John P. Washington was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1908. He graduated from Seton Hall University in 1931 and entered Immaculate Conception Seminary in Darlington, New Jersey. He was ordained a priest in 1935. Shortly after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, he got his appointment as a chaplain in the U.S. Army. He reported for active duty on May 9, 1942.
Clark V. Poling was born in Columbus, Ohio in 1910. He graduated from Yale University’s Divinity School in 1936. He was ordained a minister in the Reformed Church in America. He applied to serve as a U.S. Army chaplain after the U.S. entered World War II, and accepted his appointment on June 10, 1942.
George L. Fox was born in Lewistown, Pennsylvania in 1900. He lied about his age to join the U.S. Army during World War I. He served in Europe and was highly decorated for bravery as a medical corps assistant. After his discharge, he became a graduate of Illinois Wesleyan University. He was ordained a Methodist minister in 1934. He volunteered to serve as an Army Chaplain during World War II, beginning active duty on August 8, 1942.
Alexander D. Goode was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1911, and grew up in Washington, D.C. The son of a Rabbi, he graduated from Hebrew Union College in 1937 and earned his PhD at John Hopkins University in 1940. He applied to become a chaplain in the U.S. Navy in January of 1941, but was not accepted. After the U.S. entered World War II, he applied again, this time as a U.S. Army chaplain and became active duty on August 9, 1942.
These four men, all Lieutenants, met at the Army Chaplains School at Harvard University where they prepared for assignments in Europe. On January 23, 1943, they left New York on the SS Dorchester, a civilian liner that had been converted to military service for troop transport. The ship had 902 onboard. On February 3 the ship was torpedoed by a German submarine off the coast of Newfoundland.
The chaplains helped soldiers board lifeboats and get lifejackets on as the ship sank, and when there were no more lifejackets, each of the chaplains gave their own to soldiers that didn’t have one.
According to the Four Chaplains Chapel & Memorial Foundation (the website is http://fourchaplains.org), witnesses said the chaplains tried to calm the frightened, tend the wounded, and guide the disoriented toward safety. One witness, Private William B. Bednar, found himself floating in oil-smeared water surrounded by dead bodies and debris, according to the website. “I could hear men crying, pleading, praying,” Bednar recalls. “I could also hear the chaplains preaching courage. Their voices were the only thing that kept me going.”
The website also shares the account that “as the ship went down, survivors in nearby rafts could see the four chaplains – arms linked and braced against the slanting deck. Their voices could also be heard offering prayers.”
A total of 672 aboard the Dorchester died. There were 230 survivors.
The Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart were awarded posthumously to the next of kin of each chaplain on December 19, 1944, in a chapel ceremony at Fort Myer, Virginia.
On February 3, 1951, President Harry Truman dedicated the Chapel of the Four Chaplains on the campus of Temple University. He also announced the beginning of the Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation, which to this day celebrates Interfaith Cooperation and encourages acts of Selfless Service by establishing a Legion of Honor Awards Program, which publicly recognizes and honors outstanding members of society whose lives model the giving spirit and unconditional service to community, nation, and humanity without regard to race, religion, or creed.
A posthumous Special Medal for Heroism was authorized by Congress and awarded by President Dwight Eisenhower to the next of kin of each of the chaplains on January 18, 1961. The special medal was intended to have the same weight and importance as the Medal of Honor.
In 1988 Congress established February 3 as Four Chaplains Day, to be observed each year with official proclamations and sometimes with flags flying at half-mast.
On February 15, 2001, the Chapel of the Four Chaplains moved to 1201 Constitution Avenue, in Philadelphia, the site of a World War II Navy Chapel.
Whether you already knew the story of The Four Chaplains, or have just become aware of it, it’s worth repeating. And wouldn’t it be a fine thing if we could all adopt the mission of The Four Chaplains Foundation, to encourage selfless service, and to promote interfaith understanding and cooperation among all peoples, not just on February 3, but always?
Steve Gillespie is editor of The Times Dispatch. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.