Seventy-eight years ago tomorrow, Feb. 3, four Army Chaplains gave their life jackets to crew members of the doomed and sinking Army Transport Ship Dorchester, thus sealing their own fate.
The four chaplains — Lt. George Fox, a Methodist; Lt. Alexander Goode, a Jewish Rabbi; Lt. John Washington, a Roman Catholic Priest; and Lt. Clark Poling, a Dutch Reformed minister — embody the spirit of what it means to be a chaplain in the Armed Forces.
They were four men of 902 aboard the Dorchester, traveling from Newfoundland, Canada to an American base in Greenland when a German U-boat torpedoed the ship. Amidst the panic on board, the four chaplains spread out and started tending to the wounded and calming the frightened soldiers.
Because of the way the ship listed, survivors could not launch several lifeboats on the port side. As one story tells it,
Petty Officer John J. Mahoney, reeling from the cold, headed back towards his cabin. “Where are you going?” a voice of calm in the sea of distressed asked. “To get my gloves,” Mahoney replied. “Here, take these,” said Rabbi Goode as he handed a pair of gloves to the young officer. “I can’t take those gloves,” Mahoney replied. “Never mind,” the Rabbi responded. “I have two pairs.” It was only long after that Mahoney realized that the chaplain never intended to leave the ship.John Brinsfield, published by the US Army, January 28, 2014
The four chaplains also passed out life jackets and when they realized there were no more to be given, they each took off their own life jackets, helping to save four more men, at the expense of their own lives.
“It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven.”A survivor from the Dorchester. US Army, January 28, 2014
The chaplains stood on the deck of the Dorchester, arms linked, singing hymns, and praying. They were among the 674 people who died that day. The 230 survivors were rescued by two cutter ships accompanying the convoy across the seas.
The chaplains were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Purple Heart posthumously, but because their death didn’t meet the requirements to receive the Medal of Honor, a special medal for heroism, the Four Chaplains’ Medal, was awarded to the men on January 18, 1961.
They are the only four to ever receive the medal, and it will never be awarded to anyone else.
This story makes me so proud of our chaplain corps. As a retired chaplain’s wife, I know my own husband would do the same thing if he was required to. When the New York City Fire Department chaplain died on September 11, 2001, I looked at the Good Chaplain and said, “That would probably be you if you could be there.” He would have been doing his job, helping people right in the thick of things.
Until next time,
Victoria Terrinoni is the author of the new book, Where You Go, I Will Go: Lessons From a Military Spouse available here or by clicking the Shop tab above.