Briefing - Flattening the Hierarchy: Some Early Twentieth Century Attempts
Once well known by all Americans, the story of the Four Chaplains is one of the most dramatic and moving of World War II, as four men of God, of different faiths but with one cause, gave up their lives to save others, to die side-by-side in prayer.
Very early on the morning of February 3, 1943, the Europe-bound army transport Dorchester, with 869 souls aboard, was steaming through the frigid waters of the Davis Strait, just 20 miles off Greenland. At 0:55 a.m. the German submarine U-223 put a torpedo into her. Struck amidships, slightly aft on her starboard side, in her engine spaces, the ship lost power and began going down. “Abandon Ship!” was ordered. Only two of the ship’s lifeboats could be launched. Panic developed, for many of the troops aboard had disobeyed orders to sleep in their life jackets.
Amid the chaos and fear four men stood out as pillars of strength, four men of God, of different faiths but united in their devotion to their fellow man. The four distributed life jackets and helped men over the side, frequently having to coax, encourage, and even shove the faint hearted. Towards the end each gave his own life jacket to help frightened young soldiers who had none, by some accounts one of them saying, “Take this, my son, you need it more than I do.” As the ship went down they were seen standing together in prayer, by some accounts holding hands. It was just 25 minutes after the torpedo had hit. Only 228 of the men aboard Dorchester survived. Many had gone down with the ship, many others perished in the icy waters. No one knows how many survived because of the heroism and self-sacrifice of the “Four Chaplains.”
- George Fox (1900-1943), a native of Pennsylvania, lied about his age in 1917 to enlist in the Army, serving in the Ambulance Corps at St. Mihiel and in the Meuse-Argonne, where he was wounded, leaving him partially disabled. After the war he attended seminary, became an itinerant Methodist minister, married, and became pastor of a church in Vermont. Shortly after Pearl Harbor Fox decided to become a military chaplain. His son saw combat with the Marines Corps in the Pacific.
- Alexander Goode (1911-1943) was born in Brooklyn, but his family lived for a time in Washington, D.C., before settling in York, Pennsylvania. The young man was active in his synagogue and in B’nai B’rith. During the 1930s he married and had several children, became a rabbi, and pursued an academic career. He joined the Army as a chaplain in early 1942.
- Clark V. Poling (1910-1943), a native of Ohio, was the son of a prominent Reform clergyman and religious publisher. The younger Poling naturally gravitated to the ministry, attending Yale Divinity School. He served in several churches during the 1930s, married, and became pastor of a church in upstate New York. He joined the Chaplains’ Corps shortly after Pearl Harbor.
- John P. Washington (1908-1943) was born into a working class Irish-American family in a tough section of Newark, New Jersey. An outstanding athlete, after college, he entered seminary, and in 1935 was ordained a Roman Catholic priest. He worked in various parishes before joining the Army as a chaplain in early 1942.
The men were nominated for the Medal of Honor, but at the time Army regulations limited that honor to deeds committed in direct combat with the enemy (at least one award has since been made contrary to this rule), and they were instead each awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, second highest decoration in the service. The heroic sacrifice of the four chaplains greatly moved the American people, who took it as symbolic of the very meaning of America, and as an outstanding example of interfaith cooperation. After the war an interfaith chapel was dedicated to their memory at Temple University.