The U.S. Army Chief of Chaplains, Chaplain (Maj. Gen.) Thomas L. Solhjem, deliver the Easter message.
Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Heil sings a specially-arranged “Were You There When they Crucified My Lord.”
Karen Durham-Aguilera, executive director of the Office of Army Cemeteries and Arlington National Cemetery and her husband, Enzo Aguilera, silenty observe the 89th Annual Easter Sunrise Service at Arlington National Cemetery.
Staff Sgt. Clark McDaniel, video producer, monitors the video feed to Facebook.
The production crew in the opening moments of the service.
Sgt. 1st Class Kelley Corbett, principle trumpet player in the Concert Band, smiles moments before the start of the service.
Antonio Vigil, sign language interpreter, signs during the service.
A technician walks across the amphitheater during set up.
Audio technician Staff Sgt. Eric Messick listens to the sound.
A cool night’s breeze moved gently through historic Tanner Amphitheater Easter morning on Arlington National Cemetery. Technicians from The U.S. Army Band, “Pershing’s Own,” worked steadily to prepare a new three-camera set up with microphones for audio and internet connection.
Within an hour, the team would be producing a live 40-minute show to a livestream audience of more than 2,000 — and more than 150,000 viewers with nearly 280,000 people seeing it in their news feeds in 24 hours — on the Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall Facebook page.
This is likely to be the only time in the nearly 90-year history of the Easter Sunrise Service on Arlington that it would be performed from this structure which was built in 1873. From press reports, the service began at the cemetery in 1931 in the Memorial Amphitheater and it appears it was held there every year.
President Herbert Hoover and his wife Lou Henry attended and sang hymns during the services that first year and huddled under a big umbrella when it rained during the second one in 1932. News reports and photos indicate thousands of people crowded into the amphitheater for those services and the ones that followed over the years.
The service in 1931 was reportedly broadcast over three separate systems, but there were no details found in initial online research about the extent of the audience or where the broadcasts went. The chief of U.S. Army chaplains — Col. Julian E. Yates — gave the Easter message for that very first service, just as the current chief of Army chaplains would give Sunday’s message on social media.
Sunday’s service was also probably the only time up until now that was performed without an actual audience physically present. Renovations this year at Memorial meant the service was going to be held elsewhere, but then the COVID-19 global pandemic meant new plans for a virtual service that would allow people who are shuttered in to be able to see and hear the service.
“We are proud to be a part and are committed to supporting this event,” Sgt. Maj. Scott Weinhold, senior producer, said after being told that the daughter of a 90-year-old mother emailed to say she and her mother would be tuning in. The mother has three loved ones buried in the cemetery and was happy to hear she would be able see the service being produced by Weinhold and his team.
Doing big events like this outside the studio production auditoriums in Bruckner Hall on the Fort Myer portion of the joint base is not new. But Weinhold, who does most of the planning for them, said doing events outside in remote locations require months of planning and execution, along with professional cameras and specially calibrated lighting provided by others.
For Sunday’s service, the band planned this video production in less than two weeks using a new capability of multiple cameras and mobile internet connectivity never used before.
Weinhold adjusted his face covering as he looked at the video monitor in front of Staff Sgt. Clark McDaniel, video producer. McDaniel checked some settings on his gear linking to cellular towers and allowing the remote feed to the Facebook page.
“It’s an absolute honor to be able to help bring an event with such profound meaning and rich history to people not only local to this area, but around the world,” McDaniel said. “I’m grateful that we’re in a position to keep the tradition alive despite the difficult circumstances the world is currently facing and to bring hope when it’s most needed.”
Across the amphitheater, audio technician Staff Sgt. Eric Messick checked a microphone on the stage.
He said his biggest challenge and job for today’s event is the same as it is for all the shows he does.
“I need to make sure that what the audience hears is what they see — that the sound matches the video,” he said.
Other than a brief mention in the press about the broadcast of the first service, not much is known about early broadcasts of the service to outside audiences or how large those audiences were. But news reports said the service in 1941 was broadcast nationwide by NBC and CBS radio stations. The April 9, 1944, service was broadcast by the War Information Department via short-wave radio to troops overseas fighting in World War II in the European and Pacific theaters.
The Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall attended this service, giving the prayer. An Associated Press article said “thousands of Washington officials and visitors attended” as Marshall prayed for strength for “those who offer their lives in support of the nation’s cause by land, sea and air.”
The article reported Marshall saying American troops are fighting “to secure freedom for all peoples.” His prayer: “Give us strength O Lord to be pure in heart and purpose, to the end of peace on earth, good will toward men.”
Afterward, Marshall, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Sir Knight Charles Orr laid a cross wreath of lilies at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Roosevelt — who also was present in at least 1935, 1937 and 1938 — attended the service and Orr was the Knights Templar grand master hosting the service that year.
There are reports that radio broadcasts of the service continued at least through the 1980s.
As the technicians finished their lighting, audio and video preparations for Sunday’s social media post, sounds of the three musicians from the band singing and playing their instruments began to fill the quiet of the early morning.
Sgt. 1st Class Kelley Corbett, principle trumpet player in the Concert Band, blew into his instrument. When the cameras went live 20 minutes later, all the focus would be on him for the start of the show with the bugle call.
“It’s all part of the job,” he said. “You never know what you’ll do next. And this is pretty big.”
One constant with these services over the years has been the military in the National Capital Region involvement. A 1983 news article announcing the end of the Knights Templar involvement in the service said the Marine Corps Band and U.S. Army Chorus had been a part of every service from 1931.
