Every year on the first Sunday in February our Yorktown American Legion Post gathers to educate our community on the Four Immortal Chaplains of World War II. Veterans, clergy, school children, Scouts, and members of the community join us in our Hall as we tell the heroic story of these four men of faith. For the past several years we have been fortunate to have four prominent members of the clergy join us for this ceremony and stand in to light a candle for each of these chaplains. This service and story has moved many people to return each year to honor these men. During the 2021 COVID shutdown our Post could not let this ceremony ‘stop’ due to the pandemic and we created a video version of the ceremony filmed safely in sections with participants recording their parts remotely at different times.
The Story of the Four Chaplains
It was in January, 1943 that an American troopship, the S.S. Dorchester, was being loaded at a Massachusetts port. It was the darkest hour just before dawn, and the troopship was looking her absolute worst. She was an underprivileged ship. But in this time of crisis everything that could float was being pressed into service. Soldiers, very young and confused for the most part, looked and felt as if they were being cheated when they struggled up the gangplank. “Call this a troopship,” one of them muttered. “She is nothing but a lousy old freighter. We’ll be stowed away in here like a bunch of sardines in a tin can”. Among their number walk the four Chaplains. Their names were George L. Fox, Alexander D. Goode, John P. Washington, and Clark V. Poling.
They laughed and joked with the men. Fear is catching but so thank heaven is laughter. So along with the soldiers and the ship’s officers the four Chaplains boarded the unseaworthy Dorchester. They came together on the slanting deck of the troopship, and their journey was to end in a meeting with death, although they didn’t know it at the time. It was also a meeting with the life everlasting.
The four Chaplains shared a cabin but it was a cabin in name only. It wasn’t different from the cubby holes in which the enlisted men sleep. The Chaplains didn’t want anything better than the other’s had. Though the atmosphere was heavy, there wasn’t any clean air because of the smell of fuel oil and bilge. They pledged themselves not to be seasick or even downhearted. It was their mission to forget their own lack of comfort and help raise the spirits of the soldiers, and they did just that.
As the ship got underway, matters went from bad to worse. The S.S. Dorchester did what might have been called a Devil’s dance. She dipped and swayed, she didn’t move according to the law of the ocean going vessels. The four Chaplains took it in stride. They knew that the troopship was having a rough time trying to keep up with her convoy. They also knew rumors were being piled on rumors as to where they were going.
The four Chaplains knew the truth that they were bound for Greenland, the ice covered, glacier tortured, end of the world. But they kept their knowledge to themselves, it was better that way. The days were grim, but the nights were worse. Small lights in the holds were no compensation for the heavy blackness through which the ship was moving. The Chaplains provided floors shows every night, but their audience was too edgy to be diverted. They held Divine services, some of the men went to them at first, not many, but the chaplains noticed that as the Dorchester beat her way farther and farther from home the attendance grew higher.
It was on the second evening in February that a Coast Guard cutter blinked a message across the water to the Dorchester. It was a grim one at this eleventh hour, “We are being followed by a submarine” it said. The wireless operator contacted the convoy and asked for assistance. Planes were desperately needed. The answer received back was that there were no planes to send, they were elsewhere. However, the Dorchester was coming close to Greenland, they might make it. At twelve-thirty on the morning of February 3, 1943, the ship’s bell struck twice and never sounded again, for a few minutes later a torpedo struck home. The torpedo ripped open the ship and exploded with all its fury in the engine room, and in thirty seconds a hundred men were dead below decks. The heroic captain did all he could, which wasn’t much. The soldiers and the crew, in deadly fear, tried to lower the lifeboats, or jump overboard into the icy sea, but the four Chaplains moved from place to place on the deck urging the men to get into their life jackets and swim to the boats. Then a boy’s voice sounded above the noise, Padre I’ve lost my life jacket, the extras are all gone, and I can’t swim. The Chaplain took off his life jacket and put it around the boy’s shoulders. Take this he said, I won’t need it, I’m staying. The three other Chaplains followed suit and gave their life jackets to those who had none. Each proved that courage knows no distinction or creed that bravery admits no division of faith or race. So the four Chaplains stood on deck, with their arms linked each without a life jacket. Somewhere in the seething ocean perhaps four men were cheating death supported by the Chaplains gifts.
Yes, it happened in 1943 and though the history books may not tell the entire story yet, it is engraved on the heart of the world.