Editor's Note: The following comments were delivered at the Four Chaplains memorial service at New Life Church on Sunday, Feb. 7.
When the transport ship Dorchester was sinking near Greenland after being torpedoed by a German submarine in February 1943, the four chaplains aboard -- one Jewish, one Catholic, one Methodist and one Reformed -- joined arms, prayed and sang hymns. Each had given his life preserver to a man without one. Of the 904 men on the ship, just 230 survived. I don't know of evidence that any of the four who received vests from the chaplains were among the survivors. When other ships worked to pick up the living, many of the men wearing lifejackets were too frozen to reach for ropes or ladders.
The chaplains' gift wasn't so much the saving of life in the immediate term as it was the enriching of life in the long term. These many decades later, we still remember them. And they still teach us.
We can think of the Dorchester as symbolizing our life, our community or our nation. Sometimes in stressful moments we think the ship of our life or society is sinking, but we're wrong. In such moments we need perspective.
But sometimes torpedoes really do strike. Sometimes the ships of our lives really do founder. Sometimes, ships of state really do sink. At that point, it's too late to get perspective. Perspective has to come before the crisis.
The Four Chaplains did what they did on Feb. 3, 1943 because of the kind of people they were the day before. Probably no one who knew the chaplains was surprised upon learning about what they had done.
Calm and inspiring courage doesn't come from nowhere. There's no such thing as a courageous and inspiring three-year-old. If that three-year-old grows into the kind of person who has the calm courage to do what the chaplains did, then that will have been the result of practice and failure, and then more practice and better failure, and then, eventually, the development of character and internal strength and wisdom.
Courage comes from practice. Little acts of integrity and courage in daily life, over years of practice, make it possible to take the big step of courage when the time arrives. So when the time came aboard the Dorchester, the chaplains knew what to do. When our own time for courage comes, I hope we'll know what to do.
This is one thing the chaplains make me think about.
They also make me think about the Missing in Action from our country's conflicts since the Second World War. It's hard to believe that some 80,000 Americans are still listed as Missing in Action. The Four Chaplains are among them. Like thousands of others, they are unrecoverable -- lost at sea.
But many of our Missing are recoverable. After President Trump and North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un met in Singapore in 2018, fifty-five boxes of remains from the Korean War were returned to the U.S. from North Korea. As of now, the remains of some seventy MIA Korean War casualties have been identified from those boxes. Dozens of families have their loved ones back home.
But about 5,000 Americans lost in North Korea during that conflict remain unaccounted for. One of these is named Fernando. I spoke with his 86-year-old brother, Ben, who lives in El Paso last Thursday. Fernando went missing on Dec. 2, 1950, during the campaign at the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea. Even after all this time, Ben is unable really to rest because he doesn't know what happened to his brother. This is the thing that most gnaws at family members of the missing -- not knowing. That's why it was important when the U.S. Congress and president agreed in early 2020 that the POW/MIA flag should be flown at many federal buildings, including the post office here in Siloam Springs. The flag reminds us of the thousands of Americans who don't know what happened to their loved ones in the world of war.
There are good things about our country. One is that it does more than any other to recover the remains of its missing from war. There is a long way to go, but dedicated people within the Defense Department's POW/MIA Accounting Agency are hard at work every day.
While they work, we remember.
Four of our country's missing from the Second World War -- the Four Chaplains -- were named George, Alexander, Clark and John.
From Korea, we have mentioned Fernando.
Fifteen Arkansans remain unaccounted for from Vietnam. Their names are Harold, Cleveland, Solomon, Lawrence, Walter, Richard, James, Linus, Ronald, John, William, Lynn, Richard, Don and Carl.
When you go by the post office or the Killed in Action Veterans' Memorial near the library and see the POW/MIA flag, think of these.
-- Preston Jones lives in Siloam Springs and oversees the website "War & Life: Discussions with Veterans." Contact him at [email protected] The opinions expressed are those of the author.