“Four Chaplains Day” is to be observed annually on Feb. 3 in America by unanimous resolution of the U.S. Congress in 1988. It is a day to remember Feb. 3, 1943, when one of the most remarkable and inspiring acts of heroism in the history of warfare took place during World War II. It is a day to honor the heroism of the Four Chaplains, who selflessly gave their lives “that others may live.”
However, although veterans in The American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and other veterans organizations will hold special observances on Four Chaplains Day, most American media, most American schools and, therefore, most Americans will not observe it. Indeed, most Americans, including children who will not be taught about it in their schools, will not even know that there is a national Four Chaplains Day, or why. This is true even though, as a former soldier who owed his life to them has said: “[T]heir heroism is beyond belief. That is one of the reasons why we must tell the world what these people did.”
On Feb. 3, 1943, the Dorchester, a converted luxury cruise ship, was transporting Army troops to Greenland, escorted by three Coast Guard cutters and accompanied by two slow-moving freighters.â€¨â€¨ On board were some 900 troops and four chaplains of diverse religions and backgrounds, but of a common faith and commitment to serve God, country and all the soldiers, regardless of those soldiers’ religious beliefs or non-belief. The four chaplains were: â€¨â€¨Rev. George Fox (Methodist); Father John Washington (Roman Catholic); Jewish Rabbi Alexander Goode; and Rev. Clark Poling (Dutch Reformed).â€¨â€¨ At approximately 12:55 a.m., in the dead of a freezing night, the Dorchester was hit by a torpedo fired by a German U-boat 233 in an area so infested with German submarines it was known as “Torpedo Junction.”
The blast ripped a hole in the ship from below the waterline to the top deck.â€¨â€¨The engine room was instantly flooded. Crewmen who were not scalded to death by steam escaping from broken pipes and the ship’s boiler were drowned.â€¨ â€¨Hundreds of troops in the flooded lower compartments were drowned, or washed out to the frigid waters, where most would die.â€¨â€¨ In less than a minute, the Dorchester lost way and listed on a 30-degree angle.
Troops on deck searched for life jackets in panic, clung to rails and other handholds, saw overloaded lifeboats overturn in the turgid water or leapt overboard as a last desperate hope for life. Many with life jackets drowned when the life preservers became waterlogged.â€¨â€¨ Of the 900 troops and crew on board, two-thirds would ultimately die; most of those who survived had lifelong infirmities and pain from their time in the icy waters.
â€¨Dorchester survivors told of the wild pandemonium on board when it was hit and began sinking. Many men had not slept in their clothes and life vests as ordered because of the heat in the crowded quarters below. There was panic, fear, terror; death was no abstraction but real, immediate, seemingly inescapable.â€¨â€¨
The four chaplains acted together to try to bring some order to the chaos, to calm the panic of the troops, to alleviate their fear and terror, to pray with and for them, to help save their lives.â€¨â€¨ The chaplains passed out life jackets, helping those too panicked to put them on correctly, until the awful moment arrived when there were no more life jackets to be given out. â€¨â€¨It was then that a most remarkable act of heroism, courage, faith and love took place: â€¨â€¨Each of the four chaplains took off his life jacket and, knowing that act made death certain, put his life jacket on a soldier who didn’t have one, refusing to listen to any protest that they should not make such a sacrifice.â€¨â€¨ They continued to help the troops until the last moment. â€¨â€¨Then, as the ship sank into the raging sea, the four chaplains linked hands and arms, and could be seen and heard by the survivors praying together, even singing hymns, joined together in faith, love and unity as they sacrificed their lives so “that others might live.”â€¨â€¨
The few survivors testified to the selfless act of the four chaplains: â€¨
â€¨”The ship started sinking, and as I left the ship, I looked back and saw the chaplains with their hands clasped, praying for the boys. They never made any attempt to save themselves, but they did try to save the others. I think their names should be on the list of ‘The Greatest Heroes’ of this war,” testified Grady L. Clark.â€¨â€¨
“I saw all four chaplains take off their life belts and give them to soldiers who had none. The last I saw of them they were still praying, talking and preaching to the soldiers,” attested survivor Thomas W. Myers Jr.â€¨â€¨
“It is impressed clearly in my mind that these chaplains demonstrated unsurpassed courage and heroism when they willingly gave their life belts to four enlisted men, who, because of the utter confusion and disorder brought about by the torpedoing, had become hysterical. They helped save the lives of many of the troops,” testified John F. Garey.â€¨â€¨
These testimonies, taken from author Dan Kurzman’s valuable book “No Greater Glory: The Four Immortal Chaplains and the Sinking of the Dorchester in World War II,” are but some of the sworn statements of grateful survivors upon which Congress awarded the Four Chaplains an unprecedented “Congressional Medal of Valor” in 1961. â€¨â€¨Earlier, in 1944, they were awarded Purple Hearts and the Distinguished Service Cross. They did not receive the Medal of Honor because of restrictions limiting that medal to combatants.
In 2004, delegates to The American Legion National Convention, representing 2.7 million wartime veterans, voted to support making an exception and awarding the Medal of Honor to the Four Chaplains. â€¨â€¨The lesson of their lives is as inspiring as is the lesson of their ultimate sacrifice.
Information is available from a number of sources, principally by the Immortal Chaplains Foundation and the affiliated Chapel of the Four Chaplains, which awards the Immortal Chaplains Prize for Humanity and whose logo is: “That others may live.”
At the dedication of the Chapel of the Four Chaplains in 1951, then-President Harry S. Truman said their sacrifice reflected the fact that “the unity of our country is a unity under God.”
â€¨â€¨”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 good will,” President Truman said.
â€¨â€¨Ben Epstein, a Jewish survivor who often spoke to audiences about the Four Chaplains, was quoted by author Kurzman as describing the meaning of their sacrifice by putting a question to himself and, thereby, to all other Americans: â€¨â€¨”I ask myself, could I do it? Take my life preserver and give it to someone else? Absolutely not. I don’t think I could do it. I didn’t do it. And I ask you in the audience, how many of you could do it? And I don’t want an answer. That’s why I say their bravery, their heroism is beyond belief. That is one of the reasons why we must tell the world what these people did.”
â€¨â€¨The American Legion has been conducting annual Four Chaplains remembrances for almost half a century, publishes material and has produced a video, “The American Legion Remembers the Four Chaplains,” all of which are available through its Chaplains Program. ([email protected]; The American Legion, Attn: Chaplains Program, PO Box 1055, Indianapolis, IN 46206 [317-630-1212]).
May the God the Four Chaplains served bless and keep them; and may the nation they so heroically served always remember and honor them.
Rees Lloyd is a longtime civil-rights attorney and veterans activist.