Before boarding the United States Army Transport ship Dorchester back in January, 1943, a Dutch Reformed Chaplain named Poling asked his father to pray for him, “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.”
Just after midnight on February 3rd, the German sub, U2, scored a decisive hit. The torpedo exploded in the middle of the Dorchestor, below the water line instantly killing hundreds and injuring many more. That night, Poling and his three Chaplain colleagues, Lt. George Fox, a Methodist; Lt. Alexander Goode, a Jewish Rabbi; Lt. John Washington, a Roman Catholic Priest collaborated in heroic acts of love and mercy culminating in the final sacrifice.
Only a few months before, The Dorchester had been a luxury liner with a full passenger load of 341. But in these days of a world at war, the converted transport ship carried close to 1000 frightened, green American soldiers. And four Chaplains. More than 600 men died in the glacial waters of the north Atlantic that night but there are numerous stories told by some of the 230 survivors. All about these four men of God.
…’These men were always together. They carried their faith together,’” he says. “Remember, this was 1943. Protestants didn’t talk to Catholics back then, let alone either of them talk to a Jew. And yet here they were, always together, and they loved each other. The men said it didn’t matter which service they went to, that the chaplains always made them feel welcome and cared for. They were remarkable for 1943, way ahead of their time,” writes Richard Sassaman in The Faithful Four.
“I could hear men crying, pleading, praying,” a soldier named William B. Bednar would later recall. “I could also hear the chaplains preaching courage. Their voices were the only thing that kept me going.”
John Mahoney, then a naval officer recalls turning back from the lifeboats to rush back to his stateroom, only to be stopped and asked where he was going by Rabbi Goode. Upon hearing that the officer was heading to his locker for his gloves, Goode gave the officer his own, claiming that he had another pair.
Having made their way topside, the four chaplains opened the storage locker and began distributing life jackets. But there were not enough life jackets in the locker. John Brinsfield writes, “It was then that Engineer Grady Clark witnessed an astonishing sight. When there were no more lifejackets in the storage room, the chaplains simultaneously removed theirs and gave them to four frightened young men. When giving their life jackets, Rabbi Goode did not call out for a Jew; Father Washington did not call out for a Catholic; nor did Fox or Poling call out for a Protestant. They simply gave their life jackets to the next man in line. One survivor would later call it “It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven.”
It’s tempting in these 21st century days of terrorism, pervasive addictions and of seemingly overwhelming malice to believe that ours are the blackest, the most hopeless. But can you imagine being one of those surviving soldiers in the chaos and terror of a ship about to sink? One of those last four young men in line? To watch each chaplain serenely remove his vest and give it to you? Can you imagine watching from the safety of your lifeboat the sight of four men of God standing, arms linked together singing hymns and praising God? Can you imagine the awe, the wonder of witnessing Christ right smack in the middle of the terror?