Four ministers of religion met while studying at the Chaplain School at Harvard University during the Second World War while millions of their fellow Americans were also serving in the armed forces and in industries associated with the national effort to defeat Nazi Germany and Hirohito’s militarized Japan. Good friends, Presbyterian minister Clarke Poling, Rabbi Alexander Goode, Methodist preacher George Fox, and Catholic Fr John Washington, were all to play a singular role in the conflict that involved not only millions of Americans but the rest of humanity.
The four friends boarded the transport ship USAT Dorchester in January 1943. It was during that month that a number of signal events occurred during the worldwide conflict. For example: Jewish patriots rose up for the first time against German Nazi occupiers in Warsaw, using whatever daring, stealth, and weapons they had at hand to fight off their oppressors; German Fieldmarshal Friedrich Paulus surrendered to Soviet Russian forces, putting an end to the disastrous Battle of Stalingrad; the Casablanca Conference draws to a close in which President Franklin Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and General Charles de Gaulle, issued a declaration demanding unconditional surrender on the part of the Axis.
It was on February 3, 1943 that a German submarine, U-223, launched a torpedo at the Dorchester shortly after midnight. Within seconds chaos ensued onboard the hapless vessel as hundreds of men sought to reach lifejackets and lifeboats. The four chaplains organized a safe evacuation while calming the terrified men. When there were no more lifejackets to be had, the four chaplains gave up their own.
The Dorchester had only enough lifeboats to aid just one quarter of the passengers on board. When officers offered room onboard the lifeboats to the chaplains, they refused to abandon the ship and their fellow men.
When survivors of the disaster rowed away from the wreck, they spotted the four chaplains together on the deck of the doomed ship. Standing together, linked arm-to-arm, the chaplains allegedly sang “Nearer my God to thee” as they prayed for the souls of their fellow men. Survivors said that they heard prayers said in Latin and Hebrew coming from the chaplains. Before dawn, the ship had disappeared along with the four chaplains and almost 700 men. On that fateful night, only 230 men survived the torpedo attack. Hundreds of bodies were found in the morning bobbing in lifejackets in the waves.
Later, the four chaplains were awarded posthumously the Purple Heart and Distinguished Service Cross decorations. During the Reagan administration in 1988, Congress declared February 3 ‘Four Chaplains Day. Since then, the Episcopal Church of the USA honors all four men annually on that day. Since the stringent requirements for issuing the Medal of Honor to the chaplains could not be altered, Congress in 1960 created the Four Chaplains’ Medal to honor their example.