“Four Chaplains Day” is observed annually on February 3 in America by the unanimous resolution of the U.S. Congress in 1988. It is a day to remember one of the most remarkable and inspiring acts of heroism in the history of warfare. It is a day to honor the heroism of the Four Chaplains, who selflessly gave their lives “that others may live”. Most American schools, and, therefore, most Americans, did not observe it. Indeed, most Americans, including children who will not be taught about it in their schools, do not even know that there is a National Four Chaplains Day, or why. This is true even though, as a former soldier who owed his life to them has said, “Their heroism is beyond belief. That is one of the reasons why we must tell the world what these people did.”
On February 3, 1943, the Dorchester, a converted luxury cruise ship, was transporting Army troops to Greenland. On board were some 900 troops, and four chaplains, of diverse religions and backgrounds, but of a commitment to serve God, country, and all the troops, regardless of their religious beliefs, or non-belief. The four Chaplains were: Rev. George Fox (Methodist); Father John Washington (Roman Catholic); Jewish Rabbi Alexander Goode; and Rev. Clark Poling (Dutch Reformed).
At approximately 0055 hours, the Dorchester was hit by a torpedo. The blast ripped a hole in the ship from below the waterline to the top deck. Dorchester survivors told of the wild pandemonium on board when it was hit and began sinking. There was panic, fear, terror; death was no abstraction but real, immediate, seem-ingly inescapable.
The four Chaplains acted together to try bring some order to the chaos, to calm the panic of the troops, to alleviate their fear and terror, to pray with and for them, to help save their lives. The Chaplains passed out life jackets, helping those too panicked to put them on correctly, until the awful moment arrived when there were no more life jackets to be given out. It was then that a most remarkable act of heroism, courage, faith, and love took place: Each of the four Chaplains took off his life jacket, and, knowing that act made certain death, put his life jacket on a soldier who didn’t have one.
The Chaplains continued to help the troops until the last moment. Then, as the ship sank into the raging sea, the four Chaplains linked hands and arms, and could be seen and heard by the survivors praying together, even singing hymns, joined together in faith, love, and unity, as they sacrificed their lives so “that others may live.”
Earlier, in 1944, the Chaplains were awarded Purple Hearts and the Distinguished Service Cross. They did not receive the Medal of Honor because of restrictions which limits that medal to combatants.
At the dedication of the Chapel of the Four Chaplains in 1951, then-President Harry S. Truman said their sacrifice reflected the fact that “the unity of our country is a unity under God. 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 good will.”
May the God the Four Chaplains served bless and keep them; and may the nation they so heroically served always remember and honor them. God Bless America! May we always be ‘One Nation Under God!’