When throngs of people from throughout the country and the world come to Philadelphia in late September to join Pope Francis at the World Meeting of Families, few will make a short side trip to the Philadelphia Navy Yard to visit a small interfaith chapel dedicated to four extraordinary men. The simple designation “The Four Chaplains” does not animate the modern imagination as it did 70 years ago, and the clergymen who continue to be honored at the simple colonial church have largely slipped from the collective memory of most Americans.
But in their time their names were household words, and they were revered as heroes unlike any others. They have stood throughout generations as examples of courage, self-sacrifice, faith, compassion, solidarity, brotherhood and valor that remains stunning in its intensity and resolve.
They were ordinary men who became extraordinary friends, and then became the type of heroes by whom other heroes are measured:
George Fox grew up in Altoona, Pa., the eldest of eight children, and was a decorated World War I veteran (he won several Purple Hearts, the Silver Star and the French Croix de Guerre with Palm while serving in the ambulance corps) who became a Methodist minister. He volunteered once again to serve as an Army chaplain after the outbreak of World War II. He began his active duty in August 1942, the same day his son Wyatt enlisted in the Marine Corps.
Alexander Goode, a reform rabbi born in Brooklyn, N.Y., originally applied to be a Navy chaplain in January 1941 but was turned down. A year later, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he applied to become and Army chaplain and was accepted. Goode’s father also was a rabbi. He was known for being both athletic and scholarly and believed strongly in a Judeo-Christian ideal of democracy that would unfold after the Second World War in what he called the coming “century of humanity.”
Clark Poling of Columbus, Ohio, was the son of a Baptist minister. He was ordained in the Reformed Church in America and became pastor of the First Reformed Church of Schenectady, N.Y. Poling’s father had served as a chaplain in World War I and knew the dangers, but Clark enlisted in the Army and was accepted into the chaplain’s corps. Though he considered himself fragile physically, he was determined to overcome and excelled at football and was known for his inquiring and effervescent personality.
John Washington grew up in an Irish Catholic neighborhood in Newark, N.J., the oldest of seven children. When he became an altar boy in the sixth grade, he announced that he wanted to become a priest one day. Known for his jovial nature and ability to relate easily to others, he studied at Seton Hall and was ordained a priest in 1935. Father John served in three New Jersey parishes before the outbreak of war, and then received his appointment as an Army chaplain. He suffered from poor eyesight, but nonetheless loved to shoot pool, play the piano and listen to the music of Louis Armstrong.
All four men would meet and become fast friends at the Chaplains School at Harvard University. All were commissioned with the rank of first lieutenant.
In the early morning hours of Feb. 3, 1943, the four chaplains were aboard the U.S.A.T. Dorchester, a civilian coastal liner converted for use as a troop ship. Filled to stifling capacity with 902 troops, merchant seamen and civilian workers, the Dorchester was near the end of a violently stormy crossing from St. John’s, Newfoundland to military bases in Greenland. The night was black, the sea was icy and German U-boats prowled the nearby waters.
Minutes before 1 a.m., one of those submarines, the U-223, fired a torpedo that struck the starboard side of the Dorchester amidships, well below the water line.
Pandemonium struck. The blast had instantly killed scores of men and had knocked out the electricity throughout the ship, leaving many men, already violently seasick, shrouded in total darkness, groping for hatches and companionways in the foul air below decks. Many others died after inhaling air swirling with toxic ammonia fumes. The Dorchester had only 20 minutes to live.
The coolest heads on board were the four chaplains. “Meanwhile, the four chaplains leaped from their bunks determined to save as many men as possible, apparently realizing from the moment the torpedo struck that the ship would sink,” wrote Dan Kurzman in his book “No Greater Glory” (Random House, 2004). The four men, “driven by a powerful union of the spirit, ran from their staterooms on the main deck to hand out life jackets to men who might have left them behind.”
Throughout the chaos and blinding panic, the chaplains were beacons of calm and reassurance, directing terrified men out of the darkness and toward lifeboats or ropes over the side as the Dorchester continued to list and pitch in the swirling seas. Several men urged the chaplains to save themselves, but they were adamant, and remained, handing out life jackets to the men until the supply ran out.
Then, in an act witnessed by several survivors, the chaplains removed their own life vests and gave them to four terrified men.
“It was,” said John Ladd, one of the survivors, “the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven.”
As the ship made its final plunge, witnesses reported seeing the four chaplains standing on the upturned keel, arms linked, praying and singing hymns together.
Only 230 of the 902 men aboard survived in the frigid water to be picked up by escort vessels.
The chaplains were awarded posthumous Purple Hearts and Distinguished Service Crosses and, in 1961, a Special Medal of Heroism authorized by Congress specifically for them. Congress members wanted to confer the Medal of Honor on the chaplains, but were prevented by stringent requirements that mandate heroism under fire.
The story of the men who became known as “The Immortal Chaplains” created a sensation in postwar America. The four men were celebrated in film, songs, stories, art, stained glass windows, sculptures, plaques, schools, a swimming pool, a viaduct, a postage stamp and a council of the Knights of Columbus. The Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation is housed in the chapel at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, and The Immortal Chaplains Foundation was incorporated in 1997, founded by the late David Fox of Mission Viejo—the nephew of the Rev. George Fox. The groups are dedicated to the humanity and the ideals of courage and faith that are the legacy of the chaplains.
In its account of the sinking and the chaplains’ heroism, The Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation observes: “The altruistic action of the four chaplains constitutes one of the purest spiritual and ethical acts a person can make. When giving their life jackets, Rabbi Goode did not call out for a Jew; Father Washington did not call out for a Catholic; nor did the Reverends Fox and Poling call out for a Protestant. They simply gave their life jackets to the next man in line.”