Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Three Musketeers: Servicemen’s Meetings in the Canal Zone, 1942 (corrected date)

Three Musketeers: Servicemen’s Meetings in the Canal Zone, 1942 (corrected date)

By: Ardis E. Parshall - May 05, 2009

Three weeks ago, Eric Russell posted at By Common Consent a description of Going to Church in Iraq, featuring a photograph of the bright, well furnished chapel annex where his Al Asad Group meets. He described the order of their services, their equipment, the organization of the Church – these servicemen’s groups in a seemingly unlikely region of the world are part of a formal stake structure, and the Church has developed a rhythm to provide leadership by setting apart potential group leaders before Latter-day Saint soldiers are even deployed.

These servicemen’s groups are the modern successors to a long history of providing religious support to LDS soldiers. I suppose we could say that goes back at least as far as the Mormon Battalion of 1846, or even to the march of Zion’s Camp in 1834. Here at Keepa, we’ve talked about the World War I chaplaincy of B.H. Roberts and about a serviceman finding smoothly running LDS services in the jungles of New Guinea toward the end of World War II.

In the opening days of World War II, before many LDS chaplains were in place or even before the Church had really organized itself to support servicemen away from home, LDS soldiers still managed to find each other and experiment with ways of continuing LDS life in war zones. One such group of soldier-elders, calling themselves “The Three Musketeers,” formed an unofficial group at Fort Clayton, in the Panama Canal Zone, in the early summer of 1942.

These “Musketeers” were David Clow, Jarius Coward, and a young man named Irving, whose surname had unfortunately been forgotten by the time Captain Orlando S. McBride (1907-1947), LDS chaplain at Camp Paraiso, Canal Zone, recorded his discovery of their organization. It is possible that the “Musketeers” are still living, because I have been unable to identify them in either LDS or civil death records. If you know who they are, please comment!

These three men, their ages and hometowns unknown to me, found a private place to gather as church members, along with whoever else wished to join them, in an air-raid shelter at Fort Clayton, Panama. This was not the brightest, most cheerful place for services – underground, with a dirt floor, wedged between the supporting stone pillars of a building. Still, it was quiet and private – their personal Catacombs, Capt. McBride called it, comparing these soldiers to the early Christians who had met for worship in the underground burial tunnels of Rome.

Their “chapel” was furnished with a long table, a few heavy benches, and plenty of boxes and crates to serve as seats, and they had a few hymn books and copies of the scriptures.

Capt. McBride described the service he attended. David Clow called it to order and suggested they open by singing a hymn. The group of about a dozen men thumbed through the hymnals looking for a song they all could sing.

Several suggestions are made, which elicit dissents from some members. After a while one is found that meets no outspoken objection. The song leader … sings the first line alone. Then the others, recognizing the familiarity of the hymn (or its unfamiliarity), join in accordingly. Some sing, some hum, and others just look blankly at the words. The song service is considered a fair success if it merits a trio or a quartette on any one number.

Following a prayer, Bro. Clow climbed onto the center table and used it as his pulpit, sitting “cross-legged like Mahatma Gandhi.” He opened his Bible, and reminded the group that,

“Last time we discussed baptism for the dead but were left with kind of a question mark.” Thus the meeting is opened and in full swing. Baptism for the dead is settled with the unconvincing conclusion that St. Paul taught it, that it was probably practiced by the ancient saints and that the Christian church today should be doing the same.

Into the discussion then comes the “Nature of God, Sin, Heaven, Hell, Man’s Future State, Repentance, Will God completely Forgive Sinners if They Repent, The Holy Ghost, etc.” Scripture is quoted, looked up, read and applied. There are many noddings of heads in agreement, enthusiastic statements of “that is correct.” The harmony of spirit is outstanding.

Captain McBride’s evaluation of the service was,

It is remarkable how much truth is sorted out, mauled about, understood and accepted. God is not unconscious of what is happening. I am sure He is blessing this little group which meets every spare night within the confines of an air-raid shelter to study the revelations of Heaven.

Group meetings lasted an hour, or two hours, or whatever time the men had to spare from more formal duties. One or another of “The Three Musketeers” always took the lead in discussions – from notes of these men’s ability to quote scripture, and their testimony that they had never violated the Word of Wisdom, I wonder if Brothers Clow and Coward, at least, were not returned missionaries.

Capt. McBride was especially intrigued by Irving, whose full name he failed to recall.

For a while, at the meeting, he sat on the big bench. He said nothing. When discussion became more heated he arose and stood behind the table on which Dave sat, facing the audience of other men. This was Irving. He is small, with a heavy crop of thick, black hair. He is retiring, thoughtful, humble, repentant, having a heart full of sorrow for sin, hopeful and prayerful that God will forgive him of his past weaknesses and save him in his Kingdom. It is this Irving who … seemed to express the spirit of humility so characteristic of Jesus.

Their services may not have been as formal or as polished as meetings at home, or even as servicemen’s meetings became with more experience. But their hearts and souls were right, according to their chaplain.

