The Seventy-Fifth Anniversary of the Four Chaplains 

By Paula Green 

“As I swam away from the ship, I looked back. The flares had lighted everything. The bow came up high and she slid under. The last thing I saw, the Four Chaplains were up there praying for the safety of the men. They had done everything they could. I did not see them again. They themselves did not have a chance without their life jackets.”      — Grady Clark, survivor 

           This month marks the 75th anniversary of a military milestone. On January 23, 1943, the USAT Dorchester left the New York harbor bound for Greenland carrying 902 officers, servicemen and civilian workers. On the evening of Feb. 3, this mighty ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat U-223. The damage was severe; boiler power was lost, and there was inadequate steam to sound the full six-whistle signal to abandon ship. Loss of power prevented sending a radio distress signal, and no rockets or flares were launched to alert the escorts. 

           When the Dorchester began to sink, four chaplains of different religions George L. Fox (Methodist), Alexander D. Goode (Jewish Rabbi), Clark V. Poling (Baptist) and John P. Washington (Catholic) were trying to calm the passengers during the evacuation.  When there were no more lifejackets left, the chaplains removed theirs and gave them to four frightened young men.  As the ship was sinking, they linked arms together, said prayers and sang hymns as they went down with the ship.   

          The Dorchester sank into the icy waters of the Atlantic.  Of the 902 men aboard the U.S.A.T. Dorchester, 672 died, leaving 230 survivors. When the news reached American shores, the nation was stunned by the magnitude of the tragedy and heroic conduct of these holy men. 

          On Dec. 19, 1944, the four chaplains were posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross.  A Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation was dedicated on February 3, 1951, by President Harry S. Truman. In his dedication speech, the president said, “This interfaith shrine… will stand through long generations to teach Americans that as men can die heroically as brothers so should they live together in mutual faith and goodwill.” 

        The chaplains were honored with a commemorative stamp issued in 1948.  On July 14, 1960, the Four Chaplains Medals were introduced by Congress.  The medals were presented posthumously on Jan. 18, 1961, to their next of kin.  In 2006, the chaplains were awarded the Medal of Honor.   

           On Feb. 3, 1988, Congress established Four Chaplains Day.  It is a day filled with official proclamations and flags flown at half-staff to honor their bravery. 

           This event was the catalyst for Americans to embrace interfaith understanding.  It was a transformational moment for America, marking the first time various denominations were recognized by the mainstream population as serving together and with common purpose.