1301) The Four Chaplains (a)

Reprinted from:  www.homeofheroes.com/brotherhood/chaplains

     In November, 1942 four young men became friends while attending Chaplain’s School at Harvard University.  They had enough in common to bond them together.  At age 42, George Fox was the “older brother”.  The youngest was 30-year old Clark Poling, and less than three years separated him from the other two, Alexander Goode and John Washington.    A common cause brought them together, the desire to render service to their nation during the critical years of World War II. 

     Between the early days of May to late July, the four had entered military service from different areas of the country.  Reverend Fox enlisted in the Army from Vermont the same day his 18-year old son Wyatt enlisted in the Marine Corps.  During World War I, though only 17 years old, Fox had convinced the Army he was actually 18 and enlisted as a medical corps assistant.  His courage on the battlefield earned him the Silver Star and the Purple Heart.   When World War II broke out he said, “I’ve got to go.  I know from experience what our boys are about to face.  They need me.”  This time he enlisted as a minister, joining the Chaplains Corps.

     Reverend Clark V. Poling was serving a congregation in New York when World War II threatened world freedom.  He determined to enter the Army, but not as a Chaplain.  “I’m not going to hide behind the church in some safe office out of the firing line,” he told his father when he informed him of his plans to serve his country.  His father, Reverend Daniel Poling knew something of war, having served as a Chaplain himself during World War I.  He told his son, “Don’t you know that chaplains have the highest mortality rate of all?  As a chaplain you will not be safe, nor will you be hiding out anywhere.  You just can’t carry a gun to kill anyone yourself.”  With new appreciation for the role of the Chaplains Corps, Clark Poling accepted a commission and followed in his father’s footsteps.

     Like Clark Poling, Alexander Goode had followed the steps of his own father in ministry.  His first years of service were in Marion, Indiana; then he moved on to York, Pennsylvania.  While studying and preparing to minister to the needs of others, “Alex” had joined the National Guard.  Ten months before Pearl Harbor he sought an assignment in the Navy’s Chaplains Corps, but wasn’t initially accepted.  When war was declared, he wanted more than ever to serve the needs of those who went in harm’s way to defend freedom and human dignity.   He chose to do so as a U.S. Army Chaplain.

     One look at the be-speckled, mild mannered John P. Washington, would have left one with the impression that he was not the sort of man to go to war and become a hero.  His love of music and beautiful voice belied the toughness inside.  One of nine children in an Irish immigrant family living in the toughest part of Newark, New Jersey, he had learned through sheer determination to hold his own in any fight.  By the time he was a teenager he was the leader of the South Twelfth Street Gang.  Then God called him to ministry, returning him to the streets of New Jersey to organize sports teams, play ball with young boys who needed a strong friend to look up to, and inspire others with his beautiful hymns of praise and thanksgiving.

     Upon meeting at the Chaplains’ school, the four men quickly became friends.  David Poling, Clark Poling’s cousin, later said, “They were all very sociable guys, who initiated interfaith activities even before the war.  They hit it off well at chaplains’ school, and were very close.  They had prayed together a number of times before that final crisis.”

     The four men shared a common calling to ministry, but they were very different in their backgrounds and personalities.  They were also from four different church traditions:  Reverend Fox was a Methodist minister, Reverend Poling was a Dutch Reformed Minister, Father Washington was a Catholic Priest, and Rabbi Goode was Jewish.  In a world where differences have all too often created conflict and separated brothers, ‘the Four Chaplains’ found a special kind of unity, and in that unity they found strength.


     The U.S.A.T. Dorchester was an aging luxury liner.  In the nearly four years from December 1941 to September, 1945, more than 16 million American men and women needed to be transported to fight a war on two fronts, in Europe and the Pacific.  Moving so large a force was a monumental effort, and every available ship was pressed into service.  The Dorchester was designated to transport troops.  All non-critical amenities were removed and cots were crammed into every available space, in order to get as many young fighting men as possible on each voyage.  

     When the soldiers boarded in New York on January 23, 1943 the Dorchester was filled to capacity.  In addition to the crew and a few civilians, young soldiers filled every space.  There were 902 lives about to be cast to the mercy of the frigid North Atlantic.

    As the ship heard for an Army base in Greenland, many dangers lay ahead.  The sea itself was always dangerous, especially in this area known for ice flows, raging waters, and gale force winds.  The greatest danger, however, was the ever present threat of German submarines, which had been sinking Allied ships at the rate of 100 every  month.  The Dorchester would be sailing through an area that had become infamously known as “Torpedo Junction.”

     Most of the men on board were young, frightened soldiers.  Many were going to sea for the first time and suffered sea-sickness for days.  They were packed head to toe below deck, a steaming human sea of fear and uncertainty.  Even if they survived the Atlantic crossing, they had nothing to look forward to but being thrown into combat.  They were men in need of a strong shoulder to lean on, a firm voice to encourage them, and a ray of hope in a world of despair.

     Also on board were four Army Chaplains, called on to put aside their own fears and uncertainties to minister to the needs of others.  (continued…)


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The Four Chaplains