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This Story of Sacrifice Still Moves Hearts 75 Years Later

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By Tom Konecny

America was built on sacrifice. One definition reveals sacrifice as “an act of giving up something valued for the sake of something else more important.” That, in a nutshell, also defines anyone who’s served in the military. Acts of sacrifice abound throughout our great history, and the story of the “Four Chaplains” stands out as one of the best.

During World War II, the USAT Dorchester left New York on January 23, 1943 for Greenland carrying four chaplains, plus 902 officers, service crew and civilian workers. The ship was part of a convoy escorted by Coast Guard Cutters, but days later, they knew they were entering dangerous waters having detected a submarine on sonar. The night of February 2, its captain alerted the crew to sleep in their uniform and keep life jackets on. Some ignored this warning because of the engine’s heat, some said the life jackets were uncomfortable.

Meanwhile, the Four Chaplains walked about the crew helping to pass time and ease tensions among the men. These chaplains were Lt. George L. Fox, Methodist minister; Lt. Alexander D. Goode, Jewish rabbi; Lt. John P. Washington, Catholic priest; and, Lt. Clark V. Poling, Reformed minister. They were all relatively new chaplains and held the rank of first lieutenant. Their backgrounds and personalities were quite different, having met at the Army Chaplains School at Harvard University. There they prepared for assignments in the European theater, sailing on the Dorchester to their new assignments.

The chaplains were still awake at 12:55 a.m. when the Dorchester was torpedoed by a German submarine in the North Atlantic on February 3, knocking out the electrical system, turning the ship dark and causing panic. As the missile struck the boiler room, it also released suffocating steam and ammonia gas. The ship began to sink fast.

The chaplains quickly tried to calm the men, evacuate the ship and tend to the wounded men. Those who weren’t already trapped inside rushed to life rafts, directed by the chaplains. Only two of the 14 lifeboats were used in abandoning the ship, so many soldiers jumped into the icy ocean and grasped onto anything that would float. Some did so for up to eight hours.

As the ship rapidly sank, the Four Chaplains located life jackets inside a deck locker and passed them out. Once the stock was gone, they did the unthinkable – they removed their own life jackets and gave them away. The four men remained on the slanted deck, standing together, linking arms, bowing heads, saying prayers and singing hymns while going down with the ship. Almost 700 others lost their lives in what was one of the greatest tragedies of World War II.

America believes in self-sacrifice and in giving of oneself to help another. The Four Chaplains are sometimes referred to as the “Immortal Chaplains,” a fitting name for a sacrifice that lived on in the memory of those brave men and in the hearts of the survivors.

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