Happy Four Chaplains Day
Did you miss the holiday this past week? Is February 3rd marked red in your calendar? Did you even know it was a day that commemorated anything? Neither did I! Yet every February 3rd is remembered as four chaplains day. When I came across this I was first intrigued. Then after reading up on it, I was humbled. Then I was honored to know the story of these four chaplains.
On February 3, 1943 the USS Dorchester was setting sail across the Atlantic Ocean. It was one of three ships moving from Newfoundland toward an Army base in Greenland.The ship was packed carrying 902 servicemen, merchant seamen and civilian workers. And then it happened, without any warning, the ship was hit by a torpedo from a German submarine. The Army states, “It was only 150 miles from its destination when shortly after midnight, an officer aboard the German submarine U2 spotted it. After identifying and targeting the ship, he gave orders to fire. The hit was decisive, striking the ship, far below the water line. The initial blast killed scores of men and seriously wounded many more. Others, stunned by the explosion, were groping in the darkness. Panic and chaos quickly set in! Men were screaming, others crying or frantically trying to get lifeboats off the ship.”
The four chaplains: Alexander Goode, Clark Poling, George Fox, and John Washington.
You can imagine the chaos. There was no warning. Many were probably asleep and then suddenly awoken by an explosion. Chaos and panic always ensues after something shocking and terrifying occurs. It is cold, dark and now they were getting soaking wet. The fear of death starts to seep through the mind. Common sense is poisoned by thoughts of selfish survival. Then amidst the chaos and panic four men started calming people down. Four chaplains began to bring some semblance of order to the evacuation. “Quickly and quietly, the four chaplains worked to bring calm to the men. As soldiers began to find their way to the deck of the ship, many were still in their underwear, where they were confronted by the cold winds blowing down from the arctic. Once topside, the chaplains opened a storage locker and began distributing life jackets. It was then that Engineer Grady Clark witnessed an astonishing sight. When there were no more lifejackets in the storage room, the chaplains simultaneously removed theirs and gave them to four frightened young men.”
The four men were 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. These ministers met at the Army Chaplains School at Harvard University, where they prepared for assignments in the European theater, sailing on board USAT Dorchester to report to their new assignments. Through the whole ordeal they did all they could to keep the men calm and help rescue as many as possible. Never considering their own well being, they helped inspire courage and showed the love of God to the crew. One witness account that illustrates this came from Petty Officer John J. Mahoney. He was reeling from the cold and running back to his cabin. Suddenly Rabbi Goode called out to him, “"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.”
Coast Guard rescuing the survivors of the USS Dorchester
As the ship began to sink, people in the lifeboats began to hear something. The four chaplains were standing next to each other on the sinking ship praying to God and singing hymns. As the ship went down, survivors in nearby rafts could see them -- arms linked and braced against the slanting deck. The four men went down with the ship. Of the 902 men aboard the USS Dorchester, 203 survived. For their heroic actions the men were posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart. Congress wanted to award the men the Medal of Honor, the military’s highest award. Unfortunately the strict standards of the award states that a person must be in a battle performing the heroism under fire, which the chaplains were not. Because of this Congress created the Special Medal for Heroism, The Four Chaplains' Medal, and was awarded by the President on January 18, 1961. It was never given before and it is a medal that will never be given again.
Thinking of this event brings to mind the passage, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” (Philippians 2:3) It is so easy to be consumed with ourselves. It is so easy to focus on our own worries and problems. It is so easy to look down at others. It is so easy to talk yourself into thinking that your issues are more important and more dire than they really are. Yet God calls us to be humble, selfless servants of Him. We are to first look to God, then to other people, before we ever get to looking at ourself. Before boarding the Dorchester back in January, Chaplain Poling had asked his father to pray for him, "Not for my safe return, that wouldn't be fair. Just pray that I shall do my duty...never be a coward...and have the strength, courage and understanding of men. Just pray that I shall be adequate." May we seek the same for ourself.
Stain glass window at the Pentagon