Four Chaplains Day honors chaplains who sacrificed during World War II, including a Catholic priest
Four Chaplains Day honors World War II chaplains who sacrificed, including Catholic priests.
Father John P. Washington, one of the “four chaplains” who gave their lives to save others when the SS Dorchester sank, February 3, 1943.x / public domain
Washington, DC Newsroom, Feb. 3, 2022 / 4:00 p.m. (CNA).
Four Chaplains Day, February 3, recognizes the heroism of four World War II military chaplains who sacrificed their lives to save those trapped on a sinking U.S. Army transport ship.
“Their voices were the only thing that kept me going,” recalls a survivor of the fateful day in 1943.
The four men – Fr. John P. Washington, a Catholic priest, Reverend George L. Fox, a Methodist minister, Rabbi Alexander D. Goode and Reverend Clark V. Poling, a Reformed Church minister in America – died after serving civilians and military personnel on the sinking of the SS Dorchester.
The four first met in 1942, at Harvard University’s Army Chaplain School. Each chaplain had the rank of first lieutenant, Colombia reports the magazine.
The ship, filled with more than 900 people, departed New York for a military base in Greenland on January 23, 1943, Military Benefits reported. A few days later, on February 3, a German submarine torpedoed the ship in the middle of the night. The lights went out as cold arctic waters surrounded the soldiers.
Amid the panic, the chaplains remained calm and sprang into action. Professor Washington, who had celebrated Mass a few hours earlier, now gave absolution, according to the Army Historical Foundation. The four offered their life jackets to the men who did not have them and helped as much as they could to escape in lifeboats. They themselves stayed behind.
Several eyewitnesses later spoke of the bravery of the chaplains, Military Benefits reported.
At one point Master John J. Mahoney recalled returning to his cabin to find his gloves. Rabbi Goode stopped him saying, “Never mind. I have two pairs,” and handed him a few.
Mahoney later realized that the rabbi only had one pair.
Off the ship and in the water filled with debris, oil and corpses, Pvt. William B. Bednar remembers hearing “men crying, pleading, praying.” But then he heard the chaplains, who “preached courage.” Those voices, he says, kept him alive.
Another survivor, named Grady Clark, recalled the scene.
“As I walked away from the ship, I looked back. The flares had lit everything up. The bow came up high and she slid under,” Clark said. four chaplains were up there praying for the safety of the men. They had done all they could. I never saw them again. They themselves had no chance without their life jackets.
Another eyewitness, John Ladd, said, “It was the most beautiful thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven.”
The ship sank in less than 30 minutes.
With freezing air and water temperatures, many men died of hypothermia before they could be rescued. Only 230 survived. Those who did remembered the chaplains joining arms and coming together to pray and sing as the ship sank.
Today they are remembered as “the four chaplains” or “the immortal chaplains”.
In recognition of the heroism of chaplains, Congress established February 3 as “Four Chaplains Day” in 1988.
A year after their deaths, in 1944, Congress posthumously awarded each chaplain a Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross. In 1960, Congress also approved the Four Chaplains Medal, which was presented to families of chaplains the following year.
Across the country, chaplains are commemorated by monuments and memorials, including stained glass at the Pentagon, Military Benefits reported.
Their faces appeared on U.S. postage stamps in 1948, and in 1951 President Harry S. Truman dedicated the Chapel of the Four Chaplains in the basement of Grace Baptist Church in Philadelphia.
Today, the Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation, founded by the families of the chaplains and survivors of the ship, carries on his legacy, from supporting first responder chaplaincy programs to organizing scholarship competitions for students.