History Revisited: Veterans Day 2022: Remembering the four chaplains

By Bill Simons

Veterans Day evolved from the carnage and aspirations of World War I. On November 11, 1918, the armistice between the victorious Allies and Germany silenced the big guns of the Great War, as it was then called. The next year, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the first Armistice Day.

A 1954 act of Congress changed the name and purpose of the annual observance, and November 11 evolved into Veterans Day, a time to honor all those who served in the armed forces of the United States. Across the nation and spanning the generations, families and communities have veterans to remember. 

The World War II saga of the four chaplains is one of those stories. It bears special significance as testament to faith that transcends religious differences. For Jews, it is a reminder that their role in World War II was not confined to Holocaust victimization. In numbers proportionate to their presence in the population, they served in a U.S. military that, with its Allies, defeated the totalitarian enemies of civilization. 

Despite their distinct sectarian affiliations, the commonalities of the four chaplains were far greater than their differences. Soon after Pearl Harbor, Methodist Reverend George Fox, Reform Jewish Rabbi Alexander Goode, Dutch Reformed Reverend Clark Poling and Catholic Father John Washington enlisted in the Army, eager for assignment at the battlefront. Unarmed, as chaplains do not carry weapons, they sought to go where danger and need were greatest. 

Fox, Goode and Poling left behind wives and children. Washington bid adieu to a mother who had already witnessed two other sons enter the military. The chaplains believed that their mission was to provide support for soldiers fighting totalitarianism and to liberate their adversaries from despotic leaders. 

At Camp Myles Standish in Taunton, MA, the four forged an implacable friendship based on dedication to democracy, patriotism, respect for all humanity, sacrifice, compassion, wit, music, ubiquitous conversation and a commitment to model ecumenical brotherhood. The chaplains were assigned to traverse the North Atlantic aboard the USAT Dorchester, an old, cramped transport ship – formerly a luxury liner. The Dorchester was part of a convoy that carried a mix of Army, Navy, Coast Guard and Merchant Marines, as well as civilians, over German U-boat infested waters toward a covert destination, Greenland. 

Life experience with suffering fostered empathy rather than bitterness in the four chaplains. Despite his age (41), Vermont congregation and lingering World War I injuries, Fox re-enlisted. The product of a dysfunctional family plagued by emotional distance and parental separation, Goode battled his York, PA, temple to champion alliances across religions and racial lines. Poling overcame serious childhood illness and his beloved mother’s death, as well as the shadow of a charismatic father. After raging fever nearly took his life and a bullet left his right eye permanently impaired, Washington believed he was spared to live a purposeful life. 

The four clergy were devout in their own denominational faiths, but embraced the role of the chaplain, which is to place counsel, comfort and support for their charges above theological proselytizing. Sea sicknesses and fear pervaded the crew as turbulent waters roiled the ship. At a certain point, it was apparent that dangerous U-boats shadowed the Dorchester. The chaplains prayed, comforted the sick, listened to the anxious, affirmed self-doubters, fostered morale and courage, and entertained the bored with stories, jokes, singing and activities, even organizing a talent show. Most of the crew regarded the four chaplains as a team, and were equally comfortable talking to, or attending the services of, any of them. 

Within 150 miles of the Greenland coast, on Wednesday, February 3, 1943, at 12:55 am, the Dorchester was fatally damaged by a torpedo fired by Germany’s U-223 submarine. At 1:20 am, the ship descended to its watery grave. Given the number of inexperienced men and the poor quality of abandon-ship drills, accessing life preservers and escape craft was erratic. Overcome by fear and confusion, some died clinging to the rail decks of the sinking ship. 

Coast Guard Captain Joseph Greenspun, senior convoy officer, prioritized an unsuccessful search for the U-boat that torpedoed the Dorchester and its wolfpack, delaying post-explosion rescue activities for 48 minutes. Few of those staying afloat on life preservers or clinging to the sides of rafts survived. Gurgling frigid salt water laced with oil, many choked to death. Heavy, water-logged life preservers drowned others. After 20 minutes in the freezing water, many succumbed to hypothermia. In one of the war’s worst North Atlantic tragedies, of the Dorchester’s crew of 904, 674 perished. 

From the accounts of First Sergeant Michael Warish, Private James Eardley, Second Engineer Grady Clark and other Dorchester survivors, memories of the four chaplains during the fearful, frenzied 20 minutes between the torpedoing of the Dorchester and its sinking remained indelible. The four chaplains sought to ameliorate panic by distribution of life jackets, facilitating the boarding of lifeboats and inflatable “donuts,” and, if necessary, cajoling emotionally paralyzed men to jump into the water and attempt to swim to a craft rather than go down with the Dorchester. Giving their own life jackets to others, Fox, Goode, Poling and Washington made no attempt to escape. As the ship listed, the chaplains locked arms, prayed and sang hymns before the Dorchester nosed down. Powerful swoosh and suction accompanied the sinking. 

Army first lieutenants, chaplains and patriots, Reverend George Fox, Rabbi Alexander Goode, Reverend Clark Poling and Father John Washington shared military rank, belief in humanity’s common Creator and devotion to democracy. On this Veterans Day, may their memory be a blessing. 

Lest we forget, however, many exhibited selfless bravery as the North Atlantic waters killed most of the Dorchester crew. Soldiers in other places and other times have also paid a price for their service – and still do. Agreement with past or present military policy is not a pre-requisite for respecting the sacrifices of soldiers and their families. On Veterans Day, honor those who served in your own way. It might be as simple as thanking a veteran for his or her service. 

Bill Simons is a professor emeritus at SUNY Oneonta where he continues to teach courses in American history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.