Four Brave Chaplains
by Victor Parachin
Four chaplains were on board the USAT Dorchester on the evening of February 2, 1943, as it made its way through the frigid Atlantic waters. The ship was packed to capacity carrying 902 servicemen, merchant seamen, and civilian workers. Hans J. Danielsen, the ship’s captain was both cautious and concerned. He’d received reports that a submarine was in the area. An experienced mariner, Danielsen knew he was in dangerous waters even before he received the alarming information. German U-boats routinely prowled the vital sea lanes and several ships had already been blasted and sunk.
Even though the Dorchester was now only 150 miles from its destination, the captain ordered the men to sleep in their clothing and to keep life jackets on. Many soldiers sleeping deep in the ship’s belly disregarded the order because of the engine’s heat. Oth-ers ignored his instructions because the life jackets were simply too uncomfortable to wear while sleeping.
Shortly after midnight on February 3, a periscope cut through the Atlantic waters. In the crosshairs, an officer aboard the Berman submarine U-223 spotted the Dorchester. After identifying and targeting the ship, orders were given to fire torpedoes. The hit was decisive – and deadly – striking the starboard side far below the water line. Captain Danielson, alerted that the Dorchester was tak-ing was taking water and rapidly sinking, gave the order to abandon ship. In less than 27 minutes, the Dorchester would slip beneath the Atlantic’s icy waters.
Tragically, the hit knocked out power and radio contact with nearby escort ships. Aboard the Dorchester, 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. Men jumped from the ship into lifeboats, overcrowding them to the point of capsizing. Other rafts, tossed into the Atlantic, drifted away before soldiers could get into them. According to eyewitnesses, in the midst of the pandemonium, four Army chaplains brought hope in despair and light in darkness. Those chaplains were: Lt. George L. Fox, a Methodist minister; Lt. Alexander D. Goode, a Jewish rabbi; Lt. John P. Washington, a Roman Catholic priest; and Lt. Clark V. Pol-ing, a Reformed Church of America minister.
Quickly and quietly the four chaplains spread out among the soldiers. There they tried to calm the frightened, tend the wounded, comfort the anxious, and guide the disoriented toward safety. “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 was stopped by Rabbi Goode. 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 he would not 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 no more life jackets in the storage room, one by one the chap-lains removed theirs and gave them to four frightened, desperate 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 Protestants. 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 USAT Dorchester, 672 died, leaving 230 survivors. That death toll made the event the nation’s third largest loss at sea of its kind during World War II. When news reached American shores, the nation was stunned by the magni-tude of the tragedy and deeply moved by the conduct of the four chaplains. “Valor is a gift,” Carl Sandburg once said. “Those hav-ing it never know for sure whether they have it until the test comes.” That night Reverend Fox, Rabbi Good, Reverend Poling, and Father Washington passed life’s ultimate test of valor. In doing so, they became an enduring example of extraordinary faith, cour-age, and selflessness.
The Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart were awarded posthumously on December 19, 1944, to the chaplains’ 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. Four years later the postal Service issued a three-cent stamp commemorating the clergy’s heroic actions.
In 1997 The Immortal Chaplains Foundation was established to present an annual Prize for Humanity honoring those who “risked all to protect others of a different faith or race.” Recipients have included: Omri Abdel-Halim Al-Jada, a Palestinian who drowned while saving the life of a drowning Jewish child, Gosha Leftov, from the undertow of Lake Tiberias; Father Mychal Judge, Franciscan friar and chaplain to the New York City Fire Department. Father Mychal, well known for his compassion and kindness to people of all faiths and ethnic origins, rushed to the burning World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, to help those in need.
Perhaps the finest words describing the lasting legacy of the four chaplains were offered by President Harry S. Truman who said their example would stand “through long generations to teach Americans that as men can die heroically as brothers so should they live together in mutual faith and good will.”
Victor Parachin lives in Oklahoma.