The story about the bravery and self-sacrifice of four World War II Army chaplains aboard the USAT Dorchester is one that has been told for the past 75 years. And the story evokes deep emotion no matter how many times one may tell it.
“It’s my fourth year reading this story … but it still hits the heart strings. I’m a Navy veteran so when you talk about boats going down I get a softball in my throat,” said Pete Hirt, who was one of three Legionnaires at American Legion Post 974 in Franklin Park, Ill., to recount the story during the post’s fourth annual Four Chaplains memorial service on Feb. 4. “I put myself in that cold water, watching the boat go down. As much as I try to stop thinking about what I’m reading, my mind won’t let me. (The heroic acts of the four Army chaplains) is another reason why they call (World War II veterans) the world’s greatest generation.”
On Feb. 3, 1943, the Dorchester was carrying 902 men across the cold North Atlantic waters to an Army Command Base in Greenland. The Dorchester never arrived to its destination. It was torpedoed by a German U-boat, killing 672, including the four Army chaplains of different religions who sacrificed their lives for men of all faiths – Reverend George Fox (Methodist), Jewish Rabbi Alexander Goode, Reverend Clark Poling (Dutch Reformed) and Father John Washington (Roman Catholic).
Post 974’s service, which was opened to the public, honored the chaplains with a table that held their photos, relics of their religion and life jackets adorned by U.S. flags to symbolize their courage.
The torpedo knocked out the Dorchester’s electrical system, leaving the ship dark. Panic set in among the men on board. The chaplains calmed the men through prayer and organized an orderly evacuation of the ship and helped guide wounded men to safety.
“Four chaplains … not the captain of the vessel, not the commanding officers. It was four chaplains who stopped the chaos,” said Kendal Bishop, chaplain for Post and Squadron 974. “It didn’t matter what denomination they were. It was about the spirituality of helping their fellow comrades.”
As life jackets were passed out to the men, the supply ran out before each man had one. The chaplains removed their own life jackets and gave them to others. Survivors said that the four men linked arms, bowed their heads, said prayers and sang hymns as the ship went down.
“They put aside their own fears and uncertainty to administer to the needs of others,” read Post 974 member Gene Korus. “Together they sacrificed their last shutter of hope to ensure the survival of other men.”
During the memorial service, four Legionnaires portrayed the Army chaplains by sitting in front of the table that featured their photos and religious relics (baptismal wand, sacred oils, rosary beads, chalice, book of daily prayers and more). Stories about why they joined the military and the families they left behind were shared as a reminder that these men were sons, brothers, husbands and fathers. The Legionnaires turned toward the table to face Fox, Goode, Poling, Washington and lit a candle in their memory as the sound of a bell tolled.
Following the lighting of the candles, a memorial wreath was brought forth by Mia and Alexis, the young daughters of Post 974 member and 9th District Senior Vice Commander Don Horn, who was one of the story readers.
“When I was rehearsing this morning my daughters asked, ‘Are you going to start crying again?’ I had to explain to them why we were doing this,” Horn said. “The story of the Four Chaplains exemplifies where we came from and the sacrifices our servicemembers make.”
Educating youth like Mia and Alexis about the Four Chaplains story is vital, said Unit 974 member Patricia Kowalski. “We need to stress what these men went through and how they gave up their lives for their comrades. Our youth need to understand what their grandfathers, fathers, brothers, sisters and mothers did for their country.”
The memorial service ended with the sounding of taps, prayer and the chaplains’ candles being extinguished. But across the country, and within Post 974, the memory of Fox, Goode, Poling and Washington lives on. Post 974 is one of many across the country memorializing the chaplains to remind the “community, state and nation to understand the sacrifices that are made not just by these four chaplains but by everyday people doing everyday service with the military,” Bishop said. “Even after they leave the military they are still out there serving.”