This is how you do it: New York Times regional desk puts spotlight on a sacred World War II drama

Human lives are ticking clocks and, right now, it's easy to forget that the clocks are ticking louder and louder for members of America's Greatest Generation.

These clocks have made news before. If you worked in the Washington, D.C., area toward the end of the 20th Century, it was easy to follow the debates about the World War II Memorial that was finally, finally, built on the National Mall. It was, in my opinion, a stunning commentary on American priorities that it took so long to build it (and required the intervention of an actor and a movie director to make it happen). We built the Vietnam and Korea memorials first.

Meanwhile, these clocks keep ticking. People who run newsrooms should remember that fact, since older Americans are loyal news consumers. In the years ahead, we will be seeing lots of coverage of symbolic events linked to the passing of the Greatest Generation and these stories could have strong religious content.

Thus, news editors and producers should mark Feb. 3 with a permanent pin on their computer calendars -- marking the Feb. 3, 1943, sinking of the U.S.A.T. Dorchester, a military transport ship carrying 902 Americans. Hit by German sub torpedoes, it sank in 18 minutes 100 miles off the coast of Greenland.

Journalists can file a copy of the New York Times feature marking the 75th anniversary of that event, which focused on the ship's four most famous casualties. The headline: "Remembering the Four Chaplains and Their Ultimate Sacrifice."

Symbolic stories, whenever possible, should be linked to appropriate symbolic events. Someone helped the Times regional desk find the perfect news hook -- the annual memorial rites held on the first Sunday of February at St. Stephen’s Catholic Church in Kearny, N.J. Here is the story's crisp summary of the drama on the doomed ship:

Panic ensued. The sailors who were not killed in the explosion or trapped below rushed to the decks, where some of the lifeboats had frozen to the ship, survivors recounted. But four chaplains standing on the decks remained calm, distributing life jackets. When the supply ran out, the chaplains gave the sailors their own.
Only 230 men survived the sinking of the Dorchester, making it one of the worst naval tragedies for the Americans in World War II. Witnesses recalled seeing the four chaplains standing with arms interlocked, each praying in his own way, as the ship sunk. They were Catholic, Jewish and Protestant: Rabbi Alexander B. Goode, the Rev. George L. Fox, a Methodist Minister, the Rev. Clark V. Poling of the Reformed Church in America, and the Rev. John P. Washington, a Roman Catholic priest.

Why this church?

Before volunteering for the war in 1942, Father Washington had last served at St. Stephen’s church in Kearny, N.J., and each year, a Mass is celebrated in honor of him and the other chaplains, attracting veterans from near and far. Among them on Sunday was Gene Swarbrick, 93, who served as an altar boy with Father Washington. ...
Mr. Swarbrick was drafted months before Father Washington died, and remembers hearing the news of the loss. “Can you imagine taking off your life jacket and giving it to someone else?” he said.

So this is the symbolic event, but what larger reality -- other than a stunning display of interfaith courage -- does the story symbolize? It's hard to state the facts better than this:

Each year, the number of living World War II veterans shrinks. According to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 558,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II were still alive in 2017.
They are dying at the rate of 362 per day, the department reports. Among the survivors of the Dorchester disaster, only one remains alive: Bill Bunkelman, who is in a nursing home in Michigan, Ms. Beady said.

The story of the chaplains has been told many times, starting in 1944 when each chaplain was given the Distinguished Service Cross and a Purple Heart. As noted in the Times report, there was a U.S. postage stamp in their honor in 1948 and Congress, in 1988, designated Feb. 3 as an annual “Four Chaplains Day” memorial.

Still, this story remains a lesser-known scene in the wider drama of World War II. I first heard the story in the late 1980s through the efforts of a Hollywood producer named Ken Wales, who spend decades trying to raise funds for a mainstream movie about this event. He ended up co-writing a novel, "Sea of Glory," about the four chaplains.

Maybe, someday, someone will make that movie.

In the meantime, journalists across the nation should note that there is a Four Chaplains Foundation in Philadelphia that works with volunteers who, year after year, organize hundreds of Four Chaplains services in churches, temples and synagogues from coast to coast. These events are also good news hooks for stories about the challenges faced by military chaplains -- period.

So read the Times piece carefully and note the ages of people who provided the crucial quotes and symbolic links to the chaplains.

The clocks are ticking.

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