The Four Chaplains: Grace Under Fire

ArtistMike Koulermos
WriterMarshall Karp

On January 23, 1943, the US Army Transport Dorchester set sail from New York. Only months earlier, she had been a luxury liner cruising the East Coast with a full load of 314 wealthy passengers. Then came the reality of a world at war. Now, with 902 men crammed below deck, she joined a convoy bound for a US Army base in Greenland. 

There were four chaplains onboard, Lt. John Washington, a Catholic priest from New Jersey; Lt. Clark Poling of Michigan, a Dutch Reformed pastor; Lt. Alexander Goode, a Pennsylvania rabbi; and Lt. George Fox, a Methodist minister from Vermont. 

They had met at Army Chaplains School, become close friends, and their mission for the two-week treacherous crossing was to comfort the men boys, many of whom lived in fear of the German wolf packs that prowled the Atlantic. 

Three Coast Guard cutters escorted the convoy, and on the night of February 2, one of them detected an enemy submarine. The C.O. of the Dorchester immediately ordered the men to sleep in their clothing, life jackets nearby. But many of them, confined in the stifling hold, ignored the order. 

Shortly before 1 a.m. on February 3rd, a German sub, U-223, fired a fan of three torpedoes at the troop ship. One ripped through the Dorchesters boiler room, knocking out power and filling the air with steam and ammonia gas. 

Gripped by terror, the menboys, stumbled in the dark, frantically scrambling to abandon ship. The chaplains took charge, helping the wounded, organizing an orderly evacuation, and handing out life jackets to men who had lost theirs in the chaos. 

And then the supply ran out. 

Without hesitation, these four men, who went into battle armed only with faith, love, compassion, and the word of God, made the ultimate sacrifice. They removed their own life jackets and gave four of their fellow soldiers a chance to survive. 

The Dorchester sank in just 18 minutes. There were still 672 men aboard, and as the ship slipped beneath the waves, the chaplains were seen on the tilting deck, holding hands, leading their doomed flock in a final prayer. 

The four chaplains have been honored in books, documentaries, a US postage stamp, war memorials, stained- glass windows at the Pentagon, West Point, and chapels across the US. They received the Purple Heart, the Distinguished Service Cross, and in 1961, by an Act of Congress, they were awarded The Four Chaplains Medal for their extraordinary heroism. 

Four men of different faiths, friends in life, and joined forever by the legacy of their selfless valor.