If you hang around an American Legion post long enough, you'll hear the tale of the Four Chaplains. It's one of those true and inspiring stories that should be told in every U.S. history class but isn't.
On Feb. 3, 1943, the Army transport ship Dorchester was torpedoed by a German U-boat while crossing the icy North Atlantic in a convoy. Of the 902 soldiers, merchant seamen and civilian workers aboard, only 230 were rescued. The fact that even that many survived is in part because of the level heads and steady hands of Lts. George Fox, Alexander Goode, Clark Poling and John Washington.
As Dorchester slid beneath the waves, the four Army chaplains calmed frightened men and led as many as they could to safety. When they ran out of life jackets, they gave away their own. Those swimming in the water and floating in rafts never forgot their last glimpse of the chaplains: all four – Methodist minister, Jewish rabbi, Reformed Church in America reverend and Roman Catholic priest – were linked arm in arm, praying and singing hymns as they went down with the ship.
In a way, they have achieved immortality. For a nation at war, the chaplains' triumph in the face of tragedy became an enduring example of faith, courage, selflessness and sacrificial love. In 1988, Congress designated Feb. 3 "Four Chaplains Day." But long before that, American Legion posts were commemorating the anniversary of Dorchester's sinking with ceremonies and memorial services, usually on the first Sunday in February. We encourage every one of our 14,000 posts to mark Four Chaplains Day in some manner – a short program, a longer service with a wreath-laying or candle-lighting, maybe even a breakfast or banquet that includes an empty table set for four. However your post chooses to mark Four Chaplains Day, it should be a community event – an interfaith gathering open to all races, religions and creeds. In the words of a prayer offered at many of these services, "May we remain faithful to the spirit of the four chaplains who, having learned to live and serve together, in death were not divided."
These observances are an integral part of the Legion's "Service to God and Country" program, carried out by our chaplains nationwide. Talk of one's religious duty isn't popular nowadays, and recent polls show that Americans' faith in God is declining. But the Legion won't abandon its support for religion's place in the public square. Our nation's founding fathers recognized God as the author of life and liberty. So did the veterans who founded The American Legion in the ashes of the bloodiest war the world had yet seen. Without God, they believed, there is no Americanism. We are nondenominational and nonsectarian, but we are not and never will be hostile to faith. We celebrate it.
Whether offering a prayer for wisdom at a post meeting or visiting an ill comrade in the hospital, Legion chaplains are the hands and feet of our organization. This month, as we honor the legacy of the Four Chaplains, let's acknowledge those among us who strive to meet the spiritual needs of the nation's military, veterans and their families. In a challenging time, they are willing and able to remind us all of our dependence on God, if we'll hear them.