This Is Why We Stand: The Four Immortal Chaplains
There is nothing that I enjoy more in life than visiting the many memorials that pay tribute to the heroes of America. I recently had the privilege to visit the beautiful New York State World War II Memorial in Albany, NY. One feature of this sacred space caught my eye in particular. To the left of the entrance to the memorial is a plaque dedicated to the Four Immortal Chaplains. With my brother at my side, I read the contents of this plaque out loud. It states, “During the early morning hours of February 3, 1943, the USAT Dorchester was part of a convoy of six ships heading for Greenland when an enemy U-boat attacked, firing a torpedo into the ship’s midsection. The Dorchester quickly began taking on water and the order was given to abandon ship. Four Army chaplains worked to pass out life vests until all the vests were gone. Without regard for safety the four chaplains gave up their own life vests so others might be saved. These brave men of different faiths were last seen locked arm-in-arm on the ships hull praying and singing hymns. They perished as the Dorchester slipped beneath the icy waters of the North Atlantic.” My heart stopped after reading those words. I knew immediately that this was a story that needed to be shared and known to all.
The names of The Four Immortal Chaplains are as follows, Lieutenant. George L. Fox, Methodist Minister; Lieutenant. Alexander D. Goode, Jewish Rabbi; Lieutenant. Clark V. Poling, Dutch Reformed Minister; and Lieutenant. John P. Washington, Catholic Priest.
Left to Right: Lt. George L. Fox, Lt. Alexander D. Goode, Lt. Clark V. Poling, and Lt. John P. Washington. (Photo: sagu.edu)
As the plaque reminds us, these Four Chaplains all came from different faiths and backgrounds, but they all served the same country. When confronted with their most challenging moment, these heroes showed themselves to be mans best example for hope on earth.
According to the Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation, the U.S.A.T Dorchester was a luxury coastal liner before being converted into an Army transport ship. With 902 service men, merchant seamen, and civilian workers aboard, the Dorchester was headed for an American base in Greenland. On the night of February 2, 1943, the FCMF notes that the Dorchester was only 150 miles from its destination. On February 3, the German Submarine U-223 had the Dorchester in its sights. Once in range, the U-223 fired its torpedoes. Only one torpedo managed to hit the Dorchester, but it delivered a catastrophic blow, “Striking the starboard side, amid ship, far below the water line.” Hans J. Danielson was the Dorchester’s Captain. He was quickly informed that the ship was taking water and gave the order to abandon ship.
"USAT Dorchester leaving St. John's Harbor on the way to Greenland in the Fall of 1942." (Photo: The Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation)
Once the order to abandon ship was given, chaos set in. The Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation writes, “Men jumped from the ship into lifeboats, over-crowding them to the point of capsizing.” Some eyewitnesses said that some of the rafts, “drifted away before soldiers could get in them.” While many panicked and lost faith, the Four Chaplains remained composed and mustered their courage. The son of Lt. George L. Fox said, “Witnesses of that terrible night remember hearing the four men offer prayers for the dying and encouragement for those who would live.”
The original blast from the torpedo had killed many of the men on board and seriously wounded many others. Private William B. Bednar saw this carnage firsthand as he was floating in, “Oil smeared water surrounded by dead bodies and debris.” He recalled the darkness of that moment, “I could hear men crying, pleading, praying,” but Bednar found a light in that darkness, “I could also hear the chaplains preaching courage. Their voices were the only thing that kept me going.”
An illustration of men evacuating the Dorchester. (Photo: sagu.edu)
Most of the men still on board had moved topside to prepare for evacuation. The Four Chaplains opened up a storage locker and began to distribute life vests to these men. With so many desperate men in need, the number of life vests quickly dwindled until there were none left. The chaplains then removed their life vests and gave them to, “Four frightened young men.” John Ladd was a survivor from the attack on the Dorchester, in reflection, he stated, “It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven.”
The Four Chaplains Memorial writes, “In less than 20 minutes, the Dorchester would slip beneath the Atlantic’s icy waters.” Before the Dorchester vanished from sight, survivors in escaping rafts witnessed the Chaplains, with their arms linked, braced against the slanting deck. The survivors continued to hear them saying prayers up until the very end.
An illustration of the Four Chaplains final moments together. (Photo: U.S. Army)
902 men were aboard the Dorchester at the time of the attack. 672 of them lost their lives. 230 men managed to survive. Like so many of those survivors would attest to, their survival could not have been without the unwavering spirit, courage, and determination of the Four Chaplains.
Since the Medal of Honor requires, “Heroism performed under fire,” a Special Medal for Heroism was authorized by Congress and posthumously presented to the Four Chaplains. President Dwight D. Eisenhower awarded this special honor on January 18, 1961. The chaplains were also posthumously awarded The Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart.
The Special Medal for Heroism. Presented posthumously to the Four Chaplains. (Photo: The Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation)
There are memorials to the Four Chaplains throughout the entire country. In an increasingly divided world, we need their story now more than ever. The Chaplains served god, they served their country, and they lived the highest ideals and values that each represents. We must never forget their sacrifice and the lessons that they left behind.