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Four Chaplains Day—A Reminder That Bravery Surrounds Us

The self-sacrifice of four U.S. Army chaplains during World War II is remembered today.

Military chaplain

It was February 3, 1943. Troop ship S.S. Dorchester was one of three ships in a convoy traveling the icy waters from Newfoundland to the American base in Greenland. The ship’s captain had been informed of German U-boat activity in the region and ordered the men to sleep in clothes and life jackets on that fateful night. Many disobeyed that order. 

At 12:55 a.m., the vessel was struck mid-ship by a torpedo. Many were killed outright and others wounded. Imagine the pandemonium as the nightmare had become reality. It only took 30 minutes for the ship to slip beneath the freezing waters, but one act of heroism will remain with us forever. 

As men struggled into clothes and life jackets, leaping from the burning ship and capsizing over-loaded lifeboats, four army chaplains worked to spread calm and order. Those chaplains were Lt. George L. Fox, Methodist; Lt. Alexander D. Goode, Reform Judaism; Lt. John P. Washington, Roman Catholic; and Lt. Clark V. Poling, Dutch Reformed. 

Over and over, survivors tell versions of the same story. These four men spread out through the ship, assisting the confused and terrified into life vests and shepherding them to lifeboats. Throughout the ship they could be heard exhorting courage and praying loudly, bringing God’s unfathomable peace to an insane situation.

One chaplain handed his gloves to a soldier who was without. Then the four stationed themselves by the locker with additional life vests, handing them out to the waiting men. When the locker was empty, each one took off his own vest and gave it to a waiting soldier.

From the waters, the glare of fire lit the night. All around floated bits of unthinkable debris, lifeboats perilously close to sinking, and men—some in just shirt sleeves, some wounded—clinging to anything they could find. Over it all could be heard the voices of the four chaplains, calling out encouragement and praying for the safety of all. 

In 1988, February 3 was designated by an act of Congress as Four Chaplains Day. As we remember their bravery, let us not lose heart. Every day I still hear stories of brave men and women in our military. Some serve in this country—in hurricanes and fires. Others serve half a world away. But every act of bravery is seen by our Heavenly Father. Let us remember not just these four men, but celebrate the courage that happens every day. 

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