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This Day in History: Four Chaplains Day

On this day in 1943, four military chaplains sacrifice their lives when their troop transport ship is struck by a German torpedo.

“[A]s I left the ship,” one engineer later said, “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.”

Four Chaplains stained glass window at the United States Pentagon

Their sacrifice was not in vain. They’d brought calmness to those final moments on the ship. Because of their efforts, men who would have panicked and drowned instead made it into life boats.

Two of the chaplains’ wives had premonitions that their husbands weren’t coming home. “Cold chills ran up and down my spine as I lay beside him in bed those last three nights he was with us,” George Fox’s widow would later say. Alex Goode’s wife agreed: “I knew I would never see him again—I just felt it in my heart.”

Goode was a Jewish Rabbi. Maybe especially dangerous for him to volunteer in an effort to oust Hitler?

Clark Poling had told his father, a well-known Protestant minister, not “to pray for my return—that wouldn’t be fair. Many will not return . . . .” Instead, he asked his dad to pray “that I shall never be a coward. . . . just pray that I shall be adequate!”

The final chaplain was John Washington, a Catholic priest who had tricked his way into the military despite bad vision in one eye.

All four men were assigned to SS Dorchester, a passenger liner that had been converted into a troop transport ship. Dorchester was to travel from New York to Greenland. As the troops came aboard, the chaplains stood together, greeting their men. “There was camaraderie among them that was hard to describe,” Pfc James McAtamney later said.

He couldn’t believe that chaplains of different faiths got along so well.

The chaplains were quickly loved. “Guys would line up to talk to them,” First Sergeant Michael Warish said. “We had a lot of young guys, and a lot of them had never been away from home before. The chaplains were like mother and father to them.”

Unfortunately, events would prevent the chaplains from ministering to their men for too long. SS Dorchester was mere hours away from safety in Greenland when a German U-boat fired upon it. The torpedo sparked a panic. Men couldn’t find their life jackets. Not all lifeboats were usable because of the torpedo damage. Everyone knew that the water was too cold—and the ship was going down fast.

The chaplains calmed men down, organized them, and got them into life boats. Many survivors later testified to their bravery and effectiveness:

“The encouraging thoughts and remarks of the chaplains was in no small way responsible for some of the more fearful individuals going over the side and eventually being saved,” one eyewitness said. Another spoke of the chaplains’ “unsurpassed courage and heroism when they willingly gave their life belts to four enlisted men, who . . . had become hysterical.”

Second Engineer Grady Clark saw one chaplain pull rank on a soldier, forcing him to accept a life jacket: “And then he gave him a shove with his open hand . . . and lifted him up and dumped him into the water.”

The last time that anyone saw the chaplains, they were standing on the deck of the sinking ship, holding hands and praying. They faced death calmly.

Unsurprising, maybe. They’d come to offer comfort and help to American troops. And they’d succeeded in doing exactly that.

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