On February 3, 1943, Rev. George L. Fox, Rabbi Alexander D. Goode, Rev. Clark V. Poling, and Father John P. Washington all gave their life jackets to other soldiers, linked arms, and prayed while the SS Dorchester sank during World War II. Their act of heroism has been immortalized in Four Chaplains Day.
The four chaplains were relatively new to the military and were all ranked as first lieutenants. Good, Poling and Washington all served as leaders in the Boy Scouts of America despite different backgrounds and ideologies.They were transferred to Camp Myles Standish later in 1942 and attended Chaplains School at Harvard University. In January 1943, the chaplains boarded the SS Dorchester bound to the United Kingdom in an effort to transport over 900 soldiers to the European theater for their new assignments.
The SS Dorchester was a 5,649-ton, 368-foot long civilian liner that was originally built in 1926. Her original purpose was to carry freight and passengers but was converted for military service. This transformation added additional lifeboats, guns and modified windows to allow for more protection against enemy fire. While it was designed for 314 passengers and 90 crew members, she was able to carry over 900 military passengers and crew when she set sail. She set sail on January 23, 1943 as part of a convoy of three ships and was escorted by the Tampa, Escanaba, and Comanche, Coast Guard Cutters.
On February 2, 1943, a torpedo was fired from the German submarine U-223 which hit the Dorchester not too long after midnight. With the ship sinking rapidly, men frantically began trying to get in the lifeboats. Not all of them were operational as some had been damaged, so the four chaplains took to organizing the soldiers and getting them off the ship. Life jackets were distributed and when the supply ran out, the chaplains gave up their life jackets and watched the last of the lifeboats leave. 27 minutes after the torpedo made contact with the ship, the Dorchester sank with the four chaplains and 672 other men still on board. The last glimpse anyone saw of the four chaplains was of them standing on the deck of the ship praying with linked arms and singing hymns.
The Four Chaplains Medal was a special decoration that was approved by Congress 17 years after the sinking of the Dorchester to recognize the actions of the four chaplains. In addition, the men were posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Purple Heart.
In 1968, it was unanimously decided by Congress that February 3 would be Four Chaplains Day. In addition, a US postage stamp was issued in 1948 commemorating the men and the Chapel of the Four Chaplains was dedicated by President Truman on February 3, 1951 to honor chaplains of different faiths at Grace Baptist Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. “This interfaith shrine… will stand through long generations to teach Americans that as men can die heroically as brothers so should they live together in mutual faith and goodwill,” Truman said during his dedication. Memorial foundations have also been started in honor of the men who gave their lives for their fellow soldiers.
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