The Four Chaplains

The Four Chaplains

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Stories of Faith

The Four Chaplains

For this is God. Our God forever and ever. He will be our guide.

~Psalm 48:14

In November 1942, four men met while attending Chaplain’s School at Harvard University. At age forty-two, George Fox was the eldest. The youngest was thirty-year-old Clark Poling, and the other two, Alexander Goode and John Washington, were both thirty-two.

Reverend Fox, from Vermont, enlisted in the Army the same day his eighteen-year-old son Wyatt enlisted in the Marine Corps. During World War I, Fox—then only seventeen years old—had convinced the Army he was actually eighteen and enlisted as a medical corps assistant. His courage on the battlefield earned him the Silver Star, the Croix de Guerre and the Purple Heart. When World War II broke out, he told his family, “I’ve got to go. I know from experience what our boys are about to face. They need me.”

Reverend Poling was from Ohio and pastoring in New York when World War II began. He determined to enter the Army, but not as a chaplain. He didn’t want to hide behind the church, “in some safe office out of the firing line,” he told his father.

But his father, Reverend Daniel Poling, knew something of war, having served as a chaplain himself during World War I. He told his son, “Don’t you know that chaplains have the highest mortality rate of all? As a chaplain, you can’t carry a gun.” With new appreciation for the role of the Chaplains Corps, Clark Poling accepted a commission.

Alexander Goode’s father was a clergyman, too. While studying to follow in his father’s footsteps, Alex had joined the National Guard. When war was declared, he wanted to become a chaplain. He chose to do so as a U.S. Army chaplain.

Mild-mannered John P. Washington left one with the impression that he was not the sort of man to go to war and become a hero. His love of music and beautiful voice belied the toughness inside. As one of nine children in an Irish immigrant family living in the toughest part of Newark, New Jersey, he had learned through sheer determination to hold his own in any fight. Like the others, he wanted to serve wherever his country needed him.

Upon meeting at the chaplains’ school, the four men quickly became friends. What makes this fact remarkable is the enormous differences in their backgrounds: Reverend Fox was a Methodist minister, Reverend Poling was a Dutch Reformed minister, Father Washington was a Catholic priest and Goode was a Jewish rabbi.

After graduating from Harvard, the friends were assigned to posts in Europe. The four chaplains said goodbye to their families and reported to New York to board the transport that would take them overseas.

The Dorchester was an aging, luxury coastal liner that was no longer luxurious. Pressed into service as a transport ship, all noncritical amenities had been removed and cots were crammed into every available space. The intent was to get as many young fighting men as possible on each voyage.

When the soldiers boarded on January 23, 1943, the Dorchester was filled to capacity. In addition to the Merchant Marine crew and a few civilians, young soldiers filled every available space. There were 902 lives about to be cast to the mercy of the frigid North Atlantic.

As the Dorchester left New York for an Army base in Greenland, many dangers lay ahead. The sea itself was always dangerous, especially in this area known for ice flows, raging waters and gale-force winds. The greatest danger, however, was the ever-present threat of German submarines, which had recently been sinking Allied ships at the rate of one hundred every month. The Dorchester would be sailing through an area that had become infamous as “Torpedo Junction.”

Most of the men who boarded for the trip were young, frightened soldiers. Many were going to sea for the first time and suffered seasickness for days. They were packed head to toe below deck, a human sea of fear and uncertainty. Even if they survived the eventual Atlantic crossing, they didn’t have much to look forward to, only the prospects of being thrown into the cauldron of war on foreign shores. They were men in need of a strong shoulder to lean on, a firm voice to encourage them and a ray of hope in a world at war. In their midst moved the four Army chaplains: Fox, Goode, Poling and Washington.

The crossing was filled with long hours of boredom and discomfort. Outside, the chilly Arctic winds and cold ocean spray coated the Dorchester’s deck with ice. Below deck, the soldiers’ quarters were hot from too many bodies, crammed into too small a place for too many days in a row.

Finally, on February 2nd, the Dorchester was within 150 miles of Greenland. It would have generated a great sense of relief among the young soldiers crowded in the ship’s berths, had not the welcome news been tempered by other more ominous news. One of the Dorchester’s three Coast Guard escorts had received sonar readings during the day, indicating the presence of an enemy submarine in “Torpedo Junction.”

