In the early morning hours of February 3, 1943, the bell on the USAT Dorchester rang twice, and was never heard again. The ship, a passenger steam ship which had been requisitioned for use during World War II, was in the North Atlantic when the bell tolled. There were 904 on board when a torpedo from a German U-boat struck. Among them were four chaplains.
They came from different religious backgrounds. Lt. Chaplain George L. Fox was Methodist. Lt. Chaplain Alexander D. Goode was a Jewish rabbi. Lt. Chaplain Clark V. Poling served in the Reformed Church. And Lt. Chaplain John P. Washington was Roman Catholic.
When the torpedo hit, the damage was so severe that there wasn’t enough steam to sound the abandon ship signal or even to radio a distress signal. Some of the lifeboats didn’t launch, while others capsized because of overcrowding. The ship was sinking fast, and anyone left on board would be sucked under with it. Keep in mind that the waters of the Labrador Sea off the coast of Greenland in February are bitterly cold, as is the air. Life expectancy for one floating in those waters would be around twenty minutes, and the only hope for even that was a life vest or lifeboat.
But according to survivors of the attack, the four chaplains remained calm, sacrificed their own safety to save the lives of other men, and even gave up their life jackets to others who needed them. As the ship slipped beneath the icy waves, the four could be seen, arms linked, heads bowed, singing. Whatever differences in religion they might’ve had were nothing compared to the common fate and faith they shared at that moment.
The ship was lost within about twenty minutes of the torpedo strike, and of the 904 souls on board, only 209 survived, many almost frozen stiff as they were rescued. The memory of those four brave chaplains—of their courage and great love—lives on.
On February 2nd, TLU’s Blumberg Memorial Library held a remembrance ceremony commemorating Four Chaplains Day. Jorge Alberto Nandin, a veteran of the US Army and a Veterans Service Assistant, spoke about the enduring importance of military chaplains. “Our chaplains stand as a symbol of hope on the battlefield—a steadfast reminder that even in the darkest of times, there is a beacon of light guiding our troops through the storm.”
Pastor Wes Cain closed the ceremony with a prayer. “We go remembering those who served. We go recognizing their sacrifice. And we go trying to do the same giving of ourselves for others in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
The Four Chaplains display can be viewed in the military museum portion of the gallery on the first floor of Blumberg Memorial Library. It includes a selection of books, artifacts, and a reproduction of a section of a stained glass window which commemorates the courage of the four chaplains. The gallery is open to the public free of charge.