In the early morning hours of Feb. 3, 1943, the USAT Dorchester was steaming across frigid, U-boat-infested waters in the North Atlantic. Suddenly, a German torpedo struck near the engine room, triggering a massive explosion. The transport vessel, which was carrying more than 900 passengers bound for a U.S. Army base in Greenland, capsized and sank in less than 20 minutes.
Among those on board were four Army chaplains, each with the rank of First Lieutenant: Father John P. Washington; Rabbi Alexander D. Goode; Rev. Clark V. Poling, a Reformed minister; and Rev. George L. Fox, a Methodist minister. Just hours before the attack, Father Washington had celebrated a Mass that was attended by men of many faiths.
As the ship sank, the chaplains calmly ministered to the panic-stricken and wounded, assisting soldiers and others boarding lifeboats. Many survivors later testified to their bravery.
“I could hear men crying, pleading, praying,” recalled Pfc. William B. Bednar. “I could also hear the chaplains preaching courage. Their voices were the only thing that kept me going.”
Others reported seeing the chaplains handing out life preservers until there were no more to give — including their own. One eyewitness, John Ladd, said, “It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven.”
Survivors on rafts were awestruck as they caught a final glimpse of the courageous quartet, who came to be known as “The Four Chaplains,” standing together on the slanted deck, arms locked and singing hymns as the ship slipped beneath the waves. They were among more than 670 passengers who died at sea that day. In the 75 years since their death, and still today, there have been many dedicated to commemorating the chaplains’ sacrifice and keeping their story alive.
Our Council Tradition
In 1944, all four men posthumously received the Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart, and in 1948 a U.S. postage stamp was issued in their honor bearing the words “These Immortal Chaplains.” Congress authorized a one-time only posthumous “Special Medal for Heroism,” which was presented to family members in 1961. Then, in 1988, a unanimous act of Congress established Feb. 3 as the annual Four Chaplains Day.
In 1948, the US Post Office issued stamps honoring the four chaplains. We ask our members to place one of the stamps by their membership card to remind them about the brave sacrifice of these four men. They show us how we are to daily take up our cross and be ready not only to step into the breach but be ready to defend our faith in the face of a hostile, and secular world.