EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was originally published in the February 2018 COLUMBIA.
In the early morning hours of Feb. 3, 1943, the USAT Dorchester was steaming across frigid, U-boat-infested waters in the North Atlantic. Suddenly, a German torpedo struck near the engine room, triggering a massive explosion. The transport vessel, which was carrying more than 900 passengers bound for a U.S. Army base in Greenland, capsized and sank in less than 20 minutes.
Among those on board were four Army chaplains, each with the rank of first lieutenant: Father John P. Washington; Rabbi Alexander D. Goode; Rev. Clark V. Poling, a Reformed minister; and Rev. George L. Fox, a Methodist minister. Just hours before the attack, Father Washington had celebrated a Mass that was attended by men of many faiths.
As the ship sank, the chaplains calmly ministered to the panic-stricken and wounded, assisting soldiers and others boarding lifeboats. Many survivors later testified to their bravery.
“I could hear men crying, pleading, praying,” recalled Pfc. William B. Bednar. “I could also hear the chaplains preaching courage. Their voices were the only thing that kept me going.”
Others reported seeing the chaplains handing out life preservers until there were no more to give — including their own. One eyewitness, John Ladd, said, “It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven.”
Survivors on rafts were awestruck as they caught a final glimpse of the courageous quartet, who came to be known as “The Four Chaplains,” standing together on the slanted deck, arms locked and singing hymns as the ship slipped beneath the waves. They were among more than 670 passengers who died at sea that day. In the 75 years since their death, and still today, there have been many dedicated to commemorating the chaplains’ sacrifice and keeping their story alive.
Though the four chaplains came from different backgrounds, each was motivated by profound love of God, country and neighbor. The tragedy of Pearl Harbor moved them to volunteer as military chaplains, and that call brought the four men together for the first time in 1942 at the Army Chaplains School at Harvard University.
Father John Washington was born in Newark, N.J., July 18, 1908, and from an early age felt called to become a priest. Ordained in 1935, Father Washington served in several New Jersey parishes. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, he volunteered to be a Navy chaplain but was turned down due to poor eyesight — the result of a childhood BB gun accident. Undeterred, he went to the Army and passed the eye test by covering his weak eye both times when reading the eye chart, praying that God would forgive his sleight of hand.
Rev. George Fox, born in Lewiston, Pa., March 15, 1900, had served with distinction as a medic during World War I. He was ordained a Methodist minister at Boston University’s School of Theology in 1934. Eight years later, he volunteered to be an Army chaplain on the same day that his son, Wyatt, entered the Marine Corps.
Rev. Clark Poling was born into a prominent family of ministers in Columbus, Ohio, Aug. 7, 1910. He studied at Yale University’s Divinity School in New Haven, Conn., was ordained a minister in the Reformed Church of America and volunteered for chaplain duty in 1942.
Rabbi Alexander Goode was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., May 10, 1911. An outstanding athlete and scholar, he planned to follow his father’s footsteps as a rabbi. He earned a Ph.D. in Arabic studies and desired to bring Jews and Arabs together. Like Washington, he had been turned down by the Navy but was accepted in the Army Air Forces.
The chaplains, disappointed at being sent to serve in a rear guard capacity in Greenland rather than on the front lines, did not hesitate to sacrifice their lives for their brothers in arms when the opportunity arose.
As news of the Dorchester’s demise reached the United States, the magnitude of the loss of life coupled with accounts of the four chaplains’ heroic charity and sacrifice astonished the nation.
In 1944, all four men posthumously received the Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart, and in 1948 a U.S. postage stamp was issued in their honor bearing the words “These Immortal Chaplains.” Congress authorized a one-time only posthumous “Special Medal for Heroism,” which was presented to family members in 1961. Then, in 1988, a unanimous act of Congress established Feb. 3 as the annual Four Chaplains Day.
Today, a host of monuments, chapels and works of art, including stained-glass windows at the Pentagon and West Point, also memorialize the Four Chaplains’ faith in action.
REMEMBERING A LEGACY
Members of the Knights of Columbus have long honored the memory of the four chaplains, and at least three military units are named in their honor — The Four Chaplains Council 10652 at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wa.,The Four Chaplains Council 13901 at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., and The Four Chaplains Assembly 3557 at Travis Air Force Base, Calif.
St. Stephen’s Parish in Kearny, N.J., the last parish where Father Washington served, will celebrate the 75th anniversary with a Mass on Sunday, Feb. 4. Members of St. Cecilia Council 6928 in Kearny will take part in the solemn annual tribute, just as they have done for many years.
“Council members feel strongly that it’s important for people to remember the Four Chaplains,” said Grand Knight Kevin Purcell. “Today the world needs inspiring stories more than ever.”
Mark S. Auerbach, the city historian of Passaic, N.J., and a distant cousin of Rabbi Goode, shares a similar passion for keeping the memory of the Four Chaplains alive.
“I’m fulfilling my father’s wish to do all I can to tell the story of the Four Chaplains so that it’s never forgotten,” he said, adding that the 75th anniversary of the chaplains’ sacrifice brings a sense of urgency to their legacy.
“We’re rapidly losing members of the ‘Greatest Generation,’” Auerbach said. “It may be hard for people to comprehend what they did for us. They went from living through the Great Depression to fighting for our survival during World War II.”
Integral to the story of the Four Chaplains is their demonstration of interfaith heroism — four men from different religious traditions who rose to the occasion in a life-and-death crisis and worked together at a moment’s notice to serve others.
“They came from different faith traditions, but they were united in their service to humanity,” said Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio, archbishop of the Military Services, USA, who will preside at the Feb. 4 Mass at St. Stephen’s Parish.
“In giving up their life jackets, they stripped themselves of their only hope for survival,” Archbishop Broglio explained. “This was faith in action. They didn’t wake up that day thinking they would be heroes. They acted because of their faith and their values. The challenge is to live what you believe.”
Father Joseph A. Mancini, pastor of St. Stephen’s and chaplain of Council 6928, maintains an archive on the Four Chaplains at his church.
“Sometimes we take our heroes and put them on a pedestal,” said Father Mancini. “They wouldn’t want that. The Four Chaplains were regular guys who did an extraordinary thing. Their sacrifice was an act of service, but we’re all called to some act of service.”
For more information, visit fourchaplains.org.
MICHAEL C. GABRIELE is a freelance writer based in Clifton, N.J.
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