Heroes: The Four Immortal Chaplains

The story of the four chaplains is not well known enough. True, they were honored on a postal stamp as well as at various religious sites. But, especially during a time when religion is rife with scandal, conflict, divisiveness and judgment of others, the story of the four chaplains stands as a beacon of hope and a reminder that, in the face of need, religious affiliation doesn’t matter.

George Fox was a World War I veteran yet when WWII broke out, he felt called to serve again, this time as a Methodist minister. On the USS Dorcester, he met collegues Alexander Goode, a Jewish rabbi, Clark Poling, a Dutch Reformed minister, and John Washington, a Catholic priest. The four men had become good friends and spent meals together, at times exploring each other’s religious traditions but often talking of home and family. All had enlisted as chaplains when World War II broke out.

The four men came together on the USS Dorchester, a transport carrying roughly 900 soldiers into battle. But beneath the waves lurked German U-boats intent on preventing soldiers from reaching the battle front. One such U-boat had the Dorchester in its sights.

While the four chaplains provided services specific to their religions, the daily needs of the soldiers were responded to by all chaplains, regardless of the religion of the soldier before him. Thus, one evening Fr. Washington aggressively confronted some soldiers giving one man a hard time because he was Jewish.

On a freezing North Atlantic night off the coast of Greenland the Dorchester was hit and began to sink. Chaos reigned. Of the 900 soldiers aboard, 2/3 would meet their death, the four chaplains among them.

Stories of the chaplains came to light among the survivors. One man recalled Chaplain Fox handing him a life saver, insisting he had another one. He didn’t. Another man recalled Rabbi Goode insisting that the man take his gloves before going overboard, the chaplain insisting that he had another pair. He didn’t. Still another soldier recalled Chaplain Washington insisting a young soldier climb down a rope to possible safety. After the young soldier left, Chaplain Washington did not climb down the rope himself but went to help others.

The enduring image of the four chaplains was shared by several soldiers who, froma safe distance, watched as the ship went under. Several saw the four chaplains together, arms linked, praying. Here is a painting of that image:

For me, the story of the four chaplains is an enduring testimony to the belief that all roads lead to God, that no one faith has it all right, and that in the face of tragedy religion becomes irrelevant. None of the chaplains asked a soldier “What’s your religion?’ before giving them a life jacket or gloves. Heroism can definitely be spiritual but, as with the four chaplains, heroism rises above the limitations of organized religion.

READING AND VIEWING: Two very good books on the four chaplains are No Greater Glory by Dan Kurzman and The Immortals by Stephen T. Collis. Collis’ book also includes the story of Charles Walter David Jr., an African American petty officer on one of the rescue ships who risked hypothermia rescuing soldiers from the freezing sea. A very good documentary can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ewJp8HhYzA&t=7s