ENFIELD – On Jan. 23, 1943, the Army transport ship Dorchester left New York Harbor and sailed for Greenland carrying more than 900 servicemen, including four U.S. Army chaplains. At 1 a.m. February 3, a torpedo from a German U-boat struck the military transport ship, causing it to list and begin to sink.
During the panic that followed, the four chaplains – Lt. John P. Washington, Catholic; Lt. George L. Fox, Methodist; Lt. Alexander D. Goode, Jewish; and Lt. Clark V. Poling, Reformed Protestant – calmed the men, handed out life jackets and directed them to life rafts.
When the life jackets ran out, the four chaplains took off their own life vests and handed them over to others. According to survivors, the chaplains stayed on the ship and were last seen kneeling on the deck linked arm in arm, praying as the ship sank beneath the ocean.
Nearly 700 men lost their lives that day, including the four chaplains. However, due to their efforts and sacrifice, 230 lives were saved.
On Feb. 7, veterans from American Legion Post 154 in Enfield, as well as veterans from posts in New Britain, Hartford, South Windsor and Southington, gathered at St. Patrick Church in Enfield to honor the chaplains at the 66th annual “Four Chaplains Mass.” They were joined by parishioners from St. Patrick and St. Adalbert Church, Lt. Governor Nancy Wyman and Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts who were in attendance for Scout Sunday.
Feb. 3 was established by an act of Congress as “Four Chaplains Day,” and similar services were held throughout Connecticut – in Forestville, Seymour and Taftville – to honor the four men and their actions that day.
“We all need examples of their kind of heroic sacrifice for others,” said Father John Weaver, pastor of St. Patrick and St. Adalbert, who celebrated the Mass. Deacon Vincent J. Motto assisted.
“Plus the fact that they were from very different religious traditions and yet worked together to save so many lives, that level of cooperation among faiths is remarkable, something we especially need today among all our faithful, particularly in light of prejudice against Jews and Muslims,” Father Weaver said.
The story of the four chaplains was shared during the Mass by Lawrence M. Herrmann of Cheshire, a member of the board of directors of the Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation, based in the Navy Yard in Philadelphia. A former Marine Corps major, Mr. Herrmann is a practicing attorney.
The Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation was established in 1951 to tell the story of the four men and to encourage selfless sacrifice and interfaith cooperation. The nonprofit foundation is funded by donations from veterans’ organizations such as the American Legion and Catholic War Veterans, he said.
The foundation also bestows the Legion of Honor Award on ordinary citizens who do extraordinary things. American Legion Post 154 has received the award for its decades of service in organizing this Mass.
“It’s just a heartwarming story,” said Lucien Lefevre, commander of Post 154 and the organizer of the Mass at St. Patrick’s, “because of the selflessness. They had to give up their chance for survival to care for their brothers and sisters in arms.”
Mr. Lefevre holds a special appreciation for chaplains. “I’ve got a cousin who is an Air Force chaplain,” he said. He also recalled attending midnight Mass, thanks to a Catholic chaplain, in Baghdad during his deployment as part of the National Guard in Iraq.
Michael DeGuile, an Air Force veteran and member of St. Patrick’s, also expressed appreciation for the Catholic chaplains who enabled him to attend Mass during his years in the service.
“I’m a big believer that you are who you are wherever you are,” he said.
Father Weaver concurred, noting that chaplains of all faiths help to keep members of the military spiritually focused.
“Chaplains and their ministry help military personnel remember who they really are,” Father Weaver said, “and what they stand for as religious women and men in the midst of the culture of military life, which can be overwhelming.”