A feature article in Knights Templar magazine in 1980 said along with military chaplains becoming involved in the service in recent years, the Military District of Washington and Armed Services Chaplains Committee were that year part of the planning for the service.
MDW fully took over the service in 1983. JBM-HH became responsible for it in 2015.
When told he was one of a long line of folks from the U.S. Army Chorus participating in the services from the start, Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Heil said, “This is a different kind of performance compared to what we normally do. We are usually performing with a full chorus.
“So this is a little more intimate for us this morning. Plus, we are performing an original arrangement made just for this service.”
Heil was referring to the work of another member of the chorus, pianist Staff Sgt. Daniel Campolieta, who warmed up next to him on the keyboard. When Compolieta learned the service would be a virtual one on Facebook, he specially arranged “Were You There When they Crucified My Lord” for piano, solo tenor and trumpet to be performed during the service.
“With all that is going on in the world with the pandemic and the fact we were still able to come together to make music,” Compolieta said, “being part of this service is a blessing and pretty special. So I wanted to have something that matched the moment.”
The annual service actually started on the Walter Reed Hospital property in 1928 by the Knights Templar.
It moved to Arlington National Cemetery for the 1931 service because Knights Templar leaders in the Washington, D.C., area wanted a larger space for a larger audience and they wanted to honor Masons who died in war, according to Vance Penn, an authority on Masonic history. He is a Department of the Army civilian employee who works as a human resource specialist with U.S. Army Installation Management Command in San Antonio.
He earned his PhD in 2017 from Thomas Paine College, writing his dissertation on the impact the Freemasons had on America’s military, business, exploration and entertainment. He has published one book on Freemason history and expects to publish another one this year on Freemasons who served in the American Revolution.
Penn said in an interview after the service that the Knights Templar is the only group in the Freemasons that require members to have a Christian faith — all other groups simply require a belief in a supreme being.
“In Christianity, the holiest of days are the Triduum, or ‘three days’ in Latin,” Penn said. “Maundy Thursday when Christ gathered the disciples for the Last Supper, Good Friday when Christ died on the cross and the Vigil of Easter when Christians await the break of day when Christ arose.
“Sunrise is significant because it represents Christ’s resurrection, a new beginning.”
While the Masonic group conducted the services until 1982, Penn felt the message is still the same today.
“The message is fairly straightforward,” Penn said. “The Knights Templar rejoice in the resurrection of Christ and honor those who have died in war at the sunrise service. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s important to remember that tradition and the importance of the resurrection of Christ are still important to Christians and Knights Templar around the world.”
So as showtime approached for this special service, Chaplain (Col.) Michael T. Shellman came to the podium to rehearse. Shellman is the senior Army chaplain at Arlington National Cemetery. He did the call to worship.
“I just feel this is the best way to start this special day,” Shellman said. “Meeting at the break of dawn to welcome the resurrection of Christ — it doesn’t get any better than this.”
The Army chief of chaplains, Chaplain (Maj. Gen.) Thomas L. Solhjem, joined Shellman on stage. Solhjem gave the Easter message. He placed his papers on the podium.
“This is unprecedented,” he said. “This service has been going since the Great Depression. It was a message of hope then, and it is a message of hope today. We have inclement weather plans for this service, but not one for a global pandemic.
“So I am honored to be a part of this. It is the third time I have been involved as a general officer. I am convinced that myself and everyone in our audience will remember this day for the rest of our lives.
“People are awakened by this situation — this is a very important day.”
McDaniel announced from the production table: “Eight minutes!”
He and Weinhold made final shot adjustments with the two main speakers on the stage. The two producers decided the light of the stage area would not be needed because daylight was fast approaching.
Sgt. 1st Class Denise Min placed an Easter lily in front of the podium as a final touch. She assisted JBM-HH deputy chaplain, Chaplain (Maj.) John Lee, in quickly checking that the items on the podium were firmly attached and left the stage area. Both work in the JBM-HH Religious Support Office and coordinated the service.
Karen Durham-Aguilera, executive director of the Office of Army Cemeteries and Arlington National Cemetery, came into the amphitheater to represent the cemetery and talk to some of the participants.
“The virtual Easter Sunrise Service was a very moving ceremony in this beautiful setting,” she said after the service. “It served to connect the community as best as possible. To represent the more than 150,000 virtual visitors from around the world, was our great honor. People from Grafenwoehr, (Germany), Taiwan, Kuwait, Australia, Sweden and many others throughout the globe offered their appreciation and prayers online.
“It was a beautiful and heart-warming experience.”
She left the grassy area and joined her husband Enzo Aguilera on the sidewalk at the rear of the amphitheater between sections two and 26 of the cemetery where they would stand holding hands throughout the service,
“Four minutes!” McDaniel said.
Everyone was in place.
“One minute!” from McDaniel.
Weinhold ran to one camera. He put on his glasses for a final check. He gave a thumbs up to McDaniel.
“Ten seconds to live!” said McDaniel as a reddish orange came in the sky over Washington, D.C.
The amphitheater filled with daylight.
McDaniel motioned to his partner Sgt. 1st Class Jeffrey Northman to begin. Northman is a full-time trumpet player in the Ceremonial Band but is helping with this production as a video producer.
Northman raised his thumb high in the air to signal for Corbett to play the bugle call.
Story and Photos
By Mike Howard
JBM-HH Public Affairs Director