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The saga of four chaplains
Military matters
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One of my all time favorite stories is the “Four Chaplains” saga of World War II.
Four U.S. Army chaplains had met and become friends while attending the Army’s Chaplains’ Corp school. They were of different faiths but all had a love and devotion to their country. Rabbi Goode, Father Washington and Protestants Revs. Poling and Fox are the epitome of why we recognize our veterans this time of year.
In January 1943, they found themselves on the Army transport ship Dorchester, bound for the chilly North Atlantic and for combat in the European theater. The ship was manned by merchant seamen and U.S. Navy gunnery specialists and was transporting more than 900 U.S. Army troops. The frigid waters were so cold that life in the waters was measured in minutes with a life preserver but only in seconds if you didn’t have one.
Three Coast Guard cutters escorted the HMAT Dorchester as they sailed south of Greenland into the eye of the storm. One of the cutter’s sonar picked up warning signals of a German submarine. The ship’s captain warned the men of the pending danger and suggested they sleep in their life vests and clothing.
The accommodations on the old, converted liner were cramped and hot since the troop quarters were so close to the engineering spaces. Early on the morning of Feb. 2, around 1 a.m., the German U-boat scored a direct hit on the Dorchester, and the captain and his crew realized the boat would sink in 20 minutes or less. Damage control was not an option.
The men began to exit the ship – many without their life preservers, and soon they were not to be had. The chaplains had been issuing the vests, and when the bins were empty, all four gave their vests to the young troops.
One young man attempted to go back to his berthing space and was stopped by Rabbi Goode: “Where are you going, lad?”
“To get my gloves, sir.”
“Here take mine, I have two pair.”
It was later in the water, before the rescue, that the young man realized the chaplain didn’t have two pair of gloves but had reconciled himself to a certain death in the frigid North Atlantic.
The German sub escaped before the Coast Guard cutters could launch an attack, and the two remaining transport ships were escorted out of harm’s way by two cutters while the third looked for survivors. Only 230 men out of the 920 onboard survived that night.
As the ship went down, the four chaplains, arms linked, were seen by the survivors singing and praying for the men of the Dorchester. One survivors said, “It  was the finest thing that could be seen this side of heaven.”
Before boarding the Dorchester, Protestant Chaplain Poling asked his father, a World War I ambulance driver/medic who later became a World War II chaplain, to pray for him: “Father don’t pray for my safe return, that wouldn’t be fair. Just pray I do my duty, never be a coward, have the strength and courage and understanding of the men. Just pray that I be adequate.”
The U.S. Congress wanted to give the chaplains the Medal of Honor, but since they were not actually in combat they would not qualify. So it created the Four Chaplains Medal July 14, 1960. Philadelphia is home to the Four Chaplains Chapel. A great book, “No Greater Glory: The Four Immortal Chaplains and the sinking of the Dorchester in WWII” by Dan Kurzman is available in hard cover from for less than $10 plus shipping.
The U.S. Postal Service created the Four Chaplains stamp in 1948, and my sweet daughter gave me a framed page of these original stamps for my last birthday.
Each man is a great story, and I encourage you to read more of this story.
“Greater love have no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” John 15:13.
Thank a member of our armed forces when you see them – it will make you feel better when you see their return smile.

Clark is a retired chief petty officer of the U.S. Navy. He lives in Bryan County.
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