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Remembering The Four Chaplains

“Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.”

— John 15:13

When the same story keeps coming up, I pay attention. There must be something that God wants me to know or do—or share. So when my husband recently visited a chaplain’s office and saw a copy of the 1948 commemorative stamp of “The Four Chaplains”, signed by a survivor of the sinking of the U.S.A.T. Dorchester in 1943, I wasn’t surprised. The story of the four heroic chaplains was one my husband and I had studied this year and even included in a new Bible study. Perhaps you know about Reverend Clark Poling, Rabbi Alexander Goode, Father John Washington, and Reverend George Fox—but if not, let me share this amazing story.

These four men had become friends while at Chaplain’s School at Harvard University in 1942. In spite of their doctrinal differences, all four had experienced the same calling, which was to serve their nation and its soldiers during World War II as Army chaplains. Reverend Fox had even served before, in World War I, as a medic. He knew how badly his services would be needed as a chaplain and enlisted on the same day that his 18-year-old son enlisted in the Marine Corps.

A few months later, after their training together, they were on board the Dorchester heading towards Greenland with 902 soldiers. Their route for this first leg of the trans-Atlantic crossing would take them through an area of water known as “Torpedo Junction”. German U-boats had been sinking Allied ships in this region at the rate of 100 every month, so the danger of the icy waters was compounded by this threat.

The threat became reality on February 3, 1943, when the Dorchester was hit by one torpedo from U-223, and then a second which took out all power in the engine room. In the darkness, panic and chaos reigned as men searched for a way to the top of the rapidly-sinking ship. According to those who survived, the voices of the four chaplains brought encouragement in the midst of this tragedy as they prayed, sang hymns, and called out to others to not give up hope. The brave chaplains passed out life jackets stored in lockers, tended to the wounded, guided many to safety—and even gave up their own life jackets knowing that, in doing so, they were giving up their chance for survival.

The Dorchester sank in 27 minutes. 672 perished, including the four chaplains, and 230 survived. The last site of the Dorchester, according to accounts, was of the four chaplains standing arm-in-arm on the slanting deck of the ship praying the Lord’s Prayer. “It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven,” said one soldier who lived to tell of the chaplains’ act of selflessness. (HomeofHeroes.com)

Before Chaplain Poling left his home in January of 1943, he asked his father (who had been a chaplain in World War I) to pray for him. He asked, “Not for my safe return, that wouldn’t be fair. Just pray that I shall do my duty. . . never be a coward. . . .and have the strength, courage and understanding of men. Just pray that I shall be adequate.” (HomeofHeroes.com) Chaplains Poling, Fox, Goode, and Washington were more than adequate—they were heroes. In every sense of the word, their valor and their ultimate sacrifice speak to the same qualities which are being displayed daily on the battlefields of this war on terror.

By giving up their life jackets, these courageous chaplains died so that others might live. Is that not what Christ did for us on the cross? The scripture that comes to my mind is Romans 5:6-8: “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Questions to share:

1. What acts of courage and valor can you share that you have seen demonstrated in your lifetime?

2. How can you pray for your spouse, that they will have the strength to be courageous when the time comes?

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