“Valor is a gift,” Carl Sandburg once wrote. “Those having it never know for sure whether they have it until the test comes.”
This day was such a day. In the early morning hours of Feb. 3, 1943, four men faced their test and underscored what a wise man said millennia before: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
These four men weren’t trained in combat, although America was at war on that night. They were among the 900-plus servicemen, merchant seamen and civilian workers aboard the U.S.A.T. Dorchester. The Army transport ship was one of three in convoy moving across the North Atlantic from Newfoundland toward an American base in Greenland.
These men, whose ranks are sometimes still called “sky pilots,” were chaplains. George L. Fox was a Methodist minister. Alexander D. Goode was a Jewish Rabbi. Clark V. Poling belonged to the Dutch Reformed Church. And Fr. John P. Washington was a Catholic priest.
The four sky pilots were assigned to the Dorchester to help calm the nerves of nearly 700 young enlistees and draftees aboard. They even staged amateur floor shows each night during the voyage.
The chaplains also held regular religious services, but not many of the crew showed up at first. As the ship got farther from home, attendance improved.
It was about 1 a.m. the morning of Feb. 3 and the Dorchester was within 150 miles of harbor in Greenland. The German submarine U-223 was running on the surface that night when the captain in the conning tower spotted the outline of the convoy.
Torpedoes struck the starboard side of the Dorchester near the engine room, well below the water line. A hundred men died in the initial blast that knocked out the power and radio contact.
Panic set in as the crew below groped through the darkness to get topside. Lifeboats quickly overcrowded and some rafts tossed into the sea drifted away before anyone could get aboard.
Through the pandemonium, on deck were four chaplains. They encouraged the frightened, prayed for the dead and wounded and guided the disoriented.
One crewman tried to go back below deck to retrieve his forgotten gloves. One of the chaplains said, “Take mine. I have two pair.” (Of course he didn’t.)
Once everyone was on deck, these four sky pilots started handing out lifejackets. But when the jackets ran out, a few crew members were still left. And the chaplains removed theirs and gave them to the frightened crew.
Of the 902 men aboard the Dorchester, there were 230 survivors. Among the 672 dead – four chaplains.
As the ship went down some 18 minutes after it was torpedoed, survivors in nearby rafts described what they saw. Four chaplains with arms linked were offering prayers for those still adrift in the freezing waters of the North Atlantic.
Now for a brief fast forward. In the late 1990s, David Fox-Benton, nephew of Rev. Fox, traveled to Germany to interview three survivors of U-223, which was sunk in 1944 just off Sicily.
Fox-Benton told the German veterans, then in their twilight years, the chaplains would have forgiven them, as he had already done. Then the men started to cry. “The men had never told their families this story,” he said. “They realized that just when they hit that ship, there were men dying. They cheered the first moment, and then it just got very silent, and they felt terrible after that.”
Most of the crew aboard the U-223 weren’t Nazis, they were just German kids, some as young as 17. Nazis gave them the choice of either serving or being shot.
But on the night of Feb. 3, 1943, Rev. Fox, Rabbi Goode, Rev. Poling and Fr. Washington passed life’s ultimate test in route to a much better life. And they left behind a lesson from which we all can learn.
On Dec. 19, 1944, with next of kin in attendance, the four chaplains were posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Purple Heart. And on Jan. 18, 1961, President Eisenhower awarded them the one-time-only Special Congressional Medal for Heroism.
Stained-glass windows in the Pentagon, at West Point and at Fort Snelling, Minn., along with memorial chapels across the nation, all pay tribute to the sacrifice of the four chaplains. Books, television shows and radio documentaries have told their story. And
I’ve just done the same, in my own amateurish way.
By unanimous Congressional resolution in 1988, Feb. 3 was designated as Four Chaplains Day. Although it’s not listed on the calendar, it’s a story that needs to be remembered. John Ladd, one of the survivors from the Dorchester, said it best: “It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven.”