A tribute to four Army chaplains

Feb. 3 marked the historic 71st anniversary of the sinking of the U.S. Army Transport Dorchester, as well as the legendary acts of selflessness of four Army chaplains who were aboard. The Dorchester was torpedoed by a German U-boat while crossing the icy North Atlantic, and the four chaplains, Rev. George Fox (Methodist), Jewish Rabbi Alexander Goode, Clark Poling (Dutch Reformed) and Father John Washington (Roman Catholic), comforted the wounded, directed others to safety, and surrendered their life jackets to save four young men. As the Dorchester sank, the chaplains were seen linked arm in arm, praying.

American Legion Post 459 in Grand Rapids, Mich., has honored the diversity and the heroism of the four chaplains for the past 10 years by hosting an annual service in their honor. The post’s recent two-hour Four Chaplains Day service was held at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids whereLegion Family members and the community attended free of charge.

"We have great love for the four chaplains, and we feel it’s our obligation to uphold their legacy," said Harriet Sturim, Post 459’s Auxiliary chaplain and the Fifth District Auxiliary chaplain. "The service is not only a place to retell the story, but a place to move ahead and learn from these four men, their sacrifices and mutual respect despite their religious differences."

Post 459’s Four Chaplains Day service featured four chairs that were draped with life jackets, photos of the chaplains and liturgical garments and Bibles. Retired Army Col. Herman Keiser told the story of the four chaplains; Sturim gave a speech about unity and diversity; patriotic music was performed by Grand Rapids & District Pipe Band; a local honor guard conducted the three-volley salute and the folding of the American flag; and a representative from Heroes to Heroes Foundation (a non-profit organization that provides support to veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress) was the keynote speaker.

"With our keynote speakers, we try to be informative with things that are happening for our servicemembers and for the Legion," Sturim said. "We feel the four chaplains would want us to convey the message of helping our veterans, convey the message of diversity and welcoming people in their lives.

"I always like to say that in 1943, the chaplains didn’t know what the word diversity was. It wasn’t really invented, but they invented it."

Refreshments were served and time was given for attendees to quietly or verbally pay their respects. "The service becomes a very emotional experience when people pay homage to the chaplains," Sturim said.

Preparations for the service began eight months in advance in an effort to identify speakers, send out invitations and promote the event through flyers and social media. Personal invitations were mailed to the speakers and the department commander and president; an event flyer and letter was mailed to every Michigan post; local news channels were informed of the event; flyers were disbursed throughout the local community; and promotional material was posted on Post 459’s Four Chaplains Facebook page. Sturim said she asks new Legion Family members every year to be involved with the service because "the more people we involve, the more people will take the legacy of the four chaplains back with them to their post," she said. "People always say they want to do this (host a Four Chaplains Day service) at their post, and I tell them to jump in and do it, and it will grow."