May 30, 2021

The Four (Military) Chaplains

Jack Kemp

This true story was common knowledge in the 1950s. A lot of young people have never the heard of the four military chaplains whose ship was torpedoed in the Atlantic and the chaplains who gave up their life vests so that four other service members could live. It is a story worth telling one's children and grandchildren. The Four Chaplains received many honors, including stained glass windows and paintings made of them in various houses of worship. The U.S. Post Office issued a stamp in 1948 in their honor. President Harry  Truman dedicated a chapel in their honor in 1951. There have been many other honors in this unique group's name.

From Wikipedia:

Four Chaplains

The Four Chaplains, also referred to as the "Immortal Chaplains" or the "Dorchester Chaplains", were four World War II chaplains who died rescuing civilian and military personnel as the troop ship SS Dorchester sank on February 3, 1943. The Dorchester was a civilian liner converted for military service in World War II as a War Shipping Administration troop transport. She was able to carry slightly more than 900 military passengers and crew.[1]

The ship left New York on January 23, 1943, en route to Greenland, carrying approximately 900 others, as part of a convoy of three ships escorted by Coast Guard Cutters Tampa, Escanaba, and Comanche.[2] During the early morning hours of February 3 the vessel was torpedoed by the German submarine U-223 off Newfoundland in the North Atlantic.[3] The chaplains helped the other soldiers board lifeboats and gave up their own life jackets when the supply ran out.[4] The chaplains joined arms, said prayers, and sang hymns as they went down with the ship.

The impact of the chaplains story was deep, with many memorials and coverage in the media. Each of the four chaplains was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Purple Heart.[5] The chaplains were nominated for the Medal of Honor, but were found ineligible as they had not engaged in combat with the enemy. Instead, Congress created a medal for them, with the same weight and importance as the Medal of Honor.[5]

The chaplains

The relatively new chaplains all held the rank of first lieutenant. They included Methodist minister the Reverend George L. Fox, Reform Rabbi Alexander D. Goode (PhD), Catholic priest Father John P. Washington, and Reformed Church in America minister the Reverend Clark V. Poling. Their backgrounds, personalities, and denominations were different, although Goode, Poling and Washington had all served as leaders in the Boy Scouts of America.[6] They met at the Army Chaplains School at Harvard University, where they prepared for assignments in the European theater, sailing on board Dorchester to report to their new assignments.


The chaplains were honored with a commemorative stamp that was issued in 1948, and was designed by Louis Schwimmer, the head of the Art Department of the New York branch of the U.S. Post Office Department (now called the USPS).[49] This stamp is highly unusual, because until 2011,[50] U.S. stamps were not normally issued in honor of someone other than a President of the United States until at least ten years after his or her death.[51]

The stamp went through three revisions before the final design was chosen.[52] None of the names of the chaplains were included on the stamp, nor were their faiths (although the faiths had been listed on one of the earlier designs): instead, the words on the stamp were "These Immortal Chaplains...Interfaith in Action."[52] Another phrase included in an earlier design that was not part of the final stamp was "died to save men of all faiths."[52] By the omission of their names, the stamp commemorated the event, rather than the individuals per se, thus obfuscating the ten-year rule in the same way as did later stamps honoring Neil Armstrong in 1969[53] and Buzz Aldrin in 1994.[54]

Chapel of Four Chaplains

The Chapel of the Four Chaplains was dedicated on February 3, 1951, by President Harry S. Truman to honor these chaplains of different faiths in the basement of Grace Baptist Church of Philadelphia. In his dedication speech, the President said, "This interfaith shrine... will stand through long generations to teach Americans that as men can die heroically as brothers so should they live together in mutual faith and goodwill."[55]

The Chapel dedication included a reminder that the interfaith team represented by the Four Chaplains was unusual. Although the Chapel was dedicated as an All-Faiths Chapel, no Catholic priest took part in the dedication ceremony, because, as Msgr. Thomas McCarthy of the National Catholic Welfare Conference explained to Time magazine, "canon law forbids joint worship."[56]

In addition to supporting work that exemplifies the idea of Interfaith in Action, recalling the story of the Four Chaplains, the Chapel presents awards to individuals whose work reflects interfaith goals. 1984 was the first time that the award went to a military chaplain team composed of a rabbi, priest, and minister, recalling in a special way the four chaplains themselves, when the Rabbi Louis Parris Hall of Heroes Gold Medallion was presented to Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff; Catholic Priest Fr. George Pucciarelli; and Protestant Minister Danny Wheeler—the three chaplains present at the scene of the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing. The story of these three United States Navy Chaplains was itself memorialized in a Presidential speech by President Ronald Reagan, on April 12, 1984.[57]

In 1972, Grace Baptist Church moved to Blue Bell and sold the building to Temple University two years later. Temple University eventually decided to renovate the building as the Temple Performing Arts Center.[58] In February 2001, the Chapel of the Four Chaplains moved to the chapel at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.[59]

Posted by: Timothy Birdnow at 12:43 PM | Comments (6) | Add Comment
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1 Excellent account, Jack. And very timely. Thanks!

Posted by: Dana Mathewson at May 31, 2021 11:15 AM (aTfFy)

2 What a beautiful story, one I've never heard Jack!  And to think those men came out of HARVARD too!  My how that institution has changed!

That was when America still understood the value of religious faith, alas. Now these guys wouldn't even be footnotes.

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