The Three Musketeers: Dave, the serious and thoughtful; Jarius, the free and frank and fluent; Irving, the repentant and the humble. A splendid trio of young men, honest, upright, clean, fearless in their religious convictions, faithful to the light of truth they have so far gained, seekers of further light, prayerful and thankful to God for their fellowship one with another, sure that through keeping themselves unspotted from the sins of the world they will please the Lord and be saved in His Kingdom. They have learned much and have much to learn. They are an inspiration to me to know that there are such God-fearing young men in the army. They will do much good. May the Lord guide them.



  1. By the way: I don’t want to derail comments on servicemen’s meetings, so please don’t follow my threadjacking bad example, but I did want to note that this is Keepa’s 500th post, and that tomorrow is Keepa’s first anniversary.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 5, 2009 @ 8:51 am

  2. Congratulations Ardis and Keepa for both milestones!

    A couple of things caught my interest. First, that these guys took it upon themselves to organize an LDS group, even if it was just three individuals. I liked the way they brought visitors to the meetings as well. I was also impressed with the subject matters of their discussions. It wasn’t just fluff you might expect to hear.

    Comment by Steve C. — May 5, 2009 @ 9:39 am

  3. This is so interesting. The sardonic tone of Bro. Clow’s comments was fun and funny. He says, “Baptism for the dead is settled with the unconvincing conclusion that St. Paul taught it,” and “Into the discussion then comes the ‘Nature of God, Sin, Heaven, Hell, Man’s Future State, Repentance, Will God completely Forgive Sinners if They Repent, The Holy Ghost, etc.’ Scripture is quoted, looked up, read and applied. There are many noddings of heads in agreement, enthusiastic statements of ‘that is correct.'” Methinks he would have made a good blogger. Thanks for this.

    Oh, and I certainly would never threadjack this post by saying anything complimentary to you, Ardis, for having completed a wonderful year of posting on your (new) blog, and I would never, ever think of derailing the comments by noting the remarkable feat of 500 posts in one year’s time! Never. Ever.

    Comment by Hunter — May 5, 2009 @ 9:47 am

  4. Without looking up his birthdate, that would have been within a few years of time that John McCain was born in the Canal Zone. I suppose it took a lot of troops to occupy the area. It’s been impressive to see how well the transition has gone from American occupation to local control of the canal. (From everything I’ve read.) And now there’s a temple in beautiful Panama City.

    This story also takes place before the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

    Interesting picture of religious life in the military.

    Congratulations on your 500th post! An amazing feat by an amazing woman.

    Comment by Researcher — May 5, 2009 @ 12:14 pm

  5. Oh, no! I don’t know how I did it, but I flubbed the date — Researcher’s noticing that this came before Pearl Harbor woke me up.

    This all happened in the summer of 1942 — after Pearl Harbor, early in the mobilization phase. So sorry! I’ll correct it.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 5, 2009 @ 12:33 pm

  6. Before or after Pearl Harbor; either way the US was building up its defenses and the Panama Canal was of strategic importance to the United States.

    Comment by Steve C. — May 5, 2009 @ 3:35 pm

  7. The meeting sounds awesome. I love these stories of ordinary saints.

    Comment by Tatiana — May 5, 2009 @ 7:51 pm

  8. I thought it was interesting how Captain McBride not only described the meeting, but focused on the personalities of the three young men. I notice similar combining of personalities today in auxiliary and quorum presidencies. Because each one of the presidency has a different background, interest, talent, etc., the group is much stronger than each individual person alone.

    Congratulations, Ardis.

    Comment by Maurine — May 5, 2009 @ 9:00 pm

  9. Congratulations, Ardis, and thank you! Keepa has enriched all of our lives.

    And thanks for this wonderful story of men in a distant place keeping their faith alive in what must have been difficult conditions.

    Let’s hope that someone recognizes a name and can lead us to one of these men or their descendants, so we can hear the rest of the story!

    Comment by Mark B. — May 6, 2009 @ 9:22 am

  10. Wonderful story, Ardis. I remember reading an article in the Church News several years ago about the first branch in Panama (canal zone). I wonder if the Musketeers were aware of it. I think it was formed before Pearl Harbor.

    Comment by Justin — May 6, 2009 @ 10:36 am

  11. bfwebster served his mission in Panama. I keep waiting for him to discover this post, and hope that he will add some general history about the church in Panama.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 6, 2009 @ 11:10 am

  12. At some point in his Army/Air Force career, my uncle was in the Canal Zone. Vague memories suggest that it was during the war, but I could be off a decade. He, alas, is not around any longer to add anything to this story.

    Comment by Mark B. — May 6, 2009 @ 11:29 am

  13. I located the Church News article about the early church in the canal zone.

    Comment by Justin — May 6, 2009 @ 4:18 pm

  14. Fantastic addition, Justin. It looks like this serviceman’s group may have gotten going just as the other branch closed. (Total speculation: I wondered how the servicemen happened to have so many hymn books available, and now wonder if perhaps they inherited some supplies from the earlier branch.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 6, 2009 @ 4:51 pm

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