February 3, 2021

ON THIS DAY IN 1943, FOUR ARMY CHAPLAINS SACRIFICED THEIR OWN LIVES TO SAVE THE LIVES OF OTHERS: In case you’ve never heard of them, they’re usually referred to by their admirers as “the Four Chaplains.” They were: Lt. George Fox (Methodist minister), Lt. Alexander Goode (Reform rabbi), Lt. Clark Poling (Dutch Reformed minister), and Lt. John Washington (Roman Catholic priest).

On January 23, 1943, the SS Dorchester, which had been converted for wartime use to a troop ship, left New York harbor bound for Greenland. About 900 men, including Fox, Goode, Poling and Washington, were on board.

During the pre-dawn hours of February 3, a German torpedo hit the ship, leaving a gaping hole below the waterline and knocking out the ship’s power. In the darkness, panic ensued, which the chaplains did their best to quell. When the supply of life preservers ran out, they gave their own life preservers to the men. “It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven,” one survivor later said.

The last that was seen of them, they were locked arm in arm in prayer as the Dorchester began to sink beneath the waves.

The whole thing took only about 20 minutes.

The sad part of the story is that, even with life preservers, most of the men on the Dorchester died. There weren’t enough lifeboats, and the Atlantic waters were frigid. The other ships in the small convoy rescued as many as they could. But the sinking of the Dorchester was the single worst loss of American lives in a convoy of WWII.

When I was a girl, my mother and father would always attend an annual service in honor of the Four Chaplains. A nation that fails to honor its heroes—of all kinds—is liable to have fewer of them when they’re needed.

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