The Saga of the Four Chaplains, the true Fourth of July Story, because it is a saga of valor and selflessness, recounts the amazing deeds four men performed for others. The Veterans Administration website “My Healthvet,” retells the story this Fourth of July ,and another version is found here at The Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation website. Our beginning of the story is taken from the version written on the Veterans page by Chaplain Samuel Adamson, DMin, Chief Chaplain, Philadelphia VA Medical Center.
“During World War II, a U.S. ship named the Dorchester was crowded to capacity. The ship carried 902 service men, merchant seaman, and civilian workers. The ship was moving across the icy waters from Newfoundland toward an American base in Greenland. The 5,649-ton Dorchester was once a luxury coastal liner. This ship had been converted into an Army transport. Hans J. Danielson, the ship’s captain, was concerned and cautious that night. Earlier an enemy submarine had been detected by sonar. The captain knew he was in dangerous waters. German U-boats were constantly prowling these vital sea-lanes. Several ships had already been blasted and sunk.”
It was the evening of Feb. 2, 1943, the waters of the Atlantic were cold, and murky. The Dorchester, one of three ships in the SG-19 convoy, but 150 miles from its destination was escorted by the Coast Guard Cutters Tampa, Escanaba and Comanche. The Captain, Hans J. Danielsen, had detected a submarine with its sonar.
On Feb. 3, at 12:55 a.m., a periscope broke the chilly Atlantic waters. Through the cross hairs, an officer aboard the German submarine U-223 spotted the Dorchester. After identifying and targeting the ship, orders to fire the torpedoes were given by the submarine commander–a fan of three. The one that hit was decisive–and deadly–striking the starboard side, amid ship, far below the water line.
The report tells us from history, Danielsen, alerted that the Dorchester was taking water rapidly and sinking, gave orders to abandon ship. In less than 20 minutes, the Dorchester would slip beneath the Atlantic’s icy waters.The pages of the past tell us, panic and chaos had set in. “The blast had killed scores of men, and many more were seriously wounded. Others, stunned by the explosion were groping in the darkness. Those sleeping without clothing rushed topside where they were confronted first by a blast of icy Arctic air and then by the knowledge that death awaited.
“”Valor is a gift,” Carl Sandburg once said. “Those having it never know for sure whether they have it until the test comes.”
“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.
In a few paragraphs, we will learn why these selfless Chaplains were awarded medals of valor. The Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart were awarded posthumously December 19, 1944, to the next of kin by Lt. Gen. Brehon B. Somervell, Commanding General of the Army Service Forces, in a ceremony at the post chapel at Fort Myer, VA.
A one-time only posthumous Special Medal for Heroism was authorized by Congress and awarded by then President Eisenhower on January 18, 1961. Congress attempted to confer the Medal of Honor but was blocked by the stringent requirements that required heroism performed under fire. The special medal was intended to have the same weight and importance as the Medal of Honor.As the Veterans Administration website says, “The torpedo knocked out the Dorchester’s electrical system. The ship was dark. Panic set in among the men on board. The Four Chaplains sought to calm the men. They organized an orderly evacuation of the ship. They guided wounded men to safety.
“The Four Chaplains helped other soldiers board lifeboats. They gave up their own life jackets when the supply ran out. The Chaplains joined arms, said prayers, and sang hymns as they went down with the ship. These four United States Army chaplains gave their lives to save other soldiers. The Four Chaplains are an example of courage, selflessness, dedication, and sacrifice.”
· Chaplain Alexander D. Goode (Jewish)
· Chaplain John P. Washington (Roman Catholic)
· Chaplain George L. Fox (Protestant)
· Chaplain Clark V. Poling (Protestant)
“Witnesses of that terrible night 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.”
Another sailor, Petty Officer John J. Mahoney, tried to reenter his cabin but Rabbi Goode stopped him. Mahoney, concerned about the cold Arctic air, explained he had forgotten his gloves.
“Never mind,” Goode responded. “I have two pairs.” The rabbi then gave the petty officer his own gloves. In retrospect, Mahoney realized that Rabbi Goode was not conveniently carrying two pairs of gloves, and that the rabbi had decided not to leave the Dorchester.
By this time, most of the men were topside, and the chaplains opened a storage locker and began distributing life jackets. It was then that Engineer Grady Clark witnessed an astonishing sight.
When there were no more lifejackets in the storage room, the chaplains removed theirs 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, another survivor who saw the chaplains’ selfless act.
· Ladd’s response is understandable. The altruistic action of the four chaplains constitutes 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, 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 the U.S.A.T. Dorchester, 672 died, leaving 230 survivors. When the news reached American shores, the nation was stunned by the magnitude of the tragedy and heroic conduct of the four chaplains.
Images: (1) Chaplain Goode; (2) Chaplain Poling; (3) Chaplain Fox; (4) Chaplain Washingon. Photos courtesy of The Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation.
This article is a compilation.