(…continued) As he walked among the young soldiers on the Dorchester offering words of encouragement, Chaplain Fox was perhaps thinking of his own 18-year old son, serving in the Marine Corps. Before leaving he had said goodbye to his wife and 7 year old daughter Mary Elizabeth. In other parts of the ship Father Washington likewise did his best to soothe the fears of those about him. As a Catholic Priest he was single and hadn’t left behind a wife or children, but there were eight brothers and sisters at home to fear for him and pray for his safety. Now his closest brothers were the other three Chaplains on the Dorchester. Surely as he prayed for the soldiers, Father Washington also whispered a prayer for Chaplain Fox, Chaplain Poling and Rabbi Goode. Not only had Chaplain Fox left a son and daughter behind, Rabbi Goode had left behind a loving wife and 3 year old daughter. Chaplain Poling’s son Corky was still an infant, and within a month or two his wife would be giving birth to their second child.
The crossing was filled with long hours of boredom and misery. Outside, the chilly Arctic winds and cold ocean spray coated the Dorchester’s deck with ice. Below deck the soldiers’ quarters were hot from too many bodies, crammed into too small a place, for too many days in a row.
Finally, on February 2nd, the Dorchester was within 150 miles of Greenland. But then came some bad news. One of the Dorchester’s three Coast Guard escorts detected the presence of an enemy submarine.
Hans Danielson, the Dorchester’s captain, listened to the news with great concern. His cargo of human lives had been at sea for ten days, and was finally nearing its destination. If he could make it through the night, air cover would arrive with daylight to safely guide his ship home. The problem would be surviving the night. Aware of the potential for disaster, he instructed the soldiers to sleep in their clothes and life jackets. However, below deck it was hot and sweaty as too many bodies were too closely packed in the cramped quarters. Many of the men, confident that tomorrow would dawn without incident, elected to sleep in their underwear. The life jackets were also hot and bulky, so many men set them aside as an unnecessary inconvenience.
Outside it was another cold, windy night as the midnight hour signaled the passing of February 2nd and the beginning of a new day. In the distance a cold, metal arm broke the surface of the stormy seas. At the end of that periscope, a German submarine captain monitored the slowly passing troop transport ship. Shortly before one in the morning he gave the command to fire.
Quiet moments passed as silent death moved toward the men of the Dorchester. Then, the early morning was shattered by the flash of a blinding explosion. It had been a direct hit, tossing men from their cots with the force of its explosion. A second torpedo followed, instantly killing 100 men in the hull of the ship. Power was knocked out in the engine room and darkness engulfed the frightened men below deck. Water rushed through the gaping wounds in the Dorchester’s hull and Captain Danielson gave the order to abandon ship.
The ship tilted and began to sink rapidly. Piles of clothing and life jackets were tossed about in the darkness where no one would ever find them. Wounded men cried out in pain, frightened survivors screamed in terror, and all groped frantically in the darkness for exits they couldn’t find. Somewhere in that living hell, four voices of calm began to speak words of comfort, seeking to bring order to panic and bedlam. Slowly soldiers began to find their way to the deck of the ship.
Before boarding the Dorchester, Reverend Poling had asked his father to pray for him. “Pray that I shall do my duty and never be a coward,” he said. “Just pray that I shall be adequate.” He probably never dreamed that his prayer request would be answered so fully. As he courageously guided the frightened soldiers to their only hope of safety from the rapidly sinking transport, he spoke calm words of encouragement, urging them not to give up.
Likewise, Reverend Fox, Rabbi Goode, and Father Washington stood out within the confines of an unimaginable hell. Wounded and dying soldiers were ushered into eternity to the sounds of comforting words from men of God more intent on the needs of others, than in their own safety and survival. Somehow, by their valiant efforts, the chaplains succeeded in getting many of the soldiers out of the hold and onto the Dorchester’s slippery deck.
On deck, the chaplains continued their work. They aided the efforts to get men into the lifeboats, directed men to safety, and left them with parting words of encouragement. In little more than twenty minutes, the Dorchester was almost gone. Icy waves broke over the railing, tossing men into the sea, many of them without life jackets.
Working against time the chaplains continued to pass out the life vests from the lockers as the soldiers pressed forward in a ragged line. Then, the lockers were all empty, and the life jackets gone. Those still pressing in line began to realize they were doomed. Then something happened those who were there would never forget. All four chaplains began taking their own life jackets off, and putting them on the men around them. Together they sacrificed their last shred of hope for survival to insure the survival of other men. Then time ran out. The chaplains had done all they could for those who would survive, and nothing more could be done for the remaining, including themselves.
Those who had been fortunate enough to reach lifeboats struggled to distance themselves from the sinking ship, lest they be pulled beneath the ocean swells by the chasm created as the transport slipped into a watery grave. Then, amid the screams of pain and horror that permeated the cold dark night, they heard the strong voices of the chaplains. “Witnesses of that terrible night remember hearing the four men offer prayers for the dying and encouragement for those who would live,” says Wyatt Fox, the son of Chaplain Fox.
Looking back they saw the slanting deck of the Dorchester, its demise almost complete. Braced against the railings were the four chaplains, praying and giving strength to others by their final valiant declaration of faith. Their arms were linked together as they braced against the railing and leaned into each other for support. One witness, Private William Bednar, found himself floating in oil-smeared water surrounded by dead bodies and debris. “I could hear men crying, pleading, praying,” Bednar recalls “I could also hear the chaplains preaching courage. Their voices were what kept me going.”
John Ladd, one of the survivors, said, “It was the finest thing I have ever seen or hope to see this side of heaven.”
Then, only 27 minutes after the first torpedo struck, the last vestige of the U.S.A.T. Dorchester disappeared beneath the cold North Atlantic waters. In its death throes it reached out to claim any survivors nearby, and also taking with it the four ministers of different faiths who learned to find strength in their diversity by focusing on the Father they shared.
That night Reverend Fox, Rabbi Goode, Reverend Poling and Father Washington passed life’s ultimate test. In doing so, they became an enduring example of extraordinary faith, courage and selflessness.
Of the 920 men who left New York on the U.S.A.T. Dorchester on January 23rd, only 230 were plucked from the icy waters by rescue craft. Had it not been for the chaplains, the number of dead would certainly been much higher. When the news reached American shores, the nation was stunned by the magnitude of the tragedy and the heroic conduct of the four chaplains.
On May 28, 1948 the United States Postal Service issued a special stamp to commemorate the brotherhood, service, and sacrifice of the Four Chaplains.
John 15:13 — (Jesus said), “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
I Thessalonians 4:17b-18 — And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.