The bravery of four World War II chaplains

On Feb. 3, 1943, the United States Army Transport Dorchester – a converted luxury liner – was crossing the North Atlantic, transporting more than 900 troops to an American base in Greenland. Aboard the ship were four chaplains of different faiths: Reverend George Fox (Methodist), Jewish Rabbi Alexander Goode, Reverend Clark Poling (Dutch Reformed) and Father John Washington (Roman Catholic).

Around 12:55 a.m., a German U-boat fired a torpedo that struck Dorchester’s starboard side, below the water line and near the engine room. The explosion instantly killed 100 men and knocked out power and radio communication with Dorchester’s three escort ships. Within 20 minutes, the transport sank and more than 670 men died.

As soldiers rushed to lifeboats, the four chaplains spread out, comforting the wounded and directing others to safety. One survivor, Private William Bednar, later said, “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.”

Another survivor, John Ladd, watched the chaplains’ distribute life jackets, and when they ran out, they removed theirs and gave them to four young men. “It was the finest thing I have seen, or hope to see, this side of heaven,” he recalled.

As Dorchester sank, the chaplains were seen linked arm in arm, praying.

Fox, Goode, Poling and Washington were posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Purple Heart, and in 1948, Congress declared Feb. 3 to be Four Chaplains Day. The four chaplains were also honored with a U.S. postage stamp that year.

Every year, American Legion posts nationwide remember Four Chaplains Day with memorial services. This year, Four Chaplains Sunday is on Feb. 5 and Legion family members are encouraged to share on www.legiontown.org how they honored the chaplains. 

To request information on how to conduct a Four Chaplains Memorial Service, email the Americanism Division at americanism@legion.org.

Learn more about the four chaplains by visiting The Immortal Chaplains Foundation at www.immortalchaplains.org and The Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation at www.fourchaplains.org.