Soliloquies from a Secular Heretic
On January 23, 1943, the S.S. Dorchester, carrying 904 passengers, mostly military men, left for Greenland. During the early morning hours of February 3, 1943, the ship was torpedoed by the German submarine U-223 off the coast of Newfoundland. The blast knocked out the electrical system, leaving the ship in the dark. Panic ensued. Four chaplains sought to calm the men and organize an orderly evacuation. They also assisted in the attempt to guide the wounded men to safety. Life jackets were passed out until the limited supply ran out. The chaplains then removed their own life jackets and gave them to others. They helped as many men as they could into lifeboats. When they could no longer be of help, they linked arms, saying prayers and singing hymns. They went down with the ship.
The four chaplains were of different faiths but shared the conviction that there is no greater love than to lay down your life for a friend. One survivor wrote a moving testimony: “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.”
According to the testimony of another survivor: “I could hear men crying, pleading, praying. I could also hear the chaplains preaching courage. Their voices were the only thing that kept me going.” According to the Army War College account, another survivor of the Dorchester, John Ladd, said of the four chaplains’ selfless act: “It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven.”
Who were these courageous and self-sacrificing men? They were truly an extraordinary quartet. George L. Fox was a Methodist preacher who had been decorated for bravery and was awarded the Silver Star, Purple Heart and the French Croix de Guerre. Alexander D. Goode, the son of a rabbi, followed in his father’s footsteps. He received his doctoral degree from Johns Hopkins University. He was both an athlete as well as an intellectual. Clark V. Poling was ordained in the Protestant Reformed Church in America. He studied at Yale University’s Divinity School and graduated with a Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1936. John P. Washington was a Catholic priest. He was chief of the Chaplains Reserve Pool at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Ind. In 1942, he reported to Camp Myles Standish in Taunton, Mass., where he met chaplains Fox, Goode and Poling at Chaplains School at Harvard.
On December 19, 1944, all four chaplains were posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross. In 1988, February 3 was established by a unanimous act of Congress as an annual “Four Chaplains Day.” The United States Post Office Department issued a commemorative stamp in 1948 honoring the chaplains. The stamp bore the words: “These immortal chaplains . . . Interfaith in Action.” The various ways in which these self-sacrificing men of God are honored, in music, literature, iconography and other modes of expression is quite extensive.
We often admire what we are reluctant to imitate. Nonetheless, our willingness to honor genuine heroes at least keeps our sights on the right ideal. Perhaps this is the first step in gaining the willingness to do something heroic. In the meantime, there are the unheroic acts of self-sacrifice that are always within our grasp. One way of honoring the “Immortal Chaplains” and their like is by making small acts of generosity. That may very well have been the apprenticeship of chaplains Fox, Goode, Poling and Washington long before they boarded the ill-fated S.S. Dorchester.
Donald DeMarco, Ph.D., is a senior fellow of Human Life International, professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Canada, and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College in Cromwell, Connecticut.