Four Chaplains and Their Life Jackets of Faith

Most can name the Four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  But few can name the Four Chaplains—George, Alexander, John and Clark.  These four clergymen became the “Immortal Chaplains” because of profound heroism. They willingly offered themselves to save others when the USS Dorchester sank on February 3, 1943 in the 34 degree waters of the North Atlantic.  Each was a first lieutenant who had met at the Army Chaplains School at Harvard University in the midst of World War II.  Selflessly, they assisted others board lifeboats and gave up their own life jackets when it was clear that there were not enough.  Joining arms, they prayed, sang hymns and went down with the ship.   

It was a remarkable display of the unity of faith in the midst of diversity of belief.  Rev. George L. Fox was a Methodist, Alexander D. Goode was a Reform Rabbi, Father John P. Washington was a Roman Catholic priest and Rev. Clark V. Poling was a minster in the Reformed Church in America.  Representing four different faith traditions, they sailed together on the Dorchester to serve in the European theater.  

The 368 foot long Dorchester was built in 1926 and converted for military service carrying about 900 military.  At full capacity, Dorchester left New York on January 23, 1943 for Greenland, escorted by Coast Guard Cutters.  At 55 minutes after midnight, German submarine U-223 torpedoed the ship off Newfoundland. Lights were lost and many were trapped below decks. The chaplains sought to calm the men and assist with the evacuation of the ship and help the wounded escape. As life jackets were distributed, there were not enough for everyone. It is then that the chaplains removed their own to give them to others. Having aided many into lifeboats, they linked arms, prayed, sang and went down with the ship.  

Grady Clark, a survivor, wrote, “As I swam away from the ship, I looked back. The flares had lighted everything. The bow came up high and she slid under. The last thing I saw, the Four Chaplains were up there praying for the safety of the men. They had done everything they could. I did not see them again. They themselves did not have a chance without their life jackets.”  Other survivors reported they heard not only English prayers but Hebrew prayers and Catholic Latin prayers. Only 230 of the 904 men were rescued.  Hundreds with life jackets had succumbed to hypothermia in the frigid waters by the time USCGC Escanaba arrived to rescue survivors.

While far too many are unaware of the Four Chaplains, efforts have been made to tell their story, including film, print, music, art, and even a feast day in the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church USA.  Stained glass windows honoring the Four Chaplains can be found in the Pentagon, Fort Jackson, South Carolina, Fort Bliss, Texas, Fort Snelling, Minnesota, US Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania and also at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.  A U.S. postage stamp was issued in 1948 to honor the Four Chaplains.  In 1988, on the forty-fifth anniversary of their courageous altruism, a unanimous Congress established February 3rd as annual “Four Chaplains Day.”

The interfaith Chapel of the Four Chaplains, now at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, was dedicated on February 3, 1951, by President Harry S. Truman. In his dedication speech, the President said, “This interfaith shrine… will stand through long generations to teach Americans that as men can die heroically as brothers so should they live together in mutual faith and goodwill.”  

Four Chaplains gave their life jackets to rescue others. But, they’ve given them to us too.   On this February 3rd, conflict, extremism and violence will likely dominate the news.  Yet, the Immortal Chaplains remind that heroes still die for others, and give examples to lead us to goodwill.  Who will rescue the perishing in the freezing waters of our selfish neighborhoods?  Everyday heroes may not have postage stamps issued for them, but nonetheless, they have life jackets of faith to give to save others.  

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