Theodore's World: Honoring Four Chaplains Day....The Four Chaplains

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February 06, 2010

Honoring Four Chaplains Day....The Four Chaplains

The Four Chaplains were four United States Army chaplains who gave their lives to save other soldiers during the sinking of the troop ship USAT Dorchester during World War II. They helped other soldiers board lifeboats and gave up their own life jackets when the supply ran out. The chaplains joined arms, said prayers, and sang hymns as they went down with the ship.

The Four Chaplains:

Rabbi Alexander Goode
Rev. George L. Fox
Rev. Clark V. Poling
Father John P. Washington


The U.S.A.T. Dorchester was an aging, luxury coastal liner that was no longer luxurious. In the nearly four years from December 7, 1941 to September 2, 1945 more than 16 million American men and women were called upon to defend human dignity and freedom on two fronts, in Europe and the Pacific. Moving so large a force to the battlefields was a monumental effort, and every available ship was being pressed into service. Some of these were converted into vessels of war, others to carrying critical supplies to the men and women in the field. The Dorchester was designated to be a transport ship. All non-critical amenities were removed and cots were crammed into every available space.

The intent was to get as many young fighting men as possible on each voyage. When the soldiers boarded in New York on January 23, 1943 the Dorchester certainly was filled to capacity. In addition to the Merchant Marine crew and a few civilians, young soldiers filled every available space. There were 902 lives about to be cast to the mercy of the frigid North Atlantic.

As the Dorchester left New York for an Army base in Greenland, many dangers lay ahead. The sea itself was always dangerous, especially in this area known for ice flows, raging waters, and gale force winds. The greatest danger, however, was the ever present threat of German submarines, which had recently been sinking Allied ships at the rate of 100 every month. The Dorchester would be sailing through an area that had become infamous as "Torpedo Junction".

The crossing was filled with long hours of boredom and misery. Outside, the chilly Arctic winds and cold ocean spray coated the Dorchester's deck with ice. Below deck the soldiers' quarters were hot from too many bodies, crammed into too small a place, for too many days in a row. Finally, on February 2nd, the Dorchester was within 150 miles of Greenland. It would have generated a great sense of relief among the young soldiers crowded in the ship's berths, had not the welcomed news been tempered by other news of grave concern. One of the Dorchester's three Coast Guard escorts had received sonar readings during the day, indicating the presence of an enemy submarine in "Torpedo Junction".

Hans Danielson, the Dorchester's captain, listened to the news with great concern. His cargo of human lives had been at sea for ten days, and was finally nearing its destination. If he could make it through the night, air cover would arrive with daylight to safely guide his ship home. The problem would be surviving the night. Aware of the potential for disaster, he instructed the soldiers to sleep in their clothes and life jackets....just in case. Below deck however, it was hot and sweaty as too many bodies lay down, closely packed in the cramped quarters. Many of the men, confident that tomorrow would dawn without incident, elected to sleep in their underwear. The life jackets were also hot and bulky, so many men set them aside as an unnecessary inconvenience.

Quiet moments passed as silent death reached out for the men of the Dorchester, then the early morning was shattered by the flash of a blinding explosion and the roar of massive destruction. The "hit" had been dead on, tossing men from their cots with the force of its explosion. A second torpedo followed the first, instantly killing 100 men in the hull of the ship. Power was knocked out by the explosion in the engine room, and darkness engulfed the frightened men below deck as water rushed through gaping wounds in the Dorchester's hull. The ship tilted at an unnatural angle as it began to sink rapidly, and piles of clothing and life jackets were tossed about in the darkness where no one would ever find them.

Slowly soldiers began to find their way to the deck of the ship, many still in their underwear, where they were confronted by the cold winds blowing down from the arctic. Petty Officer John J. Mahoney, reeling from the cold, headed back towards his cabin. "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 who would never have survived the trip to his cabin and then back to safety.

"I can't take those gloves," Mahoney replied.

"Never mind," the Rabbi responded. "I have two pairs." Mahoney slipped the gloves over his hands and returned to the frigid deck, never stopping to ponder until later when he had reached safety, that there was no way Rabbi Goode would have been carrying a spare set of gloves. As that thought finally dawned on him he came to a new understanding of what was transpiring in the mind of the fearless Chaplain. Somehow, Rabbi Goode suspected that he would himself, never leave the Dorchester alive.

In the chaos around them, life boats floated away before men could board them. Others capsized as panic continued to shadow reason and soldiers loaded the small craft beyond limit. The strength, calm, and organization of the Chaplains had been so critical in the dark hull. Now, on deck, they found that their mission had not been fully accomplished. They organized the effort, directed men to safety, and left them with parting words of encouragement. In little more than twenty minutes, the Dorchester was almost gone. Icy waves broke over the railing, tossing men into the sea, many of them without life jackets. In the last moments of the transport's existence, the Chaplains were too occupied opening lockers to pass out life jackets to note the threat to their own lives.

In less than half an hour, water was beginning to flow across the deck of the sinking Dorchester. Working against time the Chaplains continued to pass out the life vests from the lockers as the soldiers pressed forward in a ragged line. And then....the lockers were all empty...the life jackets gone. Those still pressing in line began to realize they were doomed, there was no hope. And then something amazing happened, something those who were there would never forget. All Four Chaplains began taking their own life jackets off....and putting them on the men around them. Together they sacrificed their last shred of hope for survival, to insure the survival of other men.... most of them total strangers. Then time ran out. The Chaplains had done all they could for those who would survive, and nothing more could be done for the remaining...including themselves.

Those who had been fortunate enough to reach lifeboats struggled to distance themselves from the sinking ship, lest they be pulled beneath the ocean swells by the chasm created as the transport slipped into a watery grave. Then, amid the screams of pain and horror that permeated the cold dark night, they heard the strong voices of the Chaplains. "Shma Yisroel Adonai Elohenu Adonai Echod." "Our Father, which art in Heaven, Hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done."

Looking back they saw the slanting deck of the Dorchester, its demise almost complete. Braced against the railings were the Four Chaplains...praying...singing, giving strength to others by their final valiant declaration of faith. Their arms were linked together as they braced against the railing and leaned into each other for support, Reverend Fox, Rabbi Goode, Reverend Poling, and Father Washington. Said one of the survivors, "It was the finest thing I have ever seen this side of heaven."

And then, only 27 minutes after the first torpedo struck, the last vestige of the U.S.A.T. Dorchester disappeared beneath the cold North Atlantic waters. In it's death throes it reached out to claim any survivors nearby, taking with it to its grave the four ministers of different faiths who learned to find strength in their diversity by focusing on the Father they shared.


Wild Thing's comment.......

I had never heard about this story before. Thank you RAC for this video. Michele Bachman does a wonderful reading of what happened. I wish more of our politicians would care about our history and what our Veterans have done.

Their willing, knowing and loving ultimate sacrifice of their lives in service to God and country so "that others may live"....what heroes our country has had and has today.

Here is video of singer Wintley Phipps singing their story in the song, "Four Chaplains on the Sea of Glory":


......Thank you RAC for sending this to me.

RAC has a website that is awesome. 336th Assault Helicopter Company

13th Combat Aviation Battalion - 1st Aviation Brigade - Soc Trang, Republic of Vietnam

Posted by Wild Thing at February 6, 2010 03:50 AM


My son attended the US Merchant Marine Academy. Among the paintings on their walls is one of a WWI incidence where a German U Boat had torpeodoed a US cargo vessell. The ship was going down but the last gun tub to go under was manned my USMMA midshipmen who do a semester at sea. If I recall correctly, they either hit or sank one of the attacking boats. The image of that last gun tub sinking as the kids fired off a defiant round really got to me. Ooorah

Posted by: Billy Ray at February 6, 2010 11:03 AM

The 'Sky Pilots' Never have I ever read a story that gave me such an impression of Valor and feeling of awe, as this one. I spent many months on Troops ships in the North Atlantic, and that ocean is never calm, especially in the winter time it is a raging inferno of swells, huge waves and always horrible seas.

Those were four very special Men. I would add, but for fear of being redundant, God Bless them, but obviously they already have been blessed and blessed America with their gift.

Only America can produce people like that.

Semper Fi, Chaplains.

Posted by: Mark at February 6, 2010 12:05 PM

I heard the Four Chaplains story as I was growing up. I also recall a US postage stamp in their honor from my stamp collecting days. It is a grand story as were many others told of heroes in my younger days. Now we seem to worship athletes and rock stars and their decadence.

However, America still produces people who are heroic. Our leaders and the schools and media just don't practice the art of honoring deserving heroes.

I think there was an Army chaplain, a Catholic priest, who won the Medal of Honor in Vietnam.

Posted by: TomR at February 6, 2010 12:44 PM

Here on the Peninsula in Virginia, there is a war museum that has a dedicated plaque to the Four Chaplains. When the marker was unveiled with ceremony, several members of the Dorchester crew were on hand to mark the occasion. My daughter and I were lucky enough to meet them. They were there to pay homage to the men who had virtually saved their lives with their sacrifices. Thank you for remembering.

Posted by: Unreconstructed Rebel at February 6, 2010 03:16 PM

Billy Ray, thank you for sharing about that.

Mark, I agree, our country has been blessed.

Tom, that is great they had a stamp about them. Thank yuo for telling about that. I agree so much that our country produces many who are heroic.

Posted by: Wild Thing at February 7, 2010 12:12 AM