50 Caliber Bullets into Communion Cups

50 Caliber Bullets into Communion Cups

In 1943 during World War II General Douglas MaCarthur lead an invasion of the Philippines. He wanted an island airfield from which to launch into the Pacific and so he set out to invade the little Indonesian island of Biak. He sent 12,000 troops but they thought they wouldn’t encounter much resistance. 11,000 Japanese troops hid on the island and ambushed US troops.

What should have been a quick engagement took much longer. After a month of fighting General MaCarthur replaced his commanding officer and the invasion continued. Six months after they secured the island, in June 1944, a Seventh Day Baptist Chaplain named Leon Maltby arrived on the island.

As chaplain it was his job to minister to the troops. He had a 20×60 canvas structure to serve as his chapel but nothing in it except for a floor made out of packed coral and a roof made from a yellow parachute. So with the help of some carpenters he built pews, a platform, and an alter. At the machine shop he made a set of candlesticks from 40 mm shells, a vase, and “a cross out of a 90 mm shell.” 

He wanted to serve communion but had nothing to serve it with. He eventually found some unused 50 caliber bullets, which had to be new because he didn’t want to use any shells that had been used to kill. He pulled out the lead and gunpowder and set off the firing caps. He took the shells, welded them, pressed them into the right shape, and shined them. Each bullet took about two-hours to complete and he made enough communion cups for two trays, 80 total. 

He took the bullets and shells, now a communion set, and served his men. In 1945 Chaplain Maltby sailed into Japan and was actually the “first Protestant Chaplain” to enter Japan. He became good friends with a local Japanese Pastor and used the set to serve the Lord’s Supper with him, which moved the Japanese Pastor deeply. As the display at the Veterans Museum in Daytona Beach reads, “The pastor clearly understood the significance of ‘Instruments of death becoming a symbol of eternal life.’” 

As we come to the communion table tonight our cups are not made of 50 caliber bullets but just like Chaplain Maltby’s set they are symbolically filled with the blood of Christ. It is the body and blood of Christ, broken and shed on the cross, that turns enemies of God into friends of God. We should be at war with God, but instead we can have peace.

Tonight’s sermon is on Micah 4 which says, “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” (NIV) As you prepare your heart to receive communion and to hear that sermon meditate on how Christ took an instrument of terrible death, the cross, and at the cost of his own life, transformed it into a symbol of eternal life. 

Pastor Jonathan Romig wrote this reflection after reading about Maltby’s story in Stephen Dempster’s Two Horizons Micah Commentary and contacting Bob Hawes, the curator of the Veterans Museum and Education Center (VMAEC) in Daytona Beach, FL. Bob sent Pastor Jonathan a picture of the display case and story by Chaplain Maltby’s two children, “Instruments of Death Become Symbols Of Eternal Life.” Please visit the museum next time you’re in Daytona.

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Photo adapted from VMAEC.