Four Chaplains Day: A Day of Faith, Sacrifice and Service

It’s a day the U.S. military has celebrated since 1951, but the tale has grown dusty and dark with time.

February 3 is “Four Chaplains Day.”

Never heard of it? You should. It’s a fascinating story of courage, service and faith.

It’s the tale of the day the U.S.A.T. Dorchester–packed with over 900 men–was hit by a Nazi torpedo.

The surprise attack in the early morning hours of February 3, 1943, killed several soldiers and trapped dozens of others. The ship quickly began to sink in the icy waters off Greenland and very soon it was “every man for himself.” Chaos ensued as men prepared to survive or die in the north Atlantic Ocean. Lifeboats were deployed and many were filled, but not everyone got a seat.

Thankfully, two Coast Guard ships were in the area. They rushed to the Dorchester and began to pluck drowning soldiers from the frigid waters.

Meanwhile, on board the Dorchester, four chaplains–a Methodist minister, a Roman Catholic priest, a Dutch Reformed pastor and a Jewish Rabbi–consoled the panicked servicemen.

Their first job was to distribute life jackets, but eventually the supply ran out. That’s when these four chaplains took off their own life vests and gave them away.

When the chaplains had saved as many men as they could, eyewitnesses in the life boats observed how these four faith leaders (all lieutenants) linked arms, prayed, quoted Scripture and went down with the ship.

“Just before our ship went down, these chaplains took off their own life preservers and gave them to us,” shared Daniel O’Keefe, a 19-year old survivor. “They were standing on the deck praying hand in hand as our lifeboat drifted out of sight.”

William Bednar, another Dorchester survivor, recollected: “I could hear men crying, pleading, praying and swearing. I could also hear the chaplains preaching courage to the men. Their voices were probably the only things that kept me sane.”
Who were these courageous and heroic chaplains?

Lt. George L. Fox

George Fox signed up for duty soon after Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese on December 7, 1941. “I’ve got to go,” he told Isadora, his wife. “I know from experience what those boys are about to face. They need me.” He was 42 years old and it wasn’t Fox’s first time to serve his country.

A native of Lewistown, PA, Fox lied about his age in order to enlist in World War I. He was only 17 when he signed on, but served well as a medical assistant and ambulance driver.

After the war, Fox finished his education and got married. Sensing a calling to God’s Army as a clergyman, he attended and graduated from Illinois Wesleyan University and studied at Boston University School of Theology. On June 10, 1934, he was ordained as clergy for the Methodist church.

Fox began active duty as a military chaplain on Aug. 8, 1942.

Lt. Alexander D. Goode

Originally from Brooklyn, NY, Alexander Goode was a stellar scholar and standout athlete. In fact, as a child, he courageously doused a kitchen fire to save his family home. Naturally such heroics, natural intelligence and physical ability opened many doors of opportunity, but Goode’s dream was always to follow in the footsteps of his father and become a rabbi.

Consequently, following high school, Goode pursued his rabbinical education, attending Hebrew Union College in New York. After his ordination in 1937, he served at Temple Beth Israel in York, PA.. Goode later earned a Ph.D. at John Hopkins University in middle eastern languages. After Pearl Harbor, he enlisted as a chaplain in the Army Air Forces….and requested front line assignment.

According to Rabbi Philip S. Bernstein, only weeks after the Dorchester went down, “[Goode] believed that life would not be worth living in a world under Axis domination, and he was prepared to sacrifice even life itself for the cause of human freedom.”

He left behind a wife (Theresa) and preschool daughter (Rosalie).

 

Lt. Clark V. Poling

Clark V. Poling was a seven-generation Dutch Reformed clergyman. He was the youngest of the four chaplains, ordained into ministry as a man of the cloth in 1936.

At his ordination, his reverend father Daniel counseled Clark:“I do not wish for you a life of ease nor do I desire to see you free from suffering and heartache. Rather do I desire for you a life of real conflict against the forces of evil. Be true to your calling,” Prior to entering the military as a chaplain in World War 2, Poling served as minister for the First Dutch Reformed Church of Schenectady, NY.

Poling’s life is summarized in a wish he carried for his life: “Just that I shall do my duty and have the strength, courage, and understanding of men. Just pray that I shall be adequate.”

 

Lt. John P. Washington

John P. Washington came from Irish stock in New Jersey. Born into a large Roman Catholic family, Washington distinguished himself through his love of music. He sang in his church’s choir and played piano.

After high school, he attended and graduated from Seton Hall, before finishing his priesthood studies at Immaculate Conception Seminary in Darlington, NJ.

Once ordained, Washington served as an assistant priest at St. Stephen’s Church in Kearny, NJ. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Navy but was rejected for having bad vision. So he joined the Army in May 1942.

 

The Four Chaplains

These four army chaplains–a Roman Catholic priest, Jewish rabbi, Dutch Reformed pastor and Methodist clergyman–became fast friends at Camp Myles Standish. They soon learned their assignment to overseas duty would be on a former luxury liner named the USAT Dorchester.  On the night of February 3, 1943 this ship carried 902 servicemen, merchant seamen and civilian workers.

The U.S.A.T. Dorchester sank in 27 minutes. The chaplains had no chance of survival without life vests. Only 231 servicemen survived that tragedy in the icy North Atlantic Ocean. Sadly, 675 others died by either drowning or hypothermia. It was a horrific, terrible tragedy.

The four chaplains were each posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart. Congress also tried to award the Medal of Honor to these four chaplains but medal rules were strict and prohibitive. So instead they authorized a Special Medal for Heroism, first awarded by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1961.

A decade earlier, on Feb. 3, 1951, the Chapel of Four Chaplains in Philadelphia, PA was dedicated by President Harry S. Truman. To this day, Four Chaplains interfaith memorial services are held in the United States every February 3 to recognize military chaplains, their Callings and the sacrifice of these original four.

In 1998, the U.S. Congress also designated February 3 as “Four Chaplains Day.”

It’s now a day for all Americans to honor the bravery, service and sacrifice of our U.S. military chaplains, as well as commemorate the sacrifice and service of Lt. George L. Fox, Lt. Clark V. Poling, Lt. John P. Washington and Lt. Alexander D. Goode.
Pearl Harbor was a billed as “day that lived in infamy” but may we also never forget an “infamous night” in the North Atlantic when four chaplains–from four vastly different faiths–revealed the brotherhood of man through their sacrificial service.

2 Comments

  1. Amy on February 1, 2024 at 4:37 pm

    Very interesting. Thank you for bringing attention to that “dusty” bit of history. I won’t soon forget it.

  2. Paul Milliken on February 2, 2024 at 6:53 am

    Thanks for this inspiring history lesson!

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