Memorial Day: The Lesson of the Four Chaplains

Four Chaplains, Melissa Fox, Irvine Commissioner Melissa Fox, melissafoxblog, melissajoifox, Melissa Fox blog

When my husband was a child, his father, a World War II U.S. Navy veteran, told him the story of the Four Chaplains of the USAT Dorchester as an example of American heroism and American values.

It is a story worth sharing again this Memorial Day:

On the night of February 3, 1943, United States Army Transport ship Dorchester was en route from Newfoundland to England via Greenland, when it was hit by torpedoes from a German submarine.

The Dorchester listed sharply to starboard, then began to sink almost immediately into the icy water. The torpedoes knocked out the Dorchesters electrical system, leaving the ship dark. The ship was overcrowded and there were insufficient lifeboats or lifejackets for the 904 men on board.

Four Chaplains, Melissa Fox, Irvine Commissioner Melissa Fox, melissafoxblog, melissajoifox, Melissa Fox blog

The Four Chaplains of the USAT Dorchester: Rabbi Alexander D. Goode, Rev. George L. Fox, Rev. Clark V. Poling, and Father John P. Washington

As the Dorchester sank, the ship’s four chaplains aided the wounded, sought to calm the men and organize an orderly evacuation of the ship, helped get the men into lifeboats and then gave up their own lifejackets when the supply ran out. They helped as many men as they could into lifeboats, then linked arms in prayer as the ocean water overcame the deck and the ship sank.

A survivor later explained:

“As I swam away from the ship, I looked back. The flares had lighted everything. The bow came up high and she slid under. The last thing I saw, the four chaplains were up there praying for the safety of the men. They had done everything they could. I did not see them again. They themselves did not have a chance without their life jackets.”

As the ship went down, survivors in nearby lifeboats could see the four chaplains – their arms linked and braced against the slanting deck. Their voices could also be heard offering prayers.

Survivors said could hear different languages mixed in the prayers of the chaplains, including Jewish prayers in Hebrew and Catholic prayers in Latin.

Twenty-seven minutes after the torpedoes hit, the Dorchester was gone.

The four chaplains were:

Lt. George L. Fox, age 42, Methodist.

Lt. Alexander D. Goode, age 32, Jewish.

Lt. Clark V. Poling, age 32, Reformed Church in America.

Lt. John P. Washington, age 34, Roman Catholic.

For the Four Chaplains sacrifice, on December 19, 1944 they were posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross. Later, due to the under-fire requirement to receive the Medal of Honor, Congress decided to authorize a special medal that carried the same weight. It was called the Chaplain’s Medal for Heroism. These four men are the only chaplains ever to receive this award.

On this Memorial Day, I will be thinking about the four chaplains, arms linked and praying together on the deck of the USAT Dorchester in 1943.

And I will be thinking, with gratitude, of all of the men and women of our Armed Forces who have made the ultimate sacrifice for the rights and freedoms that we hold to be essential, including the right to be free from discrimination based on one’s race, faith, gender or sexual orientation.

According to the Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation, the lesson of the sacrifice made by the four chaplains is “unity without uniformity” and “selfless service to humanity without regard to race, creed, ethnicity, or religious beliefs.”

The Reverend Daniel Poling, father of Chaplain Clark V. Poling, said that the lesson of the Four Chaplains is that “as men can die heroically as brothers so should they live together in mutual faith and goodwill.”

My father-in-law said it more simply:  We are all Americans.