The Dorchester’s captain listened to the news with great concern. If he could make it through the night, air cover would arrive with daylight to safely guide his ship home. The problem would be surviving the night. Aware of the potential for disaster, he instructed the soldiers to sleep in their clothes and life jackets... just in case.

Outside it was another cold, windy night as the midnight hour signaled the passing of February 2nd and the beginning of a new day. In the distance a cold, metal arm broke the surface of the stormy seas. At the end of that arm, a German U-Boat (submarine) captain monitored the slowly passing troop transport. Shortly before one in the morning, he gave the command to fire.

Quiet moments passed as the torpedo silently streaked toward the Dorchester. Then the early morning was shattered by the flash of a blinding explosion and the roar of massive destruction. The “hit” had been dead on, tossing men from their cots with the force of its explosion. A second torpedo followed the first, instantly killing one hundred men in the hull of the ship.

Power was knocked out by the explosion in the engine room, and darkness engulfed the frightened men below deck as water rushed through gaping wounds in the Dorchester’s hull. The ship tilted at an unnatural angle as it began to sink rapidly. Wounded men cried out in pain, frightened survivors screamed in terror and all groped frantically in the darkness for exits they couldn’t find.

In the darkness, four voices of calm began to speak words of comfort, seeking to bring order to panic and bedlam. Slowly, soldiers began to find their way to the deck of the ship, where they were confronted by the cold winds blowing down from the Arctic. One soldier, reeling from the cold, headed back towards his cabin.

“Where are you going?” a voice asked.

“To get my gloves,” the soldier replied.

“Here, take these,” said Rabbi Goode as he handed a pair of gloves to the young officer, who would never have survived the trip to his cabin and then back to safety.

“I can’t take your gloves,” the soldier replied.

“Never mind,” the rabbi responded. “I have two pairs.”

The young soldier slipped the gloves over his hands and returned to the frigid deck, never stopping to ponder until later when he had reached safety that there was no way Rabbi Goode would have been carrying a spare set of gloves.

Elsewhere on the ship, Reverend Poling guided the frightened soldiers to the deck, their only hope of safety on the rapidly sinking transport. As he led the men, he spoke quietly but firmly, urging them not to give up.

Meanwhile, Reverend Fox and Father Washington tended to the wounded and dying soldiers. Somehow, by their combined efforts, the chaplains succeeded in getting many of the soldiers out of the hold and onto the Dorchester’s slippery deck.

In the chaos around them, lifeboats floated away before men could board them. Others capsized as panicked soldiers loaded the small craft beyond limit. The strength, calm and organization of the chaplains, so critical in the dark hull, were still urgently needed. Taking charge, they organized the lifeboat boarding, directed men to safety and left them with parting words of encouragement.

In little more than twenty minutes, the Dorchester was almost gone. Icy waves broke over the railing, tossing men into the sea, many of them without life jackets. In the last moments of the transport’s existence, the chaplains were too occupied opening lockers to pass out life jackets to note the threat to their own lives.

Now water was beginning to flow across the deck of the sinking Dorchester. Working against time, the chaplains continued to pass out the life vests from the lockers as the soldiers pressed forward in a ragged line. And then the lockers were all empty, the life jackets gone.

Those still pressing in line began to realize they were doomed; there was no hope. And then something amazing happened, something those who were there would never forget. All four chaplains began taking their own life jackets off and putting them on the men around them.

Then time ran out. The chaplains had done all they could for those who would survive, and nothing more could be done for the others... including themselves.

Those who had been fortunate enough to reach lifeboats struggled to distance themselves from the sinking ship, to avoid being pulled down by the chasm created as the transport slipped under the surface. Then, amid the sounds of fear and pain that permeated the cold dark night, they heard the strong voices of the chaplains.

“Shma Yisroel Adonai Elohenu Adonai Echod.”

“Our Father, which art in Heaven, Hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.... ”

Looking back, the men in the lifeboats could see the slanting deck of the Dorchester, its demise almost complete. Four figures were clearly visible as they stood braced against the railings, praying, singing and giving strength to others by their final valiant declaration of faith. Reverend Fox, Rabbi Goode, Reverend Poling and Father Washington linked their arms together and leaned into each other for support.

Then, only twenty-seven minutes after the first torpedo struck, the last trace of the Dorchester disappeared beneath the cold North Atlantic waters, taking with it many men, including the four chaplains of different faiths who had found strength in their diversity by focusing on the love for God—and mankind—they all shared.

~The Chapel of Four Chaplains

Chicken Soup for the Veteran’s Soul

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