It was the evening of Feb. 2, 1943, and the U.S. Army Transport Ship Dorchester was crowded to capacity. Hans J. Danielsen, the ship's captain, was concerned and cautious. He knew they were in dangerous waters; German U-boats were constantly prowling these vital sea lanes, and several ships had already been sunk.
The Dorchester was only 150 miles from its destination, but the captain ordered the men to sleep in their clothing and keep life jackets on. Many soldiers sleeping deep in the ship's hold disregarded the order because of the engine's heat. Others ignored it because the life jackets were uncomfortable.
On Feb. 3, at 12:55 a.m., a periscope broke the chilly Atlantic waters. Through the cross hairs, an officer aboard the German submarine U-223 spotted the Dorchester and fired. One torpedo hit--striking the starboard side--far below the water line. Moments later, the Captain gave the order to abandon ship. In less than 20 minutes, the Dorchester would slip beneath the Atlantic's icy waters.
Panic and chaos had set in. Men jumped from the ship into lifeboats, over-crowding them to the point of capsizing. Through the chaos, four Army chaplains brought hope in despair and light in darkness. Those chaplains were Lt. George Fox, Methodist; Lt. Alexander Goode, Jewish; Lt. John Washington, Roman Catholic; and Lt. Clark Poling, Dutch Reformed.
Quickly and quietly, the four spread out among the soldiers. There they tried to calm the frightened, tend the wounded and guide the disoriented toward safety. One Army Private found himself floating in oil-smeared water surrounded by dead bodies and debris. "I could hear men crying, pleading, praying," He recalled. "I could also hear the chaplains preaching courage. Their voices were the only thing that kept me going."
Another sailor, PO John Mahoney tried to reenter his cabin, but Rabbi Goode stopped him. The sailor concerned about the cold Arctic air, explained he had forgotten his gloves. "Never mind," CHP Goode responded. "I have two pairs." The rabbi then gave the petty officer his own gloves. In retrospect, Mahoney realized that Rabbi Goode was not conveniently carrying two pairs of gloves, and that the rabbi had decided not to leave the Dorchester.
By this time, most of the men were topside, and the chaplains opened a storage locker and began distributing life jackets. It was then that Engineer Grