75 years of inspiration from the Four Chaplains

I was reminded of the Four Chaplains this week. Though the story is set a bit out of the Pioneer’s coverage area, the 75th anniversary of the event that keeps the four Army chaplains’ memories alive is fitting and prompts me to give it some space here.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the example set by four U.S. Army chaplains in 1943: Lt. John P. Washington, a Catholic Priest from Kearny, N.J.; Lt. Alexander D. Goode, a Jewish rabbi who was a native of York, Penn.; Lt. Clark V. Poling, a minister in the Reformed Church in America at the First Reformed Church in Schenectady, N.Y.; and Lt. George L. Fox, a decorated World War I veteran and Methodist minister in Gilman, Vt. 

The Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation website tells their story: It was Feb. 2, 1943, and three ships, including the USAT Dorchester, a 5,649-ton luxury costal liner that had been converted into an Army transport ship, were moving from the coast of Newfoundland toward an American base in Greenland. The Dorchester was carrying more than 900 servicemen, merchant seamen, and civilian workers, and the convoy was escorted by Coast Guard Cutters Tampa, Escanaba and Comanche.

Those in charge knew that the voyage was dangerous; earlier that day, the Tampa detected a submarine on its sonar, as German U-boats were a constant threat throughout shipping routes. The captain of the Dorchester ordered the men aboard to sleep in their clothing and keep their life jackets on due to the danger, but many, out of discomfort from the heat or general bulkiness of the life jackets, did not follow the order.

At 12:55 a.m. Feb. 3, when the Dorchester was about 80 miles south of Greenland, “a periscope broke the chilly Atlantic waters. Through the cross hairs, an officer aboard the German submarine U-223 spotted the Dorchester,” the foundation website states. “The U-223 approached the convoy on the surface, and after identifying and targeting the ship, he gave orders to fire the torpedoes, a fan of three were fired. The one that hit was decisive — and deadly — striking the starboard side, amid ship, far below the water line.

Captain Danielsen, alerted that the Dorchester was taking water rapidly and sinking, gave the order to abandon ship. In less than 20 minutes, the Dorchester would slip beneath the Atlantic’s icy waters.”

The attack knocked out power and radio contact between the Dorchester and its escort ships, though the Comanche saw the explosion, responded, and rescued 97 survivors, the website states. The Escanaba also was able to circle the Dorchester and rescue 132 survivors. The Tampa continued to escort the two remaining ships in the convoy toward their destination.

After such a blast on a ship on the ocean in 1943, one can only the panic and chaos on board: “The blast had killed scores of men, and many more were seriously wounded,” the foundation website states. “Others, stunned by the explosion were groping in the darkness. Those sleeping without clothing rushed topside where they were confronted first by a blast of icy Arctic air and then by the knowledge that death awaited. Men jumped from the ship into lifeboats, over-crowding them to the point of capsizing, according to eyewitnesses. Other rafts, tossed into the Atlantic, drifted away before soldiers could get in them.”

However, “Through the pandemonium, according to those present, four Army chaplains brought hope in despair and light in darkness.” Fox, Goode, Washington, and Poling spread out on the ship, attempting to calm the panicked, tend the wounded, and guide those aboard toward safety.

Witnesses remember hearing the chaplains’ prayers and found encouragement and hope.

Petty Officer John J. Mahoney tried to reenter his cabin when he was stopped by Goode. Mahoney explained he had forgotten his gloves, and Goode told him not to worry — that he had two pairs — and Goode handed Mahoney a pair of gloves. Only later did Mahoney realize that Goode did not have an extra pair of gloves: He had gifted his own gloves to the sailor.

The chaplains opened a storage locker to distribute the remaining life jackets to the men, and when the locker was empty, the four chaplains removed their life jackets and handed them to four young men. “‘It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven,’ said John Ladd, another survivor who saw the chaplains’ selfless act,” the foundation website states. “Ladd’s response is understandable. The altruistic action of the four chaplains constitutes one of the purest spiritual and ethical acts a person can make. When giving their life jackets, Rabbi Goode did not call out for a Jew; Father Washington did not call out for a Catholic; nor did the Reverends Fox and Poling call out for a Protestant. They simply gave their life jackets to the next man in line.”

Survivors in rafts reported that they watched the Dorchester sink, and the four chaplains reportedly had their arms links, braced against the slanting deck, offering prayers to the end. 

All told, 672 of the 902 men aboard the Dorchester died, the website states, with 230 survivors left to tell the tale to a stunned nation. (Different sources I searched showed differing totals.) 

However, the story of the four chaplains also inspired the nation: “That night Reverend Fox, Rabbi Goode, Reverend Poling and Father Washington passed life’s ultimate test. In doing so, they became an enduring example of extraordinary faith, courage and selflessness,” the foundation website states. The chaplains posthumously were each awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart on Dec. 19, 1944, presented to the next of kin by Lt. Gen. Brehon B. Somervell, commanding general of the Army Service Forces, in a ceremony at the post chapel at Fort Myer, Va. In addition, a one-time only posthumous Special Medal for Heroism, the Four Chaplains’ Medal, intended to have the same weight and importance as the Medal of Honor, was authorized by Congress and awarded on Jan. 18, 1961.

In 1948, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp in their honor, and Congress designated Feb. 3 as “Four Chaplains Day.” 

Communities around the nation hold Four Chaplains Services each February to remember their selfless acts, and 75 years later, the story remains as powerful as ever. There’s much more to learn about the topic; I would encourage you to do a bit of research if you are unfamiliar with the Four Chaplains.

 

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