Monday, August 16, 2010
The Four Chaplains
They All Four Shared the same Father!
George L Fox
Alexander D. Goode
Clark V. Poling
John P. Washington
The chaplains, who all held the rank of lieutenant, were the Methodist Reverend George L. Fox, Rabbi Alexander D. Goode, the Roman Catholic Priest John P. Washington and the Reformed Church in America Reverend Clark V. Poling. They were sailing on the USAT Dorchester, a coastal liner that had been converted to a troop transport for World War II. On the night of February 3, 1943, the vessel, travelling in convoy, was torpedoed by the German submarine U-223 off Newfoundland in the North Atlantic.
The torpedo knocked out the Dorchester's electrical system, leaving the ship dark. Panic set in among the men on board, many of them trapped below decks. The chaplains sought to calm the men and organize an orderly evacuation of the ship, and helped guide wounded men to safety. As life jackets were passed out to the men, the supply ran out before each man had one. The chaplains removed their own life jackets and gave them to others. They helped as many men as they could into lifeboats, and then linked arms and, saying prayers and singing hymns, went down with the ship.
As I swam away from the ship, I looked back. The flares had lighted everything. The bow came up high and she slid under. The last thing I saw, the Four Chaplains were up there praying for the safety of the men. They had done everything they could. I did not see them again. They themselves did not have a chance without their life jackets.
—Grady Clark, survivor
In all, 230 of the 904 men aboard the ship were rescued. Life jackets offered little protection from hypothermia, which killed most men in the water. The water temperature was 34 °F (1 °C) and the air temperature was 36 °F (2 °C). By the time additional rescue ships arrived, "...hundreds of dead bodies were seen floating on the water, kept up by their life jackets."
Brotherhood has nothing to do with the similarities between men. Even among twins, no two brothers are exactly alike. These differences can create challenges to family harmony, incite jealousy, and lead to sibling rivalries. At the same time, it is these differences that make a family stronger, better rounded, and best equipped to face the challenges of life. In time of crisis, when a family pulls together, these differences make it possible to approach a problem from different perspectives and find solutions for the common good. There is strength in diversity, and perhaps a family should rejoice more in the differences between brothers and sisters than in the things they share in common.
In November, 1942 four young men "found each other" while attending Chaplain's School at Harvard University. They had enough in common to bond them together. At age 42, George Fox was the "older brother". The youngest was 30-year old Clark Poling, and less than three years separated him from the other two, Alexander Goode and John Washington. A common cause brought them together, the desire to render service to their Nation during the critical years of World War II.
Between the early days of May to late July, the four had entered military service from different areas of the country. Reverend Fox enlisted in the Army from Vermont the same day his 18-year old son Wyatt enlisted in the Marine Corps. During World War I, though only 17 years old, Fox had convinced the Army he was actually 18 and enlisted as a medical corps assistant. His courage on the battlefield earned him the Silver Star, the Croix de Guerre, and the Purple Heart. When World War II broke out he said, "I've got to go. I know from experience what our boys are about to face. They need me." This time, however, he didn't enlist to heal the wounds of the body. As a minister he was joining the Chaplains Corps to heal the wounds of the soul.
Reverend Clark V. Poling was from Ohio and pastoring in New York when World War II threatened world freedom. He determined to enter the Army, but not as a Chaplain. "I'm not going to hide behind the church in some safe office out of the firing line," he told his father when he informed him of his plans to serve his country. His father, Reverend Daniel Poling knew something of war, having served as a Chaplain himself during World War I. He told his son, "Don't you know that chaplains have the highest mortality rate of all? As a chaplain you'll have the best chance in the world to be killed. You just can't carry a gun to kill anyone yourself." With new appreciation for the role of the Chaplains Corps, Clark Poling accepted a commission and followed in his father's footsteps.
Like Clark Poling, Alexander Goode had followed the steps of his own father in ministry. His first years of service were in Marion, Indiana; then he moved on to York, Pennsylvania. While studying and preparing to minister to the needs of others, "Alex" had joined the National Guard. Ten months before Pearl Harbor he sought an assignment in the Navy's Chaplains Corps, but wasn't initially accepted. When war was declared, he wanted more than ever to serve the needs of those who went in harm's way to defend freedom and human dignity. He chose to do so as a U.S. Army Chaplain.
One look at the be-speckled, mild mannered John P. Washington, would have left one with the impression that he was not the sort of man to go to war and become a hero. His love of music and beautiful voice belied the toughness inside. One of nine children in an Irish immigrant family living in the toughest part of Newark, New Jersey, he had learned through sheer determination to hold his own in any fight. By the time he was a teenager he was the leader of the South Twelfth Street Gang. Then God called him to ministry, returning him to the streets of New Jersey to organize sports teams, play ball with young boys who needed a strong friend to look up to, and inspire others with his beautiful hymns of praise and thanksgiving.
Upon meeting at the Chaplains' school, the four men quickly became friends. One of Clark Poling's cousins later said, "They were all very sociable guys, who seemed to have initiated interfaith activities even before the war. They hit it off well at chaplains' school. Sharing their faith was not just a first-time deal for them. They were really very close. They had prayed together a number of times before that final crisis." (Reverend David Poling)
The observation pointed out by Clark's cousin is of note, for the men of whom he spoke were unique. Their close bond might easily have marked them as "The Four Chaplains" long before a fateful night three months after they first met, when their actions would forever make the title synonymous with the names of George L. Fox, Alexander D. Goode, Clark V. Poling, and John P. Washington. The differences in their backgrounds and personalities could have been easily outweighed by their common calling to ministry, had it not been for one major difference:
Reverend Fox was a Methodist Minister
Reverend Poling was a Dutch Reformed Minister
Father Washington was a Catholic Priest
Rabbi Goode was Jewish
In a world where differences have all too often created conflict and separated brothers, the Four Chaplains found a special kind of unity, and in that unity they found strength. Despite the differences, they became "brothers" for they had one unseen characteristic in common that overshadowed everything else. They were brothers because:
On December 19, 1944, all four chaplains were posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross.. The Four Chaplains' Medal was established by act of Congress on July 14, 1960, and was presented posthumously to their next of kin by Secretary of the Army Wilber M. Brucker at Ft. Myer, Virginia on January 18, 1961.
The chaplains were also honored with a stamp, issued in 1948, and by an act of Congress designating February 3 as "Four Chaplains Day."
Goode, Poling and Washington had served as leaders in the Boy Scouts of America.