The Four Chaplains Who Went Down With the Ship

Today is Four Chaplains Day, celebrating the sacrifice of a priest, a rabbi, and two Protestant pastors who chose to save lives rather than save their own.

By Nancy Flory Published on February 3, 2017

Had the men obeyed the captain’s order, more would have survived that night.

On February 2, 1943, 902 servicemen, merchant seamen and civilian workers sailed on the United States Army Transport (USAT) Dorchester from New York on their way to Greenland. Most were 18 and 19-years-old. A Coast Guard cutter picked up sonar evidence of a German U-boat below. The captain ordered that the men sleep in their clothes and life jackets.

Many of the men chose to sleep without the life jackets or day clothes as ordered, perhaps because they were uncomfortable. At 12:55 a.m. on February 3, 1943, a U-boat torpedoed the Dorchester, knocking out its electrical system. In the chaos, men ran for their lives, some of them still in their underwear, leaving behind warm clothing in the near-freezing temperatures.

One man, while trying to retrieve his gloves, was stopped by one of the ship’s four chaplains, Rabbi Alexander Goode. “Never mind,” Rabbi Goode said, “I have two pairs.” Later, he realized that Rabbi Goode did not have another pair of gloves and that he’d decided to stay with the Dorchester as she sank.

The Chaplains On the Sinking Ship

The chaplains — Rabbi Goode, Methodist minister George Fox, Catholic priest John Washington, and Dutch Reformed pastor Clark Poling — were new to their jobs and were being taken to their assignment. They walked around the evening before the disaster, reminding men to sleep in their clothes and life jackets. They handed out crackers and comforted those who were seasick.

The four decided to hold a variety show to ease the tension. The men put on a musical review featuring the chaplains, all of whom could sing very well and loved to perform. Later, when most of the sailers were asleep, the torpedo hit.

The chaplains ran to the deck. One opened a storage locker on the ship’s deck and the four began distributing life jackets. They comforted the men on the ship, offered encouragement for the living and prayed for the dying. Survivors later reported hearing prayers in Hebrew, Latin and English.

When the life jackets ran out, the four gave their own jackets to the men. “It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven,” said John Ladd, a survivor. After helping men into lifeboats, the chaplains linked arms, braced themselves against the listing deck and, as they sang hymns, went down with the ship.

One survivor, Grady Clark, said, “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.”

That cold, winter night 672 men perished by the torpedo and in the freezing water. The 230 survivors had been plucked out of the sea by two of the three Coast Guard cutters.

A Light in the World’s Darkness

Almost two years later, the four chaplains were posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross for their selfless service and ultimate sacrifice that night.

President Harry S. Truman honored the chaplains on February 3, 1951, when he dedicated The Chapel of the Four Chaplains, now located in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Navy yard. Congress couldn’t give them the Medal of Honor because it could only be given for acts of heroism under fire. Their acts of heroism took place after the torpedo. Congress decided to bestow a special medal on the chaplains.

On January 18, 1961, President Eisenhower awarded them “The Four Chaplains Medal.” In 1988, Congress established February 3 as an annual “Four Chaplains Day.”

On that dark and cold night, in the middle of a horrifyingly tragic event, four chaplains of different faiths and denominations stood in unity as a model of John 15:13Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. 

They showed love to the men on the Dorchester, and gave their lives so that others could live. May we be as bold if the moment comes when we are called to lay our lives down for others and show the love of Christ that will resonate for generations.


A big “Thank you” to Alice Wright for this story idea.

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