Just past the stoplight on Gallatin Road, that unofficial gate into Big Sky proper, a small unassuming road runs west-ward off the highway. Easily overlooked by travelers, the road is often found flanked by rows of Old Glory, two spangled lines which terminate at a rustic and beautiful steeple. Reaching heavenward, the cross atop seems, likely by design, to perch upon the summit of Lone Peak, not the stone and plank church below.
This is the Soldiers Chapel, and her history is that of Montana’s sons and daughters of the 163rd Infantry Regiment.
In September of 1940, 1,500 men from the Treasure State arrived at Fort Lewis, Washington, to prepare for a journey through the greatest conflict the world has ever known. The United States was not yet at war with Germany and Japan, but had seen the writing on the wall. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had created the first peacetime draft in the nation’s history, and these were the men from Montana who had answered the call.
In due time, history ran its course. Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, and the 163rd was called into action. First the men were posted along the Washington state coast, then railed south to San Francisco where they boarded a vessel bound for Australia in 1942. After spending some time in Australia, the 163rd finally arrived in Papua New Guinea on the first of the year, 1943. It was here, in Sanananda, Papua New Guinea, that the regiment would make a name for itself, and experience some of the most brutal jungle warfare of the Pacific Theater.
Disease, incredible fatigue and starvation began to kill just as many Japanese soldiers as the fighting. As the 163rd fought on in Papua New Guinea, it became evident that the Japanese forces they opposed so vehemently were suffering greatly. Cannibalized remains of soldiers began to appear, a sign of their desperate hunger.
Despite the hardship, the Montanan soldiers overcame the Japanese. Victory was achieved in Sanananda in less than a month.
The 163rd was just getting started, however. After a respite back in Australia, the regiment made an amphibious landing on the northern coast of Papua New Guinea, at Aitape. Further landings were conducted on islands to the north of Papua New Guinea, and later in the Philippines. The 163rd fought throughout the region until 1945, five years since the regiment was first assembled by a wary President Roosevelt.
Among the Dead
The Montana Military Museum at Fort Harrison, just outside of Helena, has a list of men who were inducted into the 163rd Infantry Regiment in 1940. Two names in particular stand out: a father and son, Nelson Story III and Nelson Story IV. While both men departed for the South Pacific, only one returned.
The Story men that served in the 163rd came from a prestigious pioneer line. Story IV (“Fourthy,” as he was called) was the great-grandson of the original, infamous Nelson Story, Sr., whose exploits largely funded and grew the city of Bozeman. A business magnate from Ohio, Story, Sr. was an orphan by the age of 18. Story, Sr. first came to Montana in 1863, in search of gold. Story, Sr. was successful, and became an integral icon involved in many significant aspects of Montana lore. Story, Sr. sat on the vigilante committees of Virginia City, drove cattle from Texas to Montana and established a massive fortune, along the way earning a reputation as a scoundrel, robber baron and an unquestionably respected man.
It is no surprise, then, that Story, Sr.’s grandson led men of the 163rd in the jungles of the South Pacific. Nelson Story III achieved the rank of Colonel while serving in Papua New Guinea, Fourthy was a Lieutenant. Tragedy struck the Story lineage when, on Aug. 6, 1944, Lt. Nelson Story IV was struck down in Afua, Papua New Guinea, after the regiment landed at nearby Aitape. Fourthy’s colonel father returned to Montana, devastated.
The 163rd Infantry Regiment returned to Montana largely victorious, decorated with honors earned in battle. The soldiers from Montana had been instrumental in rooting the Japanese forces from Papua New Guinea, liberating the Philippines and securing the Japanese mainland following the nation’s surrender.
For their extraordinary feats of heroism and bravery, the regiment was awarded the coveted Presidential Unit Citation. For their part in the liberation of the Philippines, the Republic of the Philippines awarded the 163rd the Philippine Presidential Unit Citation Badge. The regiment stands ready still today, and these awards still adorn the dress uniforms of the men and women who serve in it.
Col. Story III did not let the memory of his son and the other fallen soldiers dissipate. In 1955, he donated a stretch of land, in full view of Lone Peak, on which to build a small, poignant chapel. After drawing up a basic design, Col. Story III donated the lion’s share of the money needed, and set about the construction of his chapel memoriam. Today, the Soldiers Chapel stands peacefully. Before the entrance lies a plaque, with a list of names, including Nelson Story IV. Above the catalog of men is this inscription: “In tribute to those immortal soldiers of the 163rd Infantry who, with courage and devotion, died in pain, defending their country and the cause of freedom for all men.”
A circular stained glass window adorns the face of the chapel. A soldier stretched out upon a tropical beach is the subject, reaching toward the sky for the hand of his God.