HELENA — When Sen. Steve Daines talked in October to a roomful of people at Fort Harrison about the importance of sharing their military history with others, he spoke from personal experience.
Daines had a uncle aboard the SS Dorchester who died when the troop ship was sunk by a German submarine Feb. 3, 1943. The ship is famous for its story of the four chaplains who stood on deck, gave their life jackets to others and held hands praying and singing hymns as the Dorchester went down, killing nearly 700 people.
But for some reason, his grandmother never talked about her brother, Thomas Dee Tarbet, a welder with the U.S. Army Air Force, who was aboard and died that day.
“I think it was because she was part of a generation that didn’t talk a lot about what happened in the war,” the Montana Republican said.
And he now thinks the reason may be a little more complicated.
His grandparents, Marriette and Wes Daines, who lived in a little house on Avenue C in Billings, had a son named Thomas who died in a car crash near Columbus in the late ’60s.
He wonders if the pain of losing a brother named Tom and a son named Tom may have been too much for them to discuss.
Daines said he had a lot of conversations with his grandparents and spent a lot of time with his grandfather hunting and fishing.
“They didn’t talk about it a lot,” he said.
Daines spoke briefly about his uncle in October when the Veterans History Project kicked off at Fort Harrison.
Congress created the Veterans History Project in 2000 as part of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, where the stories of wartime veterans are stored.
Since then, 99,312 veterans have told their stories, said Robert W. Patrick, director of the Veterans History Project American Folklife Center in Washington, D.C.
Of those, 490 are from Montana, even though Montana has a high per capita rate of veterans.
Daines talked about his great-uncle Tom, and also mentioned another great-uncle, Russ Tarbet, who had served in the Pacific in World War II.
“How sad that my grandmother did not pass along those stories,” he said.
Daines met his uncle Russ in September when Tarbet took an honor flight to the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Russ Tarbet had served in the Pacific Theater in China and Burma.
News traveled slowly back then. Tom Tarbet’s family received a telegram April 19, 1943, confirming that he had died aboard the Dorchester.
“The family did not know how he died, if he was killed by a torpedo or drowned,” Daines said.
Daines said some family members have done research and put together pages and pages of documents.
Tom Tarbet received a Purple Heart posthumously and his name is engraved on a wall in New York along with others from the Dorchester, Daines said.
“I am very proud of the heritage of service to the country of these young men who were boys, but became men very quickly,” Daines said. “I’m proud of Tom and proud of Russ. It is called ‘the Greatest Generation’ for a reason.”
And he said tales, such as those about the four chaplains, “is one of those stories we need to keep telling over and over again of these men of faith who gave their lives.”
Larry Spicer, president of the Great Falls Genealogy Society, said helping people research family history is what his group does all the time. And members do hear from people that they wished they had asked questions of family members before they died.
“It’s what often drives people to look us up,” he said.
Monthly meetings offer tips on uncovering family history, such as where to find records, research and other information. And the library features plenty of reference materials and computers for family research.
Spicer said he encourages people to preserve family history by going to a parent, grandparent and recording them on camera talking about their lives or maybe fielding questions.
He said the group just celebrated its 40th anniversary and is probably the largest genealogy society in the state.
This year will be the fifth annual Great Falls observance of the four chaplains, said Kim Kay McCarty Martin, commander of American Legion Post 341, who is organizing the event. She said one reason for the event, which is encouraged by the national American Legion, is because Great Falls has so many denominations.
The event honors Alexander Goode, a Jewish rabbi; Dutch Reformed Church member Clark Poling; Methodist George Fox; and Roman Catholic John Washington. They called for calm as servicemen evacuated the sinking ship, passed out life jackets and offered prayers for the wounded and dying.
As the Dorchester sank a half-hour after the explosion, the four chaplains stood with their arms linked, praying in English, Latin and Hebrew.
The Great Falls observance tries to get someone from the Jewish community, Catholic and Methodist, and off-branches of the Dutch Reform to participate.
Martin said the hardest part of the event for her to get through is when taps is played.
“They gave up their life preservers, they knew the risk and they did it anyway,” she said, adding the chaplains didn’t ask the denomination of the people they were helping. “All that matters is that they had faith. When they were going down on a ship with their locked arms around each other, all that mattered is that their faith was in them and they were saving as many people as they could.”
She said she hopes the event inspires faith groups and others in the community to work together.
Great Falls has an annual observance honoring the four chaplains.
This year it is 4 p.m. Feb. 14, at First Congregational United Church of Christ, 2900 9th Ave. S.
Dig into history
For more on the Great Falls Genealogy Society, visit gfgenealogy.org, or go to the society’s library on the third floor of the Great Falls Public Library at 301 1st Ave. N., or call 406-727-3922.