A Day in History:  Four Chaplains Day

It was 75 years ago, on January 23, that the troop ship USAT Dorchester, a converted luxury cruise ship, left the shores of New York for Greenland carrying four Army chaplains, along with 900 others, in a convoy with three Coast Guard escort ships. All first lieutenants, the chaplains were sailing to their assignment in the European theater.

The chaplains, also known as the “Immortal Chaplains” were the Reverend George L. Fox, Reform Rabbi Alexander D. Good, Roman Catholic priest Father John P. Washington, and Reformed Church in America minister the Reverend Clark V. Poling.

Early in the morning of February 3, The Dorchester was torpedoed by a German submarine. Knocking out the ship’s electrical system, the ship went dark. As many panicked, the chaplains helped to calm the men and organize an evacuation.  Without enough life jackets for all of the men on board, the chaplains removed their own life jackets and gave them to others. One survivor said that the last thing he saw as he swam away from the ship was the Four Chaplains with their arms linked, saying prayers and singing hymns while the ship went down. Another survivor said their voices in prayer were the only thing that kept him going.

On December 19, 1944 each of the four chaplains was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross. In addition, a special medal, the Four Chaplains Medal, was approved by Congress, and presented to the chaplains’ families.

On February 3, 1951 President Harry Truman dedicated the Chapel of the Four Chaplains in Philadelphia. In his speech he said “This interfaith shrine … will stand through long generations to teach Americans that men can die heroically as brothers so should they live together in mutual faith and goodwill.”

It wasn’t until the 3rd of February in 1988 that Congress established an annual “Four Chaplains Day” in memory of the chaplains. Each year military and civilian groups hold ceremonies and services to honor the sacrifice of the Four Chaplains.

Because of the cold temperatures, and only two lifeboats in use, the life jackets weren’t able to protect all of the men that day. Their sister ships, Escanaba and Comanche were able to save only 230 of the men. Those who were lost that day are remembered as the single greatest loss of American personnel of a convoy during the war. The sacrifice of the Four Chaplains is considered one of the most touching stories of World War II.

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