Ask Augustine with Dr. Paul Tambrino
Ask Augustine is a weekly column where professor/author Dr. Paul Tambrino discusses various theological questions with wit, clarity and substance.
Question #47 – What Is Four Chaplains Day and Why Is It Significant?
February 3 marks the anniversary of the sacrifice of the four chaplains. One was Methodist, one was Roman Catholic, one was Jewish and one was a Calvinist. Lest we forget their inspiring story let me take you back to January 22, 1943.
The S.S. Dorchester, once a luxury cruise liner, accommodating 314 cabin passengers in style and opulence, was now guttered and refitted.
She became a troop ship. This trim little coastal steamer seemed too small and too slow for hazardous duty, but with Nazi submarines sinking Allied ships faster than they could be replaced, every available craft had to be pressed into service.“George Lansing Fox was not old enough to serve in the army when President Wilson called the nation to arms back in the spring of 1917, but Fox tells officials he is 18.”
This night 904 soldiers were berthed below deck in bunks stacked four-high. Four Army chaplains, Lieutenants Fox, Goode, Poling and Washington were aboard the Dorchester. For Lt. George Fox, it was the second time around.
George Lansing Fox was not old enough to serve in the army when President Wilson called the nation to arms back in the spring of 1917, but Fox tells officials he is 18.
Two days before the Armistice, Fox is caught in an artillery barrage. His back is riddled with shrapnel and he is decorated with a Silver Star, a Purple Heart and the French Cross.
He returns to civilian life and gets a job as an accountant in his native state of Vermont, but feels a call to preach and enrolls in a Bible Institute in Chicago.
He meets his future wife; they marry and have two children. At age 34 he is ordained by the Methodist Church and rides the circuit of half a dozen villages.
He is content…until the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor. Now past 40, he volunteers for the Corps of Chaplains.“On November 11, 1921, a ten-year-old Alexander David Goode stands at the edge of a crowd and watches a soldier laid to rest.”
On Saturday, January 23, 1943 the Dorchester joins a convoy of freighters, troopships, tankers and naval escorts steaming east through the swelling gray-green seas.
After seasickness, the most compelling preoccupation was guessing where the ship was bound.
“Hey come on Rabbi,” someone called to Lt. Goode, “Tell us where we are going.” Pledged to secrecy, Goode replied, “Vot! Und spoil da surprise?”
On November 11, 1921, a ten-year-old Alexander David Goode stands at the edge of a crowd and watches a soldier laid to rest.
No one knows his name, he is America’s unknown soldier whose name is known but to God. Tears fill young Goode’s eyes as his heart swells with love for his country.“They were entering the dangerous waters where dozens of ships had been blasted to the bottom by German U-boats.”
In high school, Goode joins the National Guard. Alex Goode becomes a rabbi like his father, grandfather and great-grandfather. When WWII breaks, Goode joins the Chaplain’s Corps and puts in for overseas duty.
On Saturday, January 30, 1943, at a fueling stop in Newfoundland, the soldiers no longer doubted their destination.
As the Dorchester left Newfoundland, three Coast Guard cutters escorted it. Two patrolled its flanks, while the third, the Tampa, was 3,000 yards out front.
They were entering the dangerous waters where dozens of ships had been blasted to the bottom by German U-boats.
It turned bitterly cold. The sea rose and smashed against the ships. Ice began building up on the decks slowing the Dorchester to ten knots as the bulkheads groaned and the steering chain clanked with every correction. The ships continued north through gale-force winds.
Clark Poling’s family had a long tradition in the ministry, dating back seven generations.“When WWII comes, Clark is married, has a two year old son and his wife is expecting. ‘Don’t pray for my safe return,’ he tells his father, ‘Pray that I do my duty.'”
As a young man, Clark tells his father Daniel Poling (a noted clergyman of his day) that he is going to break family tradition and become a lawyer.
At Hope College in Holland, Michigan, Clark gets into mischief, and his grades suffer. During his sophomore year he tells his father, “Dad, I am going to preach. I can’t deny the calling.”
Clark enters Yale Divinity School, is ordained in 1938, and is called to the First Reformed Church in Schenectady, New York.
When WWII comes, Clark is married, has a two year old son and his wife is expecting. “Don’t pray for my safe return,” he tells his father, “Pray that I do my duty.”
On Tuesday, February 2, 1943 the Tampa dropped back and swept the periphery but failed to detect the sub’s position.
In the evening she returns to patrol the area up front as the other ships scrupulously follow.
Aboard the Dorchester, Capt. Hans J. Danielson ordered the men to sleep in their clothing with life jackets close at hand.
They were only 150 miles from their destination and with daylight there would be cover from the American base.“When the Second World War comes, Father John applies for a chaplaincy. He now knows what God wants of him.”
All four chaplains are summoned to pierce the gloom that is growing among the men. Lt. Washington jokingly announced that God was prepared to forgive the poker players for raising the stakes from pennies to quarters.
One soldier slyly asked him to bless his hand. Father Washington looked at the cards and stated loudly, “Bless a measly pair of deuces?” The men began laughing and the tension broke.
John Washington was the first of seven children born to Irish Catholic immigrant parents in Newark, New Jersey.
At age 12, John is stricken with a severe throat infection and the parish priest is called to administer the last rites.
But John survives and tells his sister, Anna, “God must have something special He wants me to do.”
John becomes a Roman Catholic priest, and in 1937 is assigned to St. Stephen’s in Arlington, New Jersey.“At 12:55 a.m. a German U-boat caught the Dorchester in its cross hairs. The Dorchester was torpedoed.”
He has served there five years and when the Second World War comes, Father John applies for a chaplaincy. He now knows what God wants of him.
On Wednesday, February 3, 1943, just after midnight, very few of the men were asleep and even fewer were wearing their clothes despite the orders. Down in the hold it was just too hot.
At 12:55 a.m. a German U-boat caught the Dorchester in its cross hairs. The Dorchester was torpedoed.
Men poured up out of the gangways, stunned and disoriented. The wound to the Dorchester was mortal; the ship took on water rapidly and began listing to starboard.
Without power, the radio was silenced. No one thought to send up a distress flare. The escort vessels pushed on into the darkness, unaware that the Dorchester was sinking. Overcrowded lifeboats capsized. Rafts drifted away before anyone could reach them.“The testimonies of the survivors tell us that the sole order in that ferment of struggling men, that the only fragment of hope, came from the four chaplains who suddenly appeared on the sloping starboard side.”
The men milled around the deck. Many had come up from the hold without life jackets; others wearing nothing but underwear, felt the Arctic blasts and knew they had only minutes to live.
The testimonies of the survivors tell us that the sole order in that ferment of struggling men, that the only fragment of hope, came from the four chaplains who suddenly appeared on the sloping starboard side.
Calmly they guided men to their boat stations, opened a storage locker and distributed life jackets. They coaxed men, frozen with fear, over the side.
One of the survivors, Coast Guard CPO John J. Mahoney (a Catholic), realized he had forgotten his gloves and started back to his cabin.
He was stopped by Chaplain Goode, “Never mind,” Goode said, “Take these; I have two pairs.”
Later Mahoney realized the truth. A man preparing to abandon ship doesn’t carry extra gloves. Rabbi Goode had already decided he was not leaving the Dorchester.“Of the 904 men aboard the troop carrier, 605 were lost. Those who lived will never forget the chaplains’ heroism.”
Another survivor, Engineer Grady Clark saw the chaplains coolly handing out life jackets until there were no more left. Then he watched in awe as they gave away their own.
By now the rail was awash and Engineer Clark slipped into the frigid water. Looking back as he swam away, he saw the chaplains standing, their arms linked, braced against the slanting deck. They were praying.
Other men drew close. There were no more outcries, no panic, just words of prayer in Hebrew, in Latin and in English, addressed to the same God as the Dorchester slid down into the sea.
Of the 904 men aboard the troop carrier, 605 were lost. Those who lived will never forget the chaplains’ heroism.
By vote of Congress on January 18, 1961, a Special Medal of Heroism, the only one ever given, was posthumously given to the four chaplains.
The heroism of these four chaplains continues to speak to something deep in our hearts.
Father Washington did not call out for a Catholic when he handed over his life jacket, nor did Rabbi Goode for a Jew, nor did Fox for a Methodist, nor did Poling for a Calvinist.
They gave them to the next soldier in line, and then stood shoulder to shoulder in mutually supporting faith.
“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends,” (Jn. 15:13) and that is what the four chaplains did.
May God continue to bless our country and all our military personnel as we honor the memory of four of America’s greatest heroes.
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