The Four Chaplains on the Dorchester  
 

 

Stained glass window
at the Pentagon

 

 

Stained glass windows
at West Point

 

 

 
 

In the midst of World War II, on February 3, 1943, 902 American servicemen, merchant seamen, and civilian workers were aboard the SS Dorchester, bound for a US military base in Greenland. At 12:55 AM, the ship was hit by a torpedo from a German submarine. It sank in 27 minutes, with 672 men dying in the icy waters. Among the 230 survivors, many recalled the extraordinary acts of four army chaplains on the ship: George L. Fox, a Methodist minister; Alexander D. Goode, a Jewish rabbi; Clark V. Poling, a Dutch Reformed minister; and John P. Washington, a Roman Catholic priest.

The chaplains were seen comforting the wounded, offering prayers for the dead and dying, and trying to guide people to safety. One witness, Private William Bedner, remembered when he was overboard hearing the chaplains on deck "preaching courage"--"Their voices were the only thing that kept me going." When Petty Officer John Mahoney tried to find his gloves to protect his hands against the Arctic cold, Rabbi Goode gave him his, saying, "I have two pair," though later Mahoney realized that Goode had given him his only pair. Together, the chaplains distributed life jackets from a storage locker on the deck, and when it was empty, they took off and gave away their own life jackets. Survivor John Ladd said of this, "It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven." As the ship went down, the four chaplains were seen on the slanting deck, arms linked, praying.

The story of the four chaplains became widely known, epitomizing not only selfless sacrifice but action transcending religious divisions. On May 28, 1948, a US postage stamp commemorated the chaplains and bore the words, INTERFAITH IN ACTION (--a very early use of the term interfaith in the context of positive actions across religious lines). On February 3, 1951, President Harry S. Truman dedicated the Chapel of the Four Chaplains at Temple University in Philadelphia, saying, "This interfaith shrine...[will] teach Americans that as men can die heroically as brothers so should they live together in mutual faith and good will." In January 1961, Congress authorized a Special Medal for Heroism, awarded posthumously to the four by President Dwight Eisenhower.

 
         

The Special Medal of Heroism: the names of the Four Chaplains are inscribed on the reverse. The ribbon features the blue of the Medal of Honor ribbon, symbolizing courage, with a border of black, for sacrifice.