COURAGE WITHOUT FANFARE
Courage takes many forms.
We celebrate heroism with tickertape parades and stone monuments
and record courageous exploits on film.
But there is also a quiet courage, born of necessity and practiced without fanfare.
Such was the courage of four good men aboard
the troop ship S.S. Dorchester on February 3, 1943.
Because of one day in their lives.. their last day ……
Lts. Fox (Methodist), Goode (Jewish), Washington (Catholic)
and Poling (Dutch Reformed) are linked forever together
and known simply as the Four IMMORTAL Chaplains.
This was the second war for George Fox.
During WWI, before he was 18, he signed on for ambulance duty
and was wounded two days before armistice was declared.
He subsequently received the Silver Star, a Purple Heart
and the Croix de Guerre of France.
Several years later, Fox enrolled in the Bible Institute of Chicago to study
for the ministry, married, and upon completion of his studies,
returned with his wife to Vermont, where his two children were born.
Ordained as a Methodist minister at age 34, he began preaching in
several small Vermont villages until the attack on Pearl Harbor,
when he joined the Corps of Chaplains and took the first step
toward his destiny aboard the Dorchester.
Alex Goode, like his father and grandfather,
was a rabbi, and a fervent patriot. At the outbreak of World War II,
he said farewell to his wife and the members of his
temple congregation in York, Pa., enlisted in the Corps of Chaplains,
and set out with the others for overseas duty aboard the Dorchester.
Clark Poling’s family shared a tradition of religious service dating back
seven generations. Clark first studied law, but later found his true calling
and entered Yale Divinity School. After his ordination in 1938, Poling became
the minister for the First Dutch reformed Church in Schenectady, N.Y.
As the war began, he and his wife were awaiting the birth of their second child.
Shortly before embarking on the S.S. Dorchester,
he almost omnisciently remarked to his family,
“Do not pray for my safe return, but that I do my duty.”
John Washington was the oldest of seven children
born to Irish Catholic immigrants in Newark, N.J.,
He believed that God had a special need for him after
surviving a near-fatal childhood illness.
In 1937, he became a Catholic priest and was assigned to
St. Stephen’s parish in Arlington, N.J.
Five years later, the war beckoned Father Washington and
he, too, stepped aboard the Dorchester.
As the Dorchester, a U.S. Army troopship, made its way through the freezing waters of the North Atlantic, the four chaplains went about their work, counseling and praying with the 904 men on board. As fearful rumors swept the ship, compounded by seasickness, stifling heat, stale air and tightly crowed quarters, the chaplains were often needed.
On January 30, the two merchants ships and three Coast Guard cutters in the Dorchester’s convoy entered a stretch of water off Newfoundland called Torpedo Junction, where many ships had been sunk by German U-boats. There were frequent drills and alerts as the cutter made routine sweeps in search of enemy submarines. Amid mounting anxiety, the chaplains resorted to laughter and music to help dispel the fear that prayer and bible verses could no longer reach.
On Tuesday, February 2, the cutter detected a submarine, but could not get a fix on the position. By 1 a.m. the next morning (February 3), the exhausted troops had finally settled down below as the watch changed on deck and the relieved man headed below to revive his nearly frozen limbs and get a cup of coffee. There was a faint thud and the ship shuddered. The German U-Boat
U-223 had fired three torpedos’, one of which hit the midsection of the Dorchester. Ammonia and oil were everywhere in the fast-sinking vessel and upon the freezing sea.
The Dorchester, now without power or a radio, listed to starboard. The convoy sailed on, unaware of the plight of the troopship. Dazed men, half naked and without life jackets, struggled to the upper deck. Panic infected the men as overcrowded lifeboats capsized and rafts drifted off before anyone could use them. They stood little chance of surviving in the icy blasts which struck them.
The four Chaplains were among the first on deck. In the midst of this chaos, the calm action and courage of the four Army chaplains saved many lives. They guided wandering, frightened men to lifeboat stations, distributed life jackets and helped others over the side of the relative safety of the lifeboats. Survivors remember hearing their comforting voices raised in prayer. Others remember them handing life jackets to man after man and, at the end, giving up their own.
Many remember that agonizing sight of four men standing in knee-deep waters on the slanting deck, their arms linked and voices raised in unified prayer. They were the last to be seen by witnesses, each praying for the care of the men. The stern of the Dorchester rose high in the water and then suddenly slipped beneath the icy waters. The men were gone. Of the 904 men who sailed on the Dorchester that night, 605 were lost. It took approximately 18 minutes from the explosion for the Dorchester to go down. The Coast Guard Cutter Tampa was able to escort the other freighters to Greenland. Meanwhile the Cutters Comanche and Escanaba, disobeying orders to continue the search for the German U-Boat, stopped to rescue 230 men from the frigid waters that night. Almost 700 died, making it the third largest loss at sea of its kind for the United States during World War II.
Survivors would always remember the courage of the four chaplains. The world would recognize their valor in 1948, when the Chapel of Four Chaplains located in Philadelphia was dedicated by President Harry S Truman; and again, in 1961, when Congress voted to present the Special Medal of Heroism-the only such medal ever given-posthumously to the four chaplains of the S.S. Dorchester. They were recognized for their selfless acts of courage, compassion and faith. According to the First Sergeant on the ship, “They were always together, they carried their faith together.” They demonstrated throughout the voyage and in their last moments, interfaith compassion in their relationships with the men and with each other.
In 1989, The American Legion Auxiliary resolved that the first Sunday of February would henceforth be designated “Four Chaplains Sunday” to honor the memory of the four chaplains of the S.S. Dorchester, and, as such, it is observed by all members with special programs of recognition.
None of us knows what we are capable of until we are challenged. Each of us hopes that at the moment of confrontation, we will prove worthy. On the first Sunday of February, we honor four brave and godly men who met the ultimate challenge with quiet courage and who never heard the fanfare.
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