Four Army chaplains gave their life jackets to other soldiers as their ship was sinking in WWII.

February 3 was enacted by Congress as Four Chaplains Day in 1988. It commemorates the unparalleled heroic acts of the four chaplains coming from different faiths who were onboard SS Dorchester serving the U.S. Army during World War II. In certain states and because most religious services are held on a Sunday, commemorations are celebrated on the first Sunday of February, dubbed Four Chaplains Sunday. This year, it was commemorated on February 5.

Who are the Four Chaplains?

The four chaplains are George L. Fox of the Methodist Church of Pennsylvania, Rabbi Alexander D. Goode of Pennsylvania, Clark V. Poling of the Reformed Church in America and John P. Washington of the Catholic Church.

George Fox’s mission in life seemed to revolve around serving his country and God. The young Fox dropped out of school at 17 and was admitted to serve the Army during World War I after lying about his age. After the war ended he became one of the most decorated soldiers who served as a medical corps assistant. Fox went back to school and was ordained as a Methodist minister in 1934. In the advent of the Second World War he re-applied and was approved to join the Army in 1942 as an Army chaplain.

Alexander Goode on the other hand was inspired by his father, a Jewish rabbi, to pursue Jewish studies leading to the rabbinate. He earned his degree from the Hebrew Union College in 1937 and a Ph.D. from the John Hopkins University in 1940. Goode hadn’t had much time working in his congregation because he was immediately recruited as an Army chaplain after the Pearl Harbor incident.

Clark Poling is a son of an evangelical minister from Columbus, Ohio. He studied at the Divinity School of Yale University and earned his degree in 1936. After which, he was ordained and served as the pastor in the First Church of Christ and later on at the Reformed Church. Aside from religious influences, his father motivated him to join the army during World War II, as his father explained that chaplains just like soldiers “risk and give their lives too.”

John Washington of New Jersey gained his AB Degree from the Immaculate Conception Seminary in 1933. He first served the Catholic Church as a subdeacon and eventually becoming a deacon in 1934. He was ordained as a priest in 1935 and was initially assigned at St. Genevieve’s parish in Elizabeth, New Jersey. He served another parish, St. Stephen in Kearny in 1938 before eventually being recruited in the US Army in 1941.

The four chaplains met and started their joint mission from the Chaplains School at the Harvard University in November 1942.

The Four Chaplains’ Selfless Deed

Assigned to the artillery battalion, the four chaplains boarded the Army cargo and personnel carrier SS Dorchester in 1943 bound to an undisclosed destination in Europe. But the ship never reached its destination because along the coast of Greenland, it was subjected to a torpedo attack by a German submarine. Because the incident happened at night many soldiers and crew were unprepared and panicked. The four chaplains immediately worked to calm the people on board and helped to maintain order in the evacuation. And when life jackets had run out during the escape from the fast sinking ship, the four didn’t hesitate and gave their jackets to others. They also stayed on the ship’s bow chanting prayers for everyone’s lives until their last breath. As one survivor recounts “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.”

Awards, Recognitions and Commemorations

Decades after the incident, the four chaplains are still remembered, honored and accorded numerous posthumous awards. Former U.S. President Harry Truman dedicated an All-Faiths Chapel to the four chaplains in 1972. Congress enacted a special law creating the Four Chaplain’s Medal that is tantamount to the Medal of Honor in 1960. AThe four chaplains also made a rare appearance on U.S. postage stamps in 1948. Several films, books, artwork and even music were also made to tell their story.

But perhaps the most importance message or lesson that everyone can get from the four hero chaplains is that everyone regardless of race, ethnicity and religion can have solidarity in the pursuit of common good or humanitarian welfare.

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