A moody and stirring work by Alton S. Tobey lamenting the loss of souls on February 3, 1943 in the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Titled by the artist “The Four Chaplains on the Torpedoed Dorchester In Memory of Irving Guest.”
Work commemorates the lives of four World War II chaplains who made the ultimate sacrifice to save others as their stricken ship went down in the cold waters of the North Atlantic on February 3rd 1943 after coming under German torpedo fire.
Trudging up the long gangplank that day were 751 mostly frightened young soldiers, many of them only teenagers and recent draftees. The trip would take them through Greenland en route to their first combat on European battlefields. Counting the crew and some civilian workers, the ship carried a complement of 902 passengers. Also going aboard were four Army chaplains, fairly young themselves, but totally dedicated to ministering to those who were now under their spiritual care and direction.
At 42 years of age George L. Fox was the old timer of the group. A native of Lewiston, Pennsylvania, he had fudged on his age to join the Marines during World War I. Serving on the Western Front, he rescued a wounded soldier from a battlefield seething with poison gas, and sustained a broken back during an artillery charge. For his actions he received the Croix de Guerre, Purple Heart, and Silver Star. After the war, Fox attended Moody Institute in Chicago, then moved to Vermont where he ran a successful practice as a public accountant. Still, something was lacking in his life, so he enrolled in Boston University’s School of Theology to pursue the full-time ministry. Standing only 5 feet 7 inches tall, he was dubbed “The Little Minister” during his pastorate of several Methodist churches. His broader ministry, however, took him into hospitals and child welfare centers. He also served as Chaplain for the State of Vermont. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, a deeply affected Fox told his wife: “I’ve got to go. The boys will need me.” She readily agreed and he was off to chaplains’ school at Harvard University.
Alexander Goode, 31, was the son of a rabbi who led a Jewish congregation in Washington, D.C. A brilliant, thoughtful youngster, he grew up in awe of America’s patriotic symbols, particularly the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. On Armistice Day 1921 the body of the Unknown Soldier was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery. Goode, who was a teenager, walked the entire distance of 30 miles to and from the ceremonies rather than take the bus. This was his way of showing his respect and gratitude for the men who died in the war. Like his father, Goode became a rabbi. Still, that step was not enough to satisfy his spiritual quest to help people. How, he wondered, could he bring healing to men’s souls without knowing how to heal their bodies? To that end he completed a medical degree from John Hopkins University while continuing his rabbinical duties. The outbreak of World War II brought Goode to another crucial point in his life, so off to Harvard he went for chaplaincy studies. Serving stateside was not enough: he sought and eventually got an assignment overseas.
Then there was John P. Washington, 34, the street smart son of poor Irish immigrants, who settled in Newark, New Jersey. Despite his background, there was a sensitive side to young Johnny. He loved good music, sang in the children’s church choir, and became an altar boy when he was in the sixth grade. Washington graduated from Darlington Catholic Seminary and entered the Catholic priesthood in June 1935. When America was drawn into the war, he initially wanted to put aside his clerical garb and fight on the front lines for his country. He actually did a few weeks of basic training at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana, but soon transferred into the chaplaincy and enrolled at Harvard.
Finally, there was Clark V. Poling, 32, of Columbus, Ohio, and the son of a Baptist minister, Daniel A. Poling, who served as a chaplain during World War I. Though following his father into the ministry, the younger Poling eventually united with the Reformed Church in America. Poling graduated from Rutgers University and Yale Divinity School. At the outbreak of World War II he was serving as pastor of the First Reformed Church in Schenectady, New York. He signed as an Army chaplain and, you guessed it, was off to Harvard.
So there they are… Four men, different in many ways, yet all sharing a strong commitment to God and country. Three were married with young children. Two of them served local churches, one a parish, and the other a synagogue. All of them maintained an abiding faith that God works in the lives of people regardless of the circumstances. Soon they would be called upon to prove the truth of what they had preached and taught.
Departing Newfoundland, Dorchester, commanded by Captain Hans J. Danielsen, was in a small convoy accompanied by three United States Coast Guard cutters. Rough seas that caused the ship to dip and sway as she plowed through the winter darkness, left no doubt that the Atlantic voyage would be quite treacherous. The chaplains were up to the task of coping with the difficult conditions aboard ship. They mixed freely with the men; helped arrange entertainment activities each evening to relieve the stress; and performed regular religious services.
To reach Greenland, it was necessary for the small convoy of ships to carefully negotiate through waters infested with German U-Boats, whose lethal projectiles had already sunk several other troopships. On the evening of February 2, one cutter’s sonar detected a submarine and blinked this warning: “We are being followed.” An urgent request for anti-submarine patrol planes was denied because no planes were available. The convoy was still 150 miles from its destination. Though hoping to reach port safely, Captain Danielsen, in a precautionary move, ordered the men to sleep in their clothing and wear life jackets. Unfortunately, many men disregarded the order because the jackets were too uncomfortable.
At 1 a.m., February 3, 1943, U-Boat 223 launched several torpedoes into Dorchester’s starboard side near the engine room and well below the water line. Scores of men were killed by the impact. With power and radio contact knocked out and the ship filling rapidly with water, the order was given to abandon ship. As the stricken vessel began her descent into the frigid waters of the North Atlantic, bedlam broke out above deck and down below as trapped, bewildered, and badly injured men struggled to survive.
With confusion running rampant, the four chaplains calmly tried to convey courage and even hope to the soldiers. They pried open a storage locker and started distributing life jackets to the men. “Padre,” one soldier cried, “I’ve lost my life jacket and I can’t swim!” Without hesitating the chaplain (it is not known which one) removed his own jacket and attached it around the youngster. “I won’t need it,” he said. The other chaplains followed suit and their fate was sealed. John Ladd, an eyewitness who survived the ordeal, later remarked that it was the finest thing he ever hoped to see “this side of heaven.” As the lifeboats slowly drifted away from the stricken ship, the chaplains gathered the remaining soldiers around them for brief prayer as Dorchester gasped her last breath. Finally, they locked their arms together and stood near a rail to sing and pray out across the dreadful waters.
Six hundred seventy-two men died in the catastrophe that was over in only 27 minutes. Among the 230 survivors were four ordinary youngsters who had received, firsthand, a greater love than they had ever known.
The Four Chaplains are not forgotten today. Each man was awarded posthumously the Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart. On February 3, 1951, President Harry Truman dedicated a chapel in their honor at Grace Baptist Church in Philadelphia. Their extraordinary sacrifice inspired the commissioning of the Chaplain’s Medal for Heroism in 1961. Identical stained glass windows at West Point and Fort Snelling, Minnesota, recall their selfless deed. Of particular note, a Four Chaplains stamp was issued by the United States Post Office in 1950.