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The Four Immortal Chaplains


On February 3, 1943, the American troop transport ship, USAT Dorchester had almost completed its north Atlantic journey from St. John’s, Newfoundland to a base in Greenland. One of three ships in convoy SG 19, the Dorchester carried around 900 soldiers, seamen, and civilian workers. In constant danger of falling prey to German U-boats, the journey across the Atlantic’s icy waters had not been easy. Even now, an enemy submarine was stalking the Dorchester. The evening before, Captain Hans Danielsen made an announcement over the ship’s public address system, warning, “We have a submarine following us,” and in order to be prepared for an attack, those aboard were ordered to sleep in their clothes and life jackets. Although the Dorchester would soon be within range of air protection, the enemy continued to hunt.

The Dorchester leaving St. John's Harbor on the way to Greenland. (Photo Credit: The Four Chaplain's Memorial Foundation)

At 12:55 a.m., one of the three torpedoes fired by the German U-boat, U-233 struck the Dorchester’s starboard side and exploded, leaving a hole near the engine room from below the water line. Devastated by this attack, it is estimated that nearly one-third of those aboard the ship were killed almost instantly. As the Dorchester began to sink, those who had ignored Captain Danielsen’s orders to sleep in their clothes and life jackets now found themselves wishing they had listened. Lights were out, conditions made it impossible to deploy several lifeboats, and overall chaos ensued as the men desperately tried to abandon ship. In the midst of this dark hour, four extraordinary men of God helped to guide the way forward.

Among those topside were four Army chaplains: Lt. George L. Fox, a Methodist minister; Lt. Alexander D. Goode, a Jewish Rabbi; Lt. John P. Washington, a Roman Catholic priest; and Lt. Clark V. Poling, a Dutch Reformed minister. Without thinking of their own safety, the four chaplains braved the frigid night air, handing out life vests, giving absolution, and helping others to slide down ropes to the cold water below. “I could hear men crying, pleading, praying,” recalled Private William B. Bednar. “I could also hear the chaplains preaching courage.” Surrounded by death and destruction as he floated in oil-smeared water, Bednar remembered that the voices of the chaplains “were the only thing that kept me going.” He was not the only one who found the will to go on. Many of the men who survived this nightmare reported that through it all, the four chaplains could be found everywhere on the deck of the Dorchester, helping everyone they could until the very end.

Clockwise from top left: George L. Fox, Alexander D. Goode, John P. Washington, and Clark V. Poling. (Photo One, Photo Two, Photo Three, Photo Four: Wikimedia Commons)

With every passing moment, the Dorchester came closer and closer to completely sinking. Any hope of making it through this ordeal depended on obtaining a life jacket and getting off the ship quickly. To the horror of four young men, the supply of life jackets eventually ran out, but because of the four chaplains, they were given a chance to survive. As Engineer Grady Clark witnessed, the chaplains removed their own life jackets and gave them to the four desperate men. “It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven,” proclaimed another survivor who observed this incredible display of selflessness and bravery. As many survivors reported, in their final act, the four chaplains locked arms and prayed together as the Dorchester tragically sank below the waves.

Approximately 25 minutes after being struck by the torpedo fired by U-233, the Dorchester finally went down. During rescue operations, the Coast Guard managed to save around 230 of the 900 men aboard. The four chaplains were gone, but the story of their supreme sacrifice would not soon be forgotten.

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Escanaba and other Coast Guard vessels helping to rescue survivors from the Dorchester. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

On December 19, 1944, each chaplain was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross. Four years later, the United States Postal Service recognized the bravery of the chaplains by issuing a commemorative stamp in their honor. Congress also designated February 3 as “Four Chaplains Day.” While all of these special awards and honors were certainly fitting, many could not help but feel that the unforgettable actions of Fox, Goode, Washington, and Poling warranted something even greater.

To be eligible for the Medal of Honor, the United States military’s highest decoration for valor, a soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, or Coast Guardsman is required to have gone above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in action against an enemy force. Although the chaplains demonstrated remarkable bravery and selflessness, their actions did not quite meet the Medal of Honor’s strict requirements. However, to ensure that these four American heroes were properly decorated for their ultimate sacrifices, Congress authorized a Special Medal for Heroism, also called the Chaplain’s Medal of Honor and the Four Chaplains’ Medal. On January 18, 1961, this special decoration was posthumously presented to the men that history forever remembers as, “The Four Immortal Chaplains.”

The Four Chaplains' Medal. (Photo Credit: Army Historical Foundation)

When the greatest test of their lives came, Fox, Goode, Washington, and Poling did not waver in their commitment to serving God or their fellow countrymen. These men might have represented different faiths, but they shared the same American blood, and after helping as many people as they could, the four chaplains accepted that they had performed their final duty for God and country. Standing together until the very end, each man gave the last full measure of devotion. The numerous memorials to the chaplains all across the United States ensure that these four special heroes will never be forgotten.

Sources

Army Historical Foundation: No Greater Glory: The Four Chaplains and the Sinking of the USAT Dorchester.

The Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation: The Story.

U.S. Army: Chaplain Corps History: The Four Chaplains.

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