Image: The Four Chaplains were honored with a commemorative 3¢ stamp issued in 1948, showing their four faces above the sinking Dorchester, with the words “These Immortal Chaplains… Interfaith in Action.” Image is in the public domain.
This week in 1943, U.S. Army Transport ship Dorchester carried 902 troops, merchant marines and civilian workers from Newfoundland to an American base in Greenland. The icy waves were a prowling ground for German U-boats, and one of the Coast Guard cutters accompanying the Dorchester had picked up a shadow on its sonar. The men on the Dorchester were under orders to keep their life jackets on, but down in the bowels of the ship, many disregarded the order because of the heat of the ship and the difficulty of sleeping in a bulky life preserver.
On Feb 3, 1943, a German U-Boat silently surfaced at 12:55 a.m, hidden by the night. The officer in charge of U-223 took aim and fired three torpedoes at the troop ship. One torpedo hit the Dorchester below the water line amidships, opening the hull to the frigid Atlantic and knocking out the power and with it radio contact with the three Coast Guard escorts. A lookout aboard the CGC Comanche spotted the flash of the explosion, and radioed for help.
Aboard the Dorchester, men awakened by the explosion had to find their way topside in the dark. Many were killed in the initial explosion; many more were wounded. Many had undressed to sleep, and when they emerged on the tilting deck, they were without lifejackets. This was the Arctic; no one could survive long in those waters even with a lifejacket, but without one, he would be doomed.
According to survivors, there were four rays of light on that dark deck. Four chaplains: Lt. George L. Fox, Methodist; Lt. Alexander D. Goode, Jewish; Lt. John P. Washington, Roman Catholic; and Lt. Clark V. Poling, Dutch Reformed moved quickly and quietly among the men, calming them and directing them to lifeboats. They prayed aloud for the dying and encouraged the living.
Petty Officer John J. Mahoney tried to go back to his cabin for gloves, but Rabbi Goode stopped him. Goode answered. “Never mind, I have two pairs.” The rabbi pressed his own gloves into the young man’s hands. Later, in safety, Mahoney realized that Rabbi Goode didn’t have two pairs of gloves. The rabbi had already decided that he was unlikely to leave the Dorchester.
The chaplains opened a locker on deck and began distributing life jackets to those who had left theirs below. When all the jackets were given out, they removed their own and handed them out, too. The chaplains did not inquire whether the next man in line was a believer, much less was he someone of their own faith; rather, the chaplains simply gave the life-saving gear to the next person in need.
The Dorchester sank that night, with only 240 survivors out of the 902 souls aboard. Survivors report hearing the chaplains on the deck of the ship, singing together to the very end.
On Dec. 19, 1944, the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross were awarded posthumously to each of the four chaplains. Congress attempted to confer the Medal of Honor on them, but could not do so because of the strict requirement that it be given for “courage under fire.” Instead, the Congress issued a special “Four Chaplains Medal” for them and them only.
The four chaplains served together and with a common purpose. Their story caught the imagination of the nation, since at that time the majority of Americans did not think of Jews and Catholics in the same way they thought about white Protestant ministers. Before this time, Jews in the United States were generally regarded as non-white foreigners, no matter their place of birth. This event was a crucial step on the road to change in U.S. interfaith relations.
As one of my teachers (I wish I could remember which!) pointed out to me, before the Four Chaplains one did not hear the phrase “Judeo-Christian” in American discourse. While I admit to mixed feelings about the ways to which that phrase is used (often ignoring real and important distinctions between Jewish and Christian belief) I can never forget that underneath it lies a conviction that we have essential ties.
I look forward to the day when the essential ties among all people of good will are appreciated and celebrated: when no religion is seen as lesser, when no one is “white” because everyone is truly equal. Then, and only then, will the legacy of the Four Chaplains bear its true fruit.