#OTD: 4 Chaplains Bring Saving Grace to Sinking WWII Ship

By Katie Lange
Defense Media Activity

Some of the most vital members of the military aren’t those you see on the frontlines, but the ones who stand quietly in the background.

These silent warriors include the members of the Chaplain Corps – the men and women tasked with making sure all service members have spiritual, moral and ethical guidance when they need it. Chaplains serve at all levels and represent many faith groups. They deploy and train with everyone else. And while the chaplains – commissioned ordained clergy – are noncombatants, their enlisted assistants can fight in battle to protect them.

These men and women are bonded to their fellow soldiers. One of the most famous examples of that commitment occurred on Feb. 3, 1943 – a day now known as “Four Chaplains Day.” Here’s why:

The Story of the Dorchester

When the USAT Dorchester was struck by a German submarine, Feb. 3, 1943, four Army chaplains spread out among the soldiers to bring calm. They were Lt. George Fox, Lt. Alexander Goode, Lt. John Washington and Lt. Clark Poling. Courtesy graphic

It was a frigid night in the North Atlantic as the Army transport ship SS Dorchester made its way from the Canadian coast to Greenland – a crucial pit stop for new American aircraft on their way to the fighting in Europe. The ship was packed to capacity with 902 U.S. service members, merchant seamen and civilians ready to work at the U.S. base there.

They were only about 150 miles from their destination when disaster struck.

Shortly after midnight, a German U-boat spotted the converted luxury liner and fired a torpedo, blasting into the ship’s side. Many were killed immediately, while hundreds of others were left in chaos. Many fumbled around in the dark compartments of the ship, trying to find a way out. Some were still in their pajamas, and many didn’t have the wherewithal to grab life jackets needed to abandon ship.

Calm From Chaos

Amid all the panic, four men began to spread calm. They were Army chaplains Lt. George Fox, a Methodist; Lt. Alexander Goode, a rabbi; Lt. John Washington, a Roman Catholic priest; and Lt. Clark Poling, a Dutch reform minister.

U.S. Army map

The chaplains tended to the soldiers’ wounds, helped them toward life boats and distributed life jackets, even giving up their own when the supply ran out. Surviving soldiers said they were amazed because the recipients’ faith didn’t matter to the chaplains – they gave without discrimination in a world that was seemingly filled with it.

According to testimony from Navy Petty Officer John J. Mahoney, who had tried to go back to his room to retrieve his gloves in the frigid cold, a calm voice asked him where he was going. When Mahoney said what he was doing, Rabbi Goode handed him a pair of gloves. When Mahoney refused, the rabbi brushed his objection off: “I have two pairs,” Goode said.

Before boarding the ship in January, Poling asked his father to pray for him: “Not for my safe return, that wouldn’t be fair. Just pray that I shall do my duty … never be a coward … and have the strength, courage and understanding of men. Just pray that I shall be adequate.”

All four chaplains were last seen with linked arms, bracing against the slanted deck, offering prayers and singing hymns. They were four of the more than 670 men who died in the attack.

Forever Remembered

After their deaths, the chaplains were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart. They weren’t eligible for the Medal of Honor since heroism is required to be performed “under fire” for consideration. Instead, a special medal for heroism, called the Four Chaplains’ Medal, was authorized by Congress and presented to the chaplains’ next of kin on Jan. 18, 1961.

It’s said that they were the first and last given of their kind.

In 1988, Congress established Four Chaplains Day. So on Feb. 3, let’s remember these men and all of the chaplains who do important work that often goes unseen.

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