During the first weekend in February an anniversary will occur without receiving much attention or recognition. The Story of the Four Chaplains however, is a fascinating account of unparalleled bravery, dedication to a higher calling and remarkable examples of true interfaith beliefs and practices. The story touches on many contemporary themes: the courage and heroism of our military personnel, the unique role that chaplains play, the amazing sense of interfaith awareness that was exhibited and finally the powerful morale boost that their sacrifice offered to the entire country engaged in a fight for survival.
There was much anxiety aboard the US Army Transport Ship the Dorchester, sailing from the United States to Europe. It was early February 1943 and America had been in the Second World War a little over a year. The outcome seemed distant and uncertain. The nine hundred soldiers aboard knew that the Dorchester, an old transport, was entering an area in the northern Atlantic that made them vulnerable to a German submarine attack. This sense of impending doom was heightened by the fact that they were ordered to sleep in full uniform and life jackets.
At one o’clock in the morning on the third of February, their worst nightmare became a reality. The ship was torpedoed. Some were immediately killed and injured in the initial blast. Most, had been jarred awake by the explosion. Smoke was everywhere and the ship began to list. Within minutes, the order to abandon ship was given. The only option was to struggle through the darkness and smoke to the upper deck and get into a lifeboat.
Into this maelstrom of chaos and fear stood four Army chaplains, George Fox, Alexander Goode, Clark Poling, and John Washington. They acted with heroism and holiness offering prayers and words of encouragement to the soldiers, helping them into lifeboats. The chaplains had on their life-jackets and survival gear. They would survive. In their haste and panic, many of the warriors had forgotten their life jackets and other equipment. Without these items, they would die within moments in the frigid Atlantic water and bitter cold. Without any forethought, the chaplains began giving their life-jackets, gloves, and survival gear to the frightened men. In doing so, they ensured their own demise. One of the lasting memories of the survivors was the chaplains gathering together, offering final prayers and holding on to each other as the ship sank beneath the waves. As the Chaplains gave away their gear they said, “Take this my son, you need it more than I do.”
Each of the chaplains had their own life accomplishments. George Fox , a Methodist minister, had served in the First World War as a medic and had been wounded. receiving a medal for bravery. He was not required to serve again in the military. However, when his son enlisted in the Marines, he signed on with the Army as a Chaplain. Alexander Goode was a rabbi and scholar. He had earned his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University and was a successful pulpit rabbi. Prior to entering the chaplaincy he wrote, “The new world, held together by the bonds of religious idealism, is the goal of democracy through the ages.” He left behind a wife and young daughter. Clark Poling came from a prominent religious family. His Dutch Reformed Church in Schenectady, New York had told him that his primary responsibility during the war was to his wife, young son, and their church. Nonetheless, he volunteered for service. In a final letter to his congregation he wrote, “Our goal is not to gratify our pride and human desire, it is to hold high the light of our Savior in a troubled and confused world.” John Washington’s lifelong goal had been to become a Roman Catholic priest. He, along with two brothers, reflected their love of America by serving in the armed forces. During his last visit home, he asked everyone to say prayers for him. He sensed that he was going into a new and dangerous reality.
This incident, which became known as the story of The Four Chaplains, gave the country an enormous morale boost during the beginning months of the Second World War. We were fighting enemies who envisioned a world based on prejudice, hatred, and evil. This story reflected another vision. A courageous nation devoted to its ideals of freedom and liberty. The soldiers knew that this America was worth fighting for and if need be, making the ultimate sacrifice for future generations.
As we acknowledge the 77th anniversary of this event, we reflect upon its relevance. We recognize and appreciate the unbelievable sacrifices made by generations of men and women who take an oath to protect America and its liberties with their lives. The amazingly unselfish actions of the chaplains speak volumes. Not one of the clerics asked the soldiers rapidly moving toward the lifeboats their specific faith. A Catholic soldier was saved by the Rabbi’s lifejacket. A Jewish Private survived wearing the gloves of the Protestant minister. Where did they find the courage not to get into the lifeboats with the survivors? Only 200 soldiers survived out of the 900 men. As a Navy chaplain for twenty years, I have often asked myself what I would do in a similar situation.
For me, the image of the Four Chaplains holding on to each other and quickly offering their final prayers as the ship sank, is one of enormous Holiness. These men of faith found God in the grasp of each other. There was no place for intolerance or prejudice. People of faith should support each other. We need to learn about the countless historical and religious connections that we all have. In a moment of pure spirituality, the Four Chaplains reminded us that we are at our strongest and finest when we put the needs of others before our own.
Dr. Rabbi Albert I. Slomovitz
Founder-Jewish Christian Discovery Center