It’s not often that we hear stories of people of different faiths coming together, but that’s what happened on the United States Army Transport Dorchester in World War II. 73 years ago this week, four chaplains were on board the Dorchester, along with over 900 troops, on their way to an American military base in Greenland. Reverend George Fox (Methodist), Jewish Rabbi Alexander Goode, Reverend Clark Poling (First Reformed Church), and Father John Washington (Roman Catholic) all met at the Army Chaplains School at Harvard University before being sent to the Dorchester. They all came together when tragedy struck aboard the ship.
The ship was sailing across the Atlantic Ocean when a German U-boat fired a torpedo that struck its starboard side. The ship’s captain knew that Coast Guard sonar had detected a submarine nearby, and so the crew was on high alert before the incident. Men were ordered to sleep in their clothing and life jackets, an order which many tragically disregarded. When the torpedo hit, it knocked out the Dorchester’s electrical system. Panic immediately set in, as many men were trapped in the dark below decks. The chaplains helped to calm the men down, ordered an evacuation of the ship, and helped get them to lifeboats. They also helped minister to the wounded and distributed life jackets to the troops who didn’t have any. Private William Bedner, who survived the ship’s sinking, said, “I could hear men crying, pleading, praying. I could also hear the chaplains’ preaching courage. Their voices were the only thing that kept me going.” When the life jackets ran out, each of the chaplains gave their own to other men.
In less than 30 minutes, the ship sank. After helping as many men as they could into life boats, the four chaplains linked arms and went down with the ship. Survivors reported that the four of them could be heard praying and singing hymns together. Survivors could hear Jewish and Catholic prayers in both Hebrew and in Latin. Only 230 men survived the sinking, but the sacrifice the four chaplains made would not be forgotten. “It was the finest thing I have seen, or hope to see, this side of heaven,” survivor John Ladd said. All four were posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Purple Heart, and in 1960, Congress authorized a special medal, for those four men only. The Four Chaplains Medal was awarded to their next of kin in 1961. And Feb. 3, the day of the sinking, became Four Chaplains Day, so that their bravery, their selflessness, and their sacrifice may never be forgotten.