The Four Chaplains

It was the early hours of February 3, 1943, and the U.S.A.T Dorchester, a troop ship, loaded to capacity with over 900 souls, was well on her way from Newfoundland towards an American base in Greenland. Hans J. Danielsen, the captain, knew German U-boats patrolled these waters. Nervous, he gave the order for the men to sleep in their uniform with life jackets on. Many disobeyed. It was just too hot below decks with the heat of the engine. Just before 0100 hrs that morning, his worst fears materialized. A German U-boat 223 spotted the Dorchester and fired a well aimed fan of three torpedos in her direction. Only one hit, but it was a devastating blow, striking the starboard side, amid ship, far below the water line. The Dorchester was doomed; she sank in under 20minutes. You can perhaps imagine the pandemonium: Men panicking in the darkness as the boat groaned like a dying monster, listing heavily to starboard.

Quickly and quietly four chaplains spread out among the soldiers, calming the frightened, tending the wounded, and helping the disoriented toward safety. Scores of witnesses recall the men praying and encouraging their comrades. 

Once most of the men were topside, the chaplains began distributing lifejackets. When the supply ran out, to the amazement of onlookers, they took off their own and gave them to the next four men waiting in line. One survivor, John Ladd, who witnessed the chaplain’s self-denial, said, “It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven.”

When the ship finally slipped beneath the waters, many survivors recall seeing the four chaplains, standing arm-in-arm on the deck, singing psalms together.

When news of their valor spread back home, Congress attempted to confer upon them the Medal of Honor. This was blocked, however, because their courageous act was not performed under enemy fire—an appropriately stringent condition that must be fulfilled before that Medal can be conferred). What to do? President Eisenhower authorized a one-time only posthumous Special Medal for Heroism and awarded it to them on January 18, 1961.

The four men, sometimes referred to as the “Immortal Chaplains” were: Rev. George L. Fox (Methodist Minister), Rabbi Alexander D. Goode (Jew), Father John P. Washington (Roman Catholic), and Rev. Clark V. Poling (Reformed Church in America).

While I do not claim to know how these men stood before God in eternity, they stand before us as gigantic examples of agapé love—the kind of love that pours itself out, lays itself down, and gives itself up for another—the kind of love Jesus epitomized in the purest manner possible when He laid down His life for those who despised Him (Rom. 5:8). Christian, God loves you with this kind of love. These chaplains gave their lifejackets for others; God gave His Son for you! It is precisely this kind of love that you and I must have for one another. We learn to give this love away by experiencing it in the company of God. Like so many other things in the Christian faith, agape love is better caught than taught. May God fill us all with that holy contagion. Press on…