Saturday, October 01, 2005

The Four Chaplains

When I heard this story years ago, the memory stayed with me. I was having a converstion with a friend the other day, about courage in war not always involving weapons. Sometimes, courage is so quietly displayed, that it goes un-noticed. Over the course of time such acts are often forgotten. When my memory of this extraordinary story came to mind, I thought that I should post it. It deserves mentioning to younger readers and 'the four chaplains' heroism shouldn't be forgotten, The following is from 'The History Place' website.
The Four Chaplains
George L. Fox (Methodist Minister)Alexander D. Goode (Jewish Rabbi)Clark V. Poling (Dutch Reformed Church)John P. Washington (Roman Catholic Priest)

One of the most extraordinary acts of heroism during World War II occurred in the icy waters off Greenland after a U.S. Army transport ship was hit by a German torpedo and began to sink rapidly. When it became apparent there were not enough life jackets, four U.S. Army chaplains removed theirs, handed them to frightened young soldiers, and chose to go down with ship.
In February of 1943, the U.S. Army transport ship, Dorchester, full to capacity, was carrying 751 passengers, 130 crew members and 23 naval personnel on its journey from Newfoundland to an American military base in Greenland. The 5,649-ton ship was built in 1926 and originally served as a luxury coastal liner. By 1943, the ship had seen better days and most of the troops had been quite uneasy boarding the "lousy old freighter."
The Dorchester was one of three transports in a small convoy, accompanied by three U.S. Coast Guard cutters. Seas were rough and the Dorchester rode the waves poorly, dipping and swaying, bouncing and trembling as it plowed along through the winter blackness. All during the voyage, the four chaplains; George L. Fox, Alexander D. Goode, Clark V. Poling and John P. Washington, helped to soothe the nerves of the 700 young draftees and enlisted men on board by walking among them while laughing and joking, and by putting on amateur floor shows every night. The chaplains also held regular religious services which at first were poorly attended. However, attendance increased with every mile the ship sailed further away from home.
To reach Greenland, the convoy had to pass through U-boat infested waters where numerous transports already had been sunk. On the evening of February 2, 1943, one of the Coast Guard cutters detected a submarine on its sonar and blinked the warning 'we are being followed' to Dorchester's Captain, Hans J. Danielsen. An urgent radio call then went out requesting anti-submarine patrol planes. But the response came back that the planes were patrolling "elsewhere." The ships would have to go it alone.
They were now only about 150 miles from their destination and hopes were high they might make it to port unmolested. But as a safety precaution, Captain Danielsen ordered all of the men on board to sleep in their clothing and life jackets. Many of the men deep in the ship's hold ignored this order due to the sweltering engine heat and the uncomfortable bulkiness of the life jackets.
At one o'clock in the morning of February 3, 1943, the ship's bell struck twice. It would never sound again. The periscope of German submarine U-223 poked through the water's surface and spotted the ship in its cross hairs. An officer gave the order to fire torpedoes.
The Dorchester was blasted on its starboard side near the engine room far below the water line, killing a hundred men and knocking out all power and radio contact. Captain Danielsen was informed his ship was rapidly taking on water. He gave the order to abandon ship.
Panic now set in among the men below decks as they groped around in the darkness, struggling to get topside. Many had no life jackets or clothing. Those who made it up onto the listing deck immediately realized they were about to die in the Arctic air and frigid water. Lifeboats quickly became overcrowded to the point of capsizing. Rafts were tossed into the sea but drifted away before anyone could get into them. Only two lifeboats out of 14 were successfully launched.
Amid the disorder, the four Army chaplains quietly spread out among the soldiers, preaching courage to the frightened, offering prayers to the wounded, and guiding the disoriented.
After most of the survivors had struggled up on deck, the four chaplains opened a storage locker and began handing out life jackets. Soon they ran out.
"Padre," a young soldier hollered, "I've lost my life jacket and I can't swim!"
One of the four chaplains, it is not known which, removed his and said, "Here, take mine. I won't need it. I'm staying." The other three followed his example.
"It was," an eyewitness recalled, "the finest thing I have ever seen or hope to see this side of heaven."
Now, just 27 minutes after the torpedo struck, the ship was about to go down. The four chaplains locked arms together and braced against the deck with its heavy starboard list. They prayed, each in the tradition of his own faith, as the water reached their knees. A wave swept over the ship, then another, and another. The Dorchester fought to right herself but failed and plunged into the seething ocean.
Of the 902 aboard, 675 died, leaving just 227 survivors including 28 crew members, 44 civilian workers, 3 Danish citizens, 12 Navy gun crewmen, 7 Coast Guard personnel and 135 U.S. Army personnel.
News of the tragedy and the heroic conduct of the four chaplains caused a sensation in America. On December 19, 1944, the Distinguished Service Cross for "extraordinary heroism" and the Purple Heart were awarded posthumously to the chaplains' next of kin. In 1961, the U.S. Congress authorized a unique
Special Medal for Heroism which had never been given before and is never to be given again.
The German submarine U-223 (Gerlach) which sank the Dorchester was itself sunk north of Palermo, Sicily, on March 30, 1944, by British warships

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