Four Chaplains Day, February 4th

Read the Remarkable Story of the Four Army Chaplains

When I was a young soldier, I listened to my leadership tell stories about Soldiers from the past who were the epitome of the Army values: Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity, and Personal Courage. Those stories, and the actions of my leadership, molded me into the soldier I would become.

On February 4th, we commemorate four chaplains who, during World War II, embodied all of those Army values. If you’ve never heard the story, then please keep reading.

The Beginning of the Four Chaplains Story

While moving as part of a convoy from Newfoundland to Greenland on February 2-3, 1943, the U.S.A.T. Dorchester carried 902 service members, merchant seaman, and civilian workers. In a previous life, the ship had been a luxury cruise liner. To support the war effort, it was converted into a transport ship, and it was one of three ships in the SG-19 convoy. The convoy was being escorted by three Coast Guard Cutters (CGCs): Tampa, Escanaba, and Comanche.

On the evening of February 2nd, the captain of the Dorchester, Hans J. Danielsen, was concerned about the presence of a German U-boat, as the Tampa had detected a submarine with its sonar. The route was dangerous, as the German submarines had already sunk numerous vessels in that region.

With about 150 miles until they reached their destination, the captain ordered the men to sleep with their clothes and life jackets on in the case of an emergency. Not everyone followed the captain’s guidance.

Just before 1 a.m. on the morning of February 3rd, the German submarine U-223 spotted the Dorchester through its periscope. The submarine surfaced and approached the convoy and fired three torpedoes at the convoy. The one that hit the Dorchester was a deadly blow, having hit the starboard side and well below the water line.

Captain Danielsen gave the order to abandon ship when he was alerted that the Dorchester was taking water and sinking quickly. In less than 20 minutes, the ship would be underneath the icy, Atlantic waters.

The CGC Comanche saw the explosion caused by the torpedo strike and responded quickly, rescuing 97 survivors. The CGC Escanaba encircled Dorchester and rescued an additional 132 survivors. The third cutter, the CGC Tampa, continued to escort the other two ships to their final destination.

Aboard the Dorchester, it was utter chaos. Many soldiers were killed in the blast and many more were wounded. Others were stunned by the blast and became disoriented as they fled to safety. Those who had not followed the captain’s orders the night before faced the icy Atlantic air and were not likely to survive.

To escape the sinking ship, many jumped from the ship and into over crowded lifeboats. Eyewitnesses say that some lifeboats capsized for how many people were on them. Even worse is that some of the lifeboats that were thrown into the water floated away without a soul on them.

Despite the madness of the event, there were four Army chaplains aboard the Dorchester who offered hope and encouragement to the men who were in a panic. These chaplains were Lt. George L. Fox (Methodist), Lt. Alexander D. Goode (Jewish), Lt. John P. Washington (Roman Catholic), and Lt. Clark V. Poling (Dutch Reformed). 

After the torpedo strike, these chaplains circulated among the men, calming those who were scared, tending to the wounded, and helping others find safety. 

“Witnesses of that terrible night remember hearing the four men offer prayers for the dying and encouragement for those who would live,” stated Wyatt R. Fox, the son of Reverend Fox.

One witness, Private William B. Bednar was found floating in oil-tainted water and surrounded by debris and dead bodies. “I could hear men crying, pleading, praying,” he said. “I could also hear the chaplains preaching courage. Their voices were the only thing that kept me going.”

In another instance, Petty Officer John J. Mahoney attempted to reenter his cabin to get his gloves, for the air was frigid. Chaplain Goode, preventing Mahoney from reentering the ship’s inside, took off his gloves and gave them to the sailor. “I have two pairs,” Goode is reported to have said in the moment. It is unlikely that he had two pairs of gloves and wanted only to prevent the sailor from becoming trapped inside the ship.

When most of the remaining men were topside, the four chaplains opened a storage container and distributed life jackets. At one point, the life jackets ran out, so the chaplains removed their own life jackets and gave them to others in need.

John Ladd, another survivor, commented later, “It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven.” 

Their selflessness demonstrates “one of the purest and ethical acts a person can make. When giving their life jackets, Rabbi Goode did not call out for a Jew; Father Washington did not call out for a Catholic; nor did the Reverends Fox and Poling call out for a Protestant. They simply gave their life jackets to the next man in line.” (website

Survivors in nearby rafts could see the four chaplains, linking arms and pressing against the deck as the ship went down. Their voices could be heard in prayer.

Posthumous Awards

On that tragic night, The Four Chaplains became a perfect example and embodiment of the Army values, selfless service in particular. The chaplains were posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Purple Heart. Additionally, a Special Medal for Heroism was authorized by Congress and awarded by President Eisenhower on January 18, 1961. That is the only time in our nation’s history that such an award has been awarded. 

Their Legacy Lives On

The story of Four Chaplains is one that extends beyond our personal circumstances. We learn from them the value of things like love, kindness, and sacrifice. Likely knowing their end was near, they never ceased to offer encouragement to those around them. I am confident that the spirit of service and dedication displayed by these heroes is still prevalent in our armed forces. When I hear stories of a Marine throwing himself on a grenade to save his buddies, or a Soldier running through gunfire to secure a fallen comrade, or even a leader who places the needs of their subordinates before their own, I know that same selfless service still permeates the military that I love so dearly.

To read the full rendering of the story of the Four Chaplains, the Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation offers a well detailed account of the story above.

There are also fantastic biographies of the Four Chaplains, written by Command Sergeant Major James H. Clifford, United States Army, retired.

On this Four Chaplains Day, remember this story and seek even one opportunity to serve someone. Even the smallest ripple of gestures can create a tsunami of joy for those around you.

(Image courtesy of Lefteris Papaulakis via Shutterstock

 

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About the author

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Robert Haynes is a retired Army infantryman who has a squad of kids and is married to an active duty Soldier. He is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, who spent his last few years in the Army as a Drill Sergeant. He is now a full-time dad, freelance writer, and out-of-work comedian.