The first Sunday in February is Four Chaplains Sunday. Although it's been many years since a Methodist minister, a Jewish rabbi, a Roman Catholic priest and a Dutch Reformed minister made the supreme sacrifice, the story of these four brave chaplains is still being told today. During WWII there were many selfless acts and many heroes. This is a story of four such men and their act of compassion and selflessness. A story that is still told today 78 years after the event took place.

Their names, Lt. George L. Fox, Methodist minister; Lt. Alexander D. Goode, Jewish rabbi; Lt. John P. Washington, Roman Catholic priest; and Lt. Clark V. Poling, a Dutch Reformed Protestant minister. Their backgrounds, personalities and faiths were different, but all having one God as their heavenly father. They had met at Army Chaplains School at Harvard University where they became friends as they prepared for service in the European theater, all to sail on board an Army transport ship to report to their new assignments.

The U.S.A.T. Dorchester, a converted Army transport ship and one of three ships in a supply convoy of merchant and troop ships, set sail from Newfoundland on Jan. 23, 1943, toward an American base in Greenland. SG-19, as it was called, was escorted by three Coast Guard Cutters, the Tampa, the Escanaba and the Comanche. On the evening of Feb. 2, 1943, the Dorchester was only 150 miles from its destination, but the captain ordered the men to sleep in their clothing and keep life jackets on. Many soldiers sleeping deep in the ship’s hold disregarded the order because of the engine’s heat. Others ignored it because the life jackets were uncomfortable. At 12:55 a.m. on Feb. 3, through the cross hairs, an officer aboard the German submarine, U-223. spotted the Dorchester. After identifying and targeting the ship, he gave orders to fire the torpedoes, a fan of three were fired. The one that hit was decisive — and deadly — striking the starboard side, amid ship, far below the water line. The hit knocked out power and radio contact with the three escort ships.

Aboard the Dorchester, panic and chaos had set in. The blast had killed scores of men, and many more were seriously wounded. Others, stunned by the explosion were groping in the darkness. Those sleeping without clothing rushed topside where they were confronted first by a blast of icy Arctic air and then by the knowledge that death awaited. Men jumped from the ship into lifeboats, over-crowding them to the point of capsizing. Other rafts, tossed into the Atlantic, drifted away before soldiers could get in them. By this time, most of the men were topside, and the chaplains opened a storage locker and began distributing life jackets. When there were no more life jackets in the storage room, the chaplains removed theirs and gave them to four frightened young men. When giving their life jackets, the four chaplains did not call out for men of their faith, but simply gave their life jackets to the next man in line. As the ship went down, survivors in nearby rafts could see the four chaplains — arms linked and braced against the slanting deck. Their voices could also be heard offering prayers and singing hymns.

Of the 902 men aboard the U.S.A.T. Dorchester, 672 died, leaving only 230 survivors. The last known survivor of the Dorchester, William G. Bunkleman, passed away in 2019.

It is now our responsibility, those who remain, to keep the knowledge and memory of the Four Chaplains, and their sacrifice alive. On Feb. 7, 2021, please take a few minutes to remember and say their names.

For more information on the Four Chaplains and the American Legion please call Jeff Sukeforth at 236-3310.