Four Chaplains

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

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.

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