This post is dedicated to my sister, my dad, my grandfather, and all those who serve or have served or will serve our country. They are braver men and women than I.
When I came across this story, it surprised me. I had never heard of it before, but something about the sacrifice of these men touched me and I knew it was what I wanted to write about today. I found out too late that the Milwaukee VA Medical Center held a memorial service on Sunday for these four chaplains. I hope next year I can go and take the boys as well.
I’m going to try a bit of a different format for this than the ones I’ve used in the past, so bear with me as I work out the kinks. I hope this shortens the post length and makes it a bit more user-friendly/readable. I plan on summarize the events and then listing 10 things you should know about this event, with further resources for learning more at the bottom of the page.
On this day (February 3rd) in 1943, the USAT Dorchester sank when it was attacked by the Germans during WWII. As the boat was sinking, these four chaplains aided in the effort to save as many of the soldiers as possible, helping get soldiers onto lifeboats and even giving up their own life jackets when they ran out. All four died, going down with the ship.
Without further ado, here are 10 things you should know about the Four Chaplains and the sinking of the USAT Dorchester.
1. The chaplains represented different faiths/denominations and were all traveling on the Dorchester to report to their different assignments in Europe. George L. Fox was a Methodist minister, Alexander D. Goode was a Reform-Rabbi, John P. Washington was a Catholic priest, and Clark V. Poling was a (Dutch) Reformed Church in America minister.
2. George L. Fox was the oldest of the four. He also served in the ambulance corps in WWI, lying about his age to join the army. He was married and had a daughter and a son, who enlisted in the Marine Corps during WWII.
3. Alexander D. Goode was the youngest of the four. He first attempted to become a Navy chaplain, but they rejected him. He tried again after the attack on Pearl Harbor and was then accepted as an Army chaplain. His youngest daughter was born a few months after his death.
Dorchester survivors credit the chaplains with the saving of many lives by their success in persuading confused men to overcome their fear and not plunge overboard – New York Times, 1944
4. Clark V. Poling was a second generation Army chaplain. His father had been an Army chaplain during WWI. Before leaving, he asked his father to pray for him: “Not for my safe return, that wouldn’t be fair. Just pray that I shall do my duty…never be a coward…and have the strength, courage and understanding of men. Just pray that I shall be adequate.”
From the US Army Website
5. John P. Washington knew he wanted to be a priest from a young age. He worked hard as a child, helping his family with extra money since there were nine mouths to feed.
From York Heritage Trust
6. The Dorchester was originally a civilian cruise ship. After WWII broke out, it was converted to an army ship, primarily for troop transport. As a civilian ship, it was able to carry about 400 people, passengers and crew combined. After the conversion it was able to carry 900 people.
In Public Domain
7. The ship was on its way to Greenland. The previous attacks by German U-boats had the ship on high alert even before there was any sign of trouble. Orders were passed down to sleep in their clothes and life jackets, though some disregarded this order.
“Escanaba-Dorchester rescue” by unattributed United States Coast Guard image – United States Coast Guard Historian’s Office at http://www.uscg.mil/history/articles/tetheredrescueswimmer.asp. Licensed under Public Domain
8. Those men were extremely brave. This one seems obvious, but their role was huge. They were able to remain calm in the face of such danger, gave up their life jackets when there weren’t enough (Rabbi Goode even gave up his gloves), and survivors of that horrible event said that as the ship was sinking into the depths, the survivors saw the chaplains with their arms linked, praying for the safety of the rest of the men.
It was the finest thing I have seen, or hope to see, this side of heaven. – Survivor John Ladd, on the chaplains’ selfless act of giving up their own life jackets
9. Only 230 of the 902 men survived ultimately and unfortunately, but it was not for lack of effort on the chaplains part. Most of the men died of hypothermia, as the waters were extremely cold and so was the air outside. The rescuers found many of them dead, their life jackets holding their bodies afloat. The attack had instantly killed about 100 men and knocked out power and radio communication as well. Many lifeboats suffered damage or became inaccessible during the attack.
“Chaplainmedal”. Licensed under Public Domain
10. The US Government awarded them several honors. They were all posthumously awarded Purple Hearts as well as the Distinguished Service Cross. Congress attempted to award them the Medal of Honor, but they didn’t meet the strict criteria, so instead they created their own award, The Four Chaplains’ Medal. This medal is also known sometimes as the Chaplains’ Medal of Honor, as it is meant to have the same weight and significance. Additionally, February 3rd was established by Congress to be Four Chaplains Day, a day of remembrance. They were also honored with a commemorative postage stamp in 1948 and in 1951 President Truman dedicated The Chapel of the Four Chaplains. Three crosses and one Star of David honor these four brave men at Arlington National Cemetery.
Explore This Topic Further
- You can seek out the documentary The Four Chaplains: Sacrifice at Sea. Several books were also written which you can find listed in the Wikipedia link below.