BIG SKY - The fighting was long and bloody. The diseases were even worse.

Hundreds of young Montana soldiers had been shipped to the jungles of New Guinea early in 1942, sent there to repel the advances of the Japanese army, which had set its sights on Australia.

The Montanans did the job, halting the Imperial Army in its tracks.

"We were young. We were well conditioned. We were tough," said Fred Naegele, a sergeant in the 163rd Infantry, Montana National Guard.

But victory came at a terrible cost.

At night, enemy soldiers infiltrated the perimeter, stalking and killing Americans in the dense darkness. In the daytime, snipers seemed to be everywhere.

If a knife or bullet didn't find you, biological threats were constant.

Malaria, dengue fever, scrub typhus and black water fever were constant threats. Everybody fell sick at some point, recalled Naegele, who now lives in Helena.

Morale was low and the men needed a lift. One day, an officer walked by a group of men as one of them offered lessons from the Bible. The men were attentive. The speaker was effective.

The officer was Col. Nelson Story III. On the spot, he made that man a chaplain. Then a crew cobbled together a chapel in a jungle clearing, a structure that somehow missed all the heavy bombing in the New Guinea campaign.

Story, a Bozeman resident and a descendant of one of Montana's premiere pioneer families, remembered the incident. And he remembered his son, Nelson Story IV, who had fallen in combat early in the war.

Years later, those memories took shape here in the Soldiers Chapel, the quietly elegant little church with a remarkable view of Lone Mountain. Story donated the land, came up with the basic design, wrote the charter and donated most of the money to build the stone and log cruciform structure, which was completed in 1955.

It is dedicated to Nelson Story IV and to the outfit in which father and son served together, the 163rd Infantry.

"Whether it was GIs in the jungles of New Guinea or people living remotely in the Gallatin Canyon, people needed a place to worship," Mikel Kallestad, a Bozeman architect and the grandson of Nelson Story III, said of his grandfather's wishes.

This summer, the chapel celebrates its 50th anniversary.

Naegele said about 20 surviving World War II veterans of the 163rd plan to attend ceremonies here Sunday.

"We are very faithful about coming down there for Memorial Day," Naegele said. "We are very proud of (the chapel) and we support it. Believe me."

The edifice is designed to honor the sacrifices of America's military men. Story made sure of that when he wrote the charter. A stained glass window, designed by a 163rd veteran, Sgt. Jack C. Gunter, depicts a wounded soldier lying on a tropical beach, reaching out for the hand of God. Outside the front door stands a memorial plaque, listing the scores of 163rd members from Montana who died in the war.

"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," is how the plaque describes them.

The church is nondenominational, with pastors from a variety of regional churches leading services during the summer and fall.

This, too, is in keeping with Story's wishes, although he took pains to "preserve the quality of religion."

A 1955 letter he wrote outlining his plans called for avoiding "splinter sects, itinerant prophets, hillbilly Bible thumpers and the self-anointed." He also urged the exclusion of "groups which harbor conscientious objectors or refuse to salute the flag."

Giving them access to the church, he said, "would be a grave affront to the memory of those to whom the chapel will be dedicated."

While the building's theme is one of honor for the military, the church serves the spiritual needs of all kinds of people. Hundreds of couples have exchanged wedding vows there, including Kallestad and his wife Suzie. He also was the first baby baptized in the church, on Jan. 6, 1956.

"They trudged in through four feet of snow to baptize me here," Kallestad said of his parents, grandparents and a preacher.

The baptismal font is an old gold pan that belonged to an ancestor, and Kallestad was anointed with river water.

"They had to dip water from the West Fork," said Kallestad, who is vice president of the nonprofit corporation that owns the chapel.

A few dozen 163rd veterans and Gallatin Canyon residents are buried in the church yard. Inside, a buffalo skull - the nickname of the 163rd - is painted with the regimental crest and looms over a giant picture window with a view of Lone Mountain.

Kallestad's family owns the land between the chapel and the mountain, and swears never to develop it.

"It's our responsibility in perpetuity to maintain that view corridor to Lone Mountain," he said. "Or else a bolt of lightning will strike it down."

The chapel is important to Kallestad's family - his daughter has been baptized here as well - but that family is not alone.

"This place is so important to so many people," he said.

The 163rd still exists and its active members are now serving in Iraq, which means the chapel dedicated to them speaks to those soldiers, their relatives and survivors, as well as the thousands of people who have married here, been baptized here, or simply stopped by for a moment's contemplation.

Sunday's Memorial Day Service - the 50th - should draw a large crowd.

"People will come here from all points, just to be here for the day," Kallestad said.

When the prayers are complete and the hymns have been sung, a bugler will pick up his horn and play "Taps," making the music that honors fallen warriors.

It happens every year on Memorial Day, and every year the reaction is the same.

"There's hardly a dry eye in the place," Kallestad said.