The Four Chaplains: How Religion Changes Everything

by Lenny Esposito

A Calvinist, a Methodist, a Catholic Priest and a Jewish Rabbi walk onto a ship… No, this is not the start of another lame joke, but a celebration of four men whose heroic actions are not remembered as much anymore.  Sixty years ago last week, at the height of conflict in World War II, these four U.S. Army chaplains engaged in an act of heroism that is scarcely seen.  As their ship sank, they took off their life vests and gave them away to soldiers on board, knowing that sinking in the frigid North Atlantic was a certain death sentence. Lt. George L. Fox, Lt. Alexander D. Goode, Lt. John P. Washington, and Lt. Clark V. Poling laid down their lives willingly as an act of service to their God and to their fellow men.

During WWII, many passenger cruise ships were converted into troop transports for the war effort.  The USAT Dorchester [1] was a smaller vessel, designed to carry about 314 passengers and crew up and down the East coast. After conversion, it would hold over three times more, with over 900 soldiers and ship’s crew boarding on January 23, 1943 to cross the Atlantic to support the fighting in Europe.   German submarines, or U-boats, had attacked troop transports before, so the captain sailed outside the shipping

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lanes and had “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.”[2]

Early on February 3, a German submarine torpedoed the ship which was 150 miles off of Greenland. Panic ensued…


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