Four Chaplains Day

Today is Four Chaplains Day. Coming the day after Groundhog Day, when people are still talking about Punxsutawney Phil and his shadow, especially given the winter so far, we’re not hearing too much about what today is about. But I did a little digging and I thought I’d briefly share the chaplains’ story. (By the way, despite the date on the blog, I wrote this on February 3, so I stand by my opening “Today is….”)

The four chaplains — Reverend George L. Fox (Methodist), Rabbi Alexander D. Goode (Jewish), Reverend Clark V. Poling (Dutch Reformed) and Father John P. Washington (Roman Catholic) — were all serving on the U.S.A.T. Dorchester during World War Two. The Dorchester, a liner, had been pressed into service as a trasnport ship. On February 3, 1943, a German sub torpedoed the Dorchester. Many of the men were below decks and panicked. The four chaplains moved among the men, calming fears and handing out lifejackets. When no more lifejackets remained, each chaplain took his off and gave it to a soldier. Survivors of the sinking told how the four chaplains stood at the rails, arms linked, saying prayers and singing hymns as the Dorchester sunk.

Posthumously, the four men received numerous honors and recognition. The U.S. Postal Service issued a comemorative stamp in 1948. A special award, the Chaplain’s Medal of Heroism, authorized by an act of Congress, was awarded to the men’s next of kin in 1961. (This was in addition to the Purple Heart and Distinguished Service Cross, also awarded posthumously.) A beautiful stained glass window memorializing the men can be found in the War Memorial Chapel of the National Cathedral. In 1988, Congress resolved unanimously that February 3 be observed as Four Chaplains Day in honor of the clergymen’s heroism.

In these times we live in, with radical extremists of many faiths (I hesitate to say “every faith,” although it sometimes seems that way) committing acts of violence in the name of God, we should all take a moment to remember these four chaplains, whose courage in the face of death remains an example to us all. I doubt that any of them paused to ask a soldier’s faith before giving aid. They simply helped and guided and sacrificed, so that men — Not Jews or Catholics or Protestants — would live.

In Judaism, when someone dies, we say of the person “may his (or her) memory be a blessing.” We don’t need to say it of George Fox, Alexander Goode, Clark Poling, or John Washington. We know that they are.

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