April 21, 2019

The Four Chaplains

Today is Easter, and I thought it was appropriate to highlight an oft-overlooked portion of the American military, the Chaplain Corps. Charged with the spiritual health of the troops, they have played an important part in supporting and sustaining the men and women on the front lines mentally and morally.

Clockwise from top left: Goode, Poling, Washington and Fox

On February 3rd, 1943, the troopship SS Dorchester was part of a convoy taking American troops to Greenland. Among the 904 men aboard were four chaplains, Methodist minister George L. Fox, Rabbi Alexander D. Goode, Catholic priest John P. Washington and Reformed minister Clark V. Poling. The ship, originally designed to carry only around 400, was very cramped, and despite the danger of U-boat attack, many of the men aboard disregarded the order to sleep in their clothes and life vests.

The danger became real at 12:55 AM, when a torpedo from U-223 slammed into the Dorchester. Power was lost almost immediately, plunging the ship into darkness. The men trapped below began to rush out onto the deck, despite the near-freezing air. Some of the lifeboats had been damaged by the torpedo, and others were not lowered due to the chaos. A few more were swamped when too many men tried to find places in them. All four chaplains worked to keep order and tend to the wounded. When a petty officer from the Naval Armed Guard attempted to return to his cabin for his gloves, Rabbi Goode instead gave the man his own. Later, they opened a lifejacket locker, and began handing them out to men who were not wearing theirs. There were far too many men who had left theirs belowdecks, and when the locker ran dry, each of the four Chaplains unhesitatingly gave his own life jacket to another man. After assisting in loading the few operational lifeboats, the four chaplains linked arms on the deck of the Dorchester, singing hymns and praying, even as the ship sank below them.

Only 230 of the men who had been aboard Dorchester survived to be rescued by the convoy's escort. The water was only a degree or two above freezing, and the air nearly as cold. The survivors spoke of the heroism of the chaplains, and their story quickly became well-known. In 1961, a special Act of Congress created a special medal, intended to be equivalent to the Medal of Honor, for these four men.

Fox, Goode, Washington and Poling are only a few of the many chaplains who have served God and their troops around the world. In the United States alone, five chaplains have been awarded the Medal of Honor during the 20th century for their activities in rescuing the wounded and tending to the dying, three of them posthumously.1 But thousands more have worked in smaller ways, for the good of their troops and the glory of God.


  1. April 22, 2019Silverlock said...

    Thanks for this story. It is one with which I was not familiar.

  2. April 22, 2019quanticle said...

    Why were those troops going to Greenland, anyway? Was Greenland a stopover point so that they could transfer to another convoy to Britain, or had the US set up a garrison on Greenland?

  3. April 22, 2019bean said...

    The US had occupied Greenland to guarantee its independence when Denmark fell. More details.

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