The Four Chaplains

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John Washington first saw the light of day on July 18, 1908 in Newark, New Jersey.

One of seven kids in a poor immigrant family, John as a boy had a newspaper route to help bring in money for the family. Singing in the choir at mass, John decided by the seventh grade that his goal in life was to be a priest.

Graduating from Seton Hall with an A.B. degree in 1931, John entered Immaculate Conception Seminary in 1931 and was ordained a priest on June 15, 1935. Father Washington ‘s first assignment was at Saint Genevieve’s in Elizabeth, New Jersey, followed by service at Saint Stephen’s in Arlington, New Jersey. Father Washington, having grown up on the wrong side of the tracks in Newark, knew how important proper guidance was for kids. He would play baseball with them on the streets and organized youth baseball teams at the parishes to which he was assigned.

Immediately after Pearl Harbor Father Washington joined the Army as a chaplain. On May 9, 1942 he was named Chief of the Chaplain Reserve Pool at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indiana. In June he was assigned to the 76th Infantry Division and in November 1942 attended the chaplain course at Harvard. There he first met three other chaplains: George L. Fox, a Methodist minister, Clark V. Poling, a Dutch Reformed minister and Alexander D. Goode, a Jewish rabbi.

Fox was the oldest of the chaplains having been born in 1900. This was his second World War, having served in World War I where his courage was acknowledged by being awarded the Silver Star, Purple Heart and the French Croix de Guerre. On August 8, 1942 he went on active duty as a chaplain, the same day his son joined the Marine Corps.

Poling was born in 1910. His father had served as a chaplain in World War I. When he went off to the Army Poling told his father: “Dad, don’t pray for my safe return, just pray that I shall do my duty and something more, pray that I shall never be a coward. Pray that I shall have the strength, courage, and understanding of men, and especially pray that I shall be patient. Oh, Dad, just pray that I shall be adequate.”

Goode was the youngest of the four chaplains having been born in 1911. The son of a rabbi, he also became a rabbi.   He attempted to become a chaplain with the Navy in January 1941. Not accepted at that time he entered the Army as a chaplain on July 21, 1942.

The four men became friends at the chaplain school.   By purest chance on January 22, 1943 they found themselves reunited on Staten Island boarding a transport ship headed for Greenland, the converted luxury liner the Dorchester.   A total of 904 men were on board the ship, the vast majority Army troops.  The Dorchester was part of convoy SG-19.  The four chaplains kept themselves busy holding religious services and seeing to the morale of the men.  Fellow passengers recall them as being inseperable and always in good humor.

On the night of February 3, 1943, the Dorchester was nearing the southern tip of Greenland, 150 miles from its destination.   At 12:35 AM an officer aboard the U-233 spotted the Dorchester through a periscope.   The German submarine instantly fired three torpedoes at the Dorchester, one striking the starboard side of the ship far below the waterline.   The power aboard the ship was knocked out, scores of men were killed by the explosion, and the ship was plunged into darkness and chaos.

The four chaplains instantly sprang into action.   Cooly they brought order out of chaos leading the men to where the life jackets were stored and began handing them out.   While they were doing this they encouraged the men with prayers and admonitions to keep their courage up, and tended the wounded as best they could.   It quickly became apparent that there were not enough life jackets to go around.   Without a word, each of the chaplains took off their life jackets and gave them to four frightened young men.   One of the witnesses to this act, John Ladd, later said, “It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of Heaven.”   The chaplains went down with the ship.   Survivors reported seeing them on the slanting deck, arms linked and offering prayers for the safety of the men.   230 men survived this disaster.   Far fewer would have survived but for the orderly distribution of the life jackets by the chaplains.   Approximately 25 minutes elapsed between the torpedoing of the Dorchester and her sinking beneath the waves.

On December 19, 1944 each of the chaplains was posthumously awarded a purple heart and a distinguished service cross.   Congress attempted to award the chaplains each a Medal of Honor but this effort was blocked because their actions were not considered to have been performed under enemy fire which strikes me as bizarre, since the Dorchester was sunk as a result of enemy fire.  However, on July 14, 1960 Congress created the Four Chaplains Medal to be awarded to each of the chaplains.   This medal has the same standing as the Medal of Honor and was limited to the four chaplains.   I am pleased to report that the heroism of the four chaplains is remembered, and there are many websites dedicated to them. Here are a few:

The Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation, The Immortal Chaplains Foundation and the Four Chaplains website at Arlington National Cemetery.

By Act of Congress February 3 is Four Chaplains Day and a stamp was issued in 1948 commemorating the Four Chaplains.

The Four Chaplains rightly received many honors and plaudits after their heroic deaths, but none of them are as significant as this simple fact:  God was well served by the Four Chaplains that dark night.

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