The Four Chaplains

The true story of four courageous military chaplains is inspiring. by searching the Internet for "four chaplains" you will find many details of their faith, bravery and compassion. Here is a brief version of the story.

On the evening of Feb. 2, 1943, the converted luxury liner U.S.A.T. Dorchester, was filled to capacity, carrying 902 servicemen, merchant seamen and civilian workers. The Dorchester and two other ships were steaming toward an American base in Greenland, escorted by Coast Guard Cutters Tampa, Escanaba and Comanche
Earlier, the Tampa’s sonar had detected a submarine sonar, most likely a German U-boat. Hans Danielsen, the Dorchester’s captain, ordered the men to sleep in their clothing and keep life jackets on. Many soldiers sleeping in the ship's hold disregarded the order because of the engine's heat. Others ignored it because the life jackets were uncomfortable.

At 12:55 a.m., an officer aboard the German submarine U-223 spotted the Dorchester through his periscope. He gave orders to fire torpedoes. The hit was deadly, striking the starboard side, amid ship, far below the water line. Danielsen alerted the other ships by radio that the Dorchester was taking water rapidly and sinking and then gave the order to abandon ship. Aboard the Dorchester, panic and chaos had set in. The blast had killed scores of men, and many more were seriously wounded. Others were groping in the darkness. Those sleeping without clothing and life jackets rushed topside where they were confronted by a blast of icy Arctic air and by the knowledge that death waited. Men jumped from the ship into lifeboats, over-crowding them to the point of capsizing. Other rafts drifted away before soldiers could get in them.

According to those present, four Army chaplains brought hope in despair and light in darkness. Those chaplains were Lt. George L. Fox, Methodist; Lt. Alexander D. Goode, Jewish; Lt. John P. Washington, Roman Catholic; and Lt. Clark V. Poling, Dutch Reformed. Quickly and quietly the four chaplains spread out among the soldiers. They tried to calm the frightened, tend the wounded and guide the disoriented toward safety.

"Witnesses remember hearing the four men offer prayers for the dying and encouragement for those who would live," says Wyatt R. Fox, son of Reverend Fox. One witness, Private William B. Bednar, found himself floating in oil-smeared water surrounded by dead bodies and debris. "I could hear men crying, pleading, praying," Bednar recalls. "I could also hear the chaplains preaching courage. Their voices were the only thing that kept me going."

When a Petty Officer tried to reenter his cabin to retrieve is gloves, he was stopped by Rabbi Goode. "Never mind," Goode said. "I have two pairs." The rabbi then gave the man his own gloves.

With most of the men topside, the chaplains opened a storage locker and began distributing life jackets. When there were no more lifejackets in the storage room, the chaplains removed their own jackets and gave them to four frightened young men.

"It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven," said John Ladd, a survivor who saw the chaplains' selfless act. The action of the four chaplains was one of the purest spiritual and ethical acts a person can make. When giving their life jackets, Rabbi Goode did not call out for a Jew; Father Washington did not call out for a Catholic; nor did the Reverends Fox and Poling call out for a Protestant. They simply gave their life jackets to the next man in line.

As the ship went down (only 20 minutes after the hit), survivors in nearby rafts could see the four chaplains, arms linked and braced against the slanting deck. Their voices could also be heard offering prayers. Of the 902 men aboard, 672 died, leaving 230 survivors. That night Reverend Fox, Rabbi Goode, Reverend Poling and Father Washington passed life's ultimate test. In doing so, they became an enduring example of extraordinary faith, courage and selflessness. The Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart were awarded posthumously December 19, 1944, to the next of kin in a ceremony at the post chapel at Fort Myer, VA. A posthumous Special Medal for Heroism, never before given and never to be given again was authorized by Congress and awarded by the President January 18, 1961.

(Edited from in Honor of the Four Chaplains 6 Feb 2005).