons were free to go. Lee Ericson, 79, says only a few hundred missionaries a year served during the war and, to maximize their use, they were sent to the most populated areas. By the end of 1948, he says 5,000 had ventured out worldwide.

Ericson's call was to the Southern states of Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina. He spent nine months of his time driving around in a 1939 Ford coupe, paid for by him and his companion, holding cottage meetings in rural homes. It wasn't what he had initially hoped for - a foreign, even exotic, country where he could learn a new language - but he quickly appreciated what he had.

"It took me three months to speak Southern," he says, and laughs. "And the people in the South needed the gospel."

Robert Simonsen, 77, also had dreamt of jetting off to a faraway land. Instead, he was bouncing around Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Iowa and Michigan - a single mission area, which he says now has 15 missions.

When Jerry Hayes, 78, opened his call letter and saw that he was going to Hawaii, he says he thought, "Oh, that's heaven." Heaven began for him with a 10-month stint on a leper settlement on Molokai.

Meantime, Charles Faux, 77 and the youngest in the group, was flitting around from island to island. Missionary focus in Hawaii, as well as many other parts of the world, was as much - if not more - on strengthening local leadership and branches, which had been underserved by missionaries during wartime, as it was on proselytizing. As a result, Faux says he can't remember baptizing anyone during his mission, although he spoke at a number of missionary farewells for locals called to serve in Japan. He also attended plenty of funerals.

Van Hales, 78, did his mission in Hawaii with a twist. An accomplished trombonist, he was tapped to play in the Hawaiian Mission Orchestra, a large dance band that played across the big island. The band was the brainchild of Mission President E. Wesley Smith, brother of the 10th LDS president, Joseph Fielding Smith. The music served as a good marketing tool, Hales says, earning the church greater recognition and acceptance, especially among the youth.

In Europe, the missionaries were witnesses to the aftermath of World War II. David Bennett, 80 and the group's oldest member, recalls the rubble that remained on Belgium streets. And Stephen Nebeker, 78, saw evidence of bombing throughout England. He served for a year in Liverpool, where three years after the war, rationing still existed. The six missionaries in Liverpool ate a lot of Brussels sprouts, he says, but they'd combine their coupons each week to invest in a small pot roast.

In Liverpool, Nebeker says street meetings were key. Missionaries would gather around the pier head of Liverpool, where ships full of workers would arrive from Ireland. Standing on street corners, they'd break into song.

"People would gather around to see what the commotion was," he says with a laugh. Sometimes they'd gather a crowd of around 200. Other times, he adds, "All we'd have was seagulls."

The 13 were released from their missions just as the Korean War broke out at the end of June 1950. Many of them knew they'd be drafted, so they enlisted. Only Bennett, an older brother of Utah Sen. Bob Bennett, was deemed unfit for service. At 6 feet 7 inches, he was considered "too tall for service," he says. So instead, he headed off to earn his doctorate in philosophy at Columbia University and would spend 30 years as a professor at the University of Utah.

They went on to pursue career paths that ran the gamut. Among them, there were doctors, a dentist, a teacher, lawyers (one was retired Juvenile Court Judge Frank Matheson, who died in November) and a slew of businessmen, including Hayes of the Salt Lake City auto dealership. A good number of them have served additional missions in their lifetimes. Orson Wright, 79, had the good fortune of returning to Australia as a mission president 30 years after he served there as a young man.

Not all of them remained in Utah. Jim Wootton ended up in Phoenix; Gil Smith was reached in Northern California, where he's been for more than 50 years.

The "13" have had reunions, which have become more frequent as time has rolled on. Their most recent one was before the LDS General Conference last fall, and they hope to have another next year to mark the 60 years that have passed.

Several of the men are no longer members of the LDS Church, but that makes little difference: They share history, a lifetime of shared stories about their families, their struggles and their joys. And with that has emerged a high measure of respect and understanding.

"It's been a nice bond that has existed between us, " Nebeker explains by phone from his St. George home. "The glue has been our frankness with each other, not putting on any fašades."

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* JESSICA RAVITZ can be reached at jravitz@sltrib.com or 801-257-8776. Send comments to religioneditor@sltrib.com.