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The Inspiring & Tragic Saga of the Four Chaplains: Their Remarkable Heroism & Interfaith Cooperation during WWII Continues to Move a Nation Every February

By Philip R. Devlin.

The torpedo struck the Dorchester at 12:55 a.m. on February 3, 1943, near the coast of Greenland in the North Atlantic. Within 27 minutes, the ship had disappeared beneath the waves into the cold water. Of the 902 people on board, only 230 survived — the third worst sea disaster of the war. Among the dead were four Army chaplains: Two Protestant ministers, a Jewish rabbi, and a Catholic priest.

After the explosion, the four chaplains spread out among the men onboard, calming the frightened, leading men to safety, and handing out life vests. Each eventually gave his life vest to a soldier onboard the Dorchester, thereby ensuring his own death. Survivors saw the four chaplains on the foredeck of the ship — arms locked together and praying — as the ship went under. It was an unforgettable sight and has become a symbol of interfaith cooperation and heroism. One of the chaplains — Clark V. Poling — had strong connections to Connecticut. At age 32, Poling was the youngest of the four chaplains. Born in Ohio in 1910, Poling spent much of his youth in Auburndale, MA, and later moved to Poughkeepsie, NY, where he graduated from Oakwood, a Quaker high school. Poling was a very good student and athlete at Oakwood.

After graduating from Rutgers in 1933, Clark Poling spent three years in New Haven, graduating from Yale Divinity School in 1936. His first assignment as a minister was with the First Church of Christ in New London.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Poling felt the need to serve his country as a chaplain, just as his father, the Rev. Daniel Poling, had once served in World War I. His father warned him of the high casualty rate for chaplains during wartime, but Clark remained undeterred and joined the U.S. Army as a chaplain in June of 1942.

He soon attended chaplain school at Harvard University. It was at Harvard that Poling was to meet the three other chaplains who perished with him on the Dorchester: a Catholic priest from New Jersey named John P. Washington; a rabbi from Washington, D.C., named Alex Goode; and a Methodist minister from Pennsylvania named George L. Fox — the oldest of the group at 42 and a decorated veteran of World War I, where he had served as a medic.

One survivor who witnessed the chaplains giving up their own vests described it this way: “It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven.” Another survivor, Sgt. Ernest Heaton spent nearly five hours in the water before he was rescued. Heaton had visited Connecticut in November of 2008 to tell the story of the four chaplains to a synagogue in Orange.

On Heaton’s 89th birthday on Valentine’s Day of 2012, an interfaith memorial service for the four chaplains was celebrated at St. Sebastian Catholic Church in Heaton’s hometown of Vero Beach, FL. More than 150 people attended the service where Heaton spoke, saying that he clearly remembers seeing the four chaplains — arms locked together on the foredeck — disappear into the sea. He added, “They gave up their life jackets to men without them, knowing they would go down with the ship.” As part of the ceremony, a new memorial for the chaplains was unveiled.

Clark Poling’s father, the Rev. Daniel Poling, began “The Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation” on Feb. 3, 1951, the eighth anniversary of the sinking of the Dorchester and three years after the United States Postal Service had issued a commemorative stamp in their honor.

President Harry S. Truman assisted in the dedication of the foundation, whose mission it is to further the cause of “unity without uniformity” by urging goodwill and cooperation among people with diverse beliefs. The foundation’s headquarters is located at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. The foundation annually hosts an awards ceremony in Philadelphia in memory of the four chaplains to honor those who exemplify their selfless service.

Yet another event commemorating the selflessness of the four chaplains occurred in Congress on Feb. 7, 2012. Rabbi Jeffrey Astrachan from Chaplain Goode’s synagogue in York, PA, offered the opening prayer to the House of Representatives. Rep. Todd Platts, a congressman from York, then spoke about the contributions of the four chaplains.

On February 14, 2002, a reconciliation ceremony was held in Washington, D.C., between the survivors of the Dorchester and the surviving members of German U-Boat 233, the submarine that had sunk the Dorchester. First Officer of U-233, Gerhard Buske, had this to say to the Dorchester survivors and their families: “We, the sailors of U-Boat 233, regret the deep sorrow and pain caused by our torpedo. Never again should be such a murderous war … We should all live as these Immortal Four Chaplains — to love where others hate.”

During World War II, the United States lost 182 members of its chaplain corps — a casualty rate only exceeded in percentage by both the infantry and the Army Air Corps. The selfless and courageous manner in which the four chaplains of the Dorchester met their death has inspired millions throughout the world. Many monuments to their memory have been dedicated over the years in states such as Florida, Pennsylvania, Vermont , New York, Virginia, and Arizona.

At the Belmont Park racetrack in Elmont, NY, a memorial plaque dedicated to the four chaplains sits on a large rock between the racing secretary’s office and the clubhouse, placed there by World War II veterans who worked at the track. A small group of veterans still gathers at the Belmont rock each Memorial Day for a brief service. In New Jersey, the first southbound exit on the New Jersey Turnpike has a 5 foot bronze marker dedicated to the memory of Chaplain Goode. Ironically, Goode’s only daughter, Rosalie, was killed in an auto accident on the New Jersey Turnpike long after the memorial had been placed there.

During World War II, approximately 100 Allied ships per month were sunk — that’s more than three per day. Traveling by ship, particularly in the North Atlantic, was very dangerous. Evening blackouts of ship lights was a common practice; unfortunately, on the evening of Feb. 3, 1943, the blackout cover on a door leading to the main lobby on the Dorchester became dislodged, causing light to be emitted each time the door was opened and closed. That was sufficient for German U-boat 233 to draw a bead on the Dorchester and fire a fan of three torpedoes, one of which fatally struck the troop transport.

Prior to boarding the Dorchester, Clark V. Poling asked his father to pray for him to be strong enough to do his duty and to be “adequate” to the job at hand. He and his three fellow chaplains were more than adequate in meeting their responsibilities onboard the ill-fated ship by giving heroic service to others without regard for race, ethnicity, or religious beliefs.

In fact, in one of his last acts as President, Dwight Eisenhower presided over a ceremony in which the Four Chaplains Medal was awarded to the families of the Four Chaplains at Fort Meyer, Virginia. The medal shows the Star of David, the tablets of Moses, and the Christian cross in relief along with the names of each of the Four Chaplains.

Dan Kurzman, prolific writer of military non-fiction–especially dealing with World War II– wrote a terrific book in 2005 dealing with the story of the four chaplains. It is entitled No Greater Glory: The Four Immortal Chaplains and the Sinking of the Dorchester in World War II. It is one of the sources for this article.

2 COMMENTS

  1. For years my mother attended the annual Four Chaplains Memorial Mass at Enfield’s Saint Adalberts Church. She always came away uplifted by the pageantry and the patriotism of the service. As a women who saw five brothers go off to WWII, I ‘m sure it brought back many memories. BTW, all five returned safely. Thanks for your article.

  2. Thanks, Sally, and in my hometown of Windsor Locks the American Legion post there annually hosts a “Four Chaplains Dinner” every February to honor their memory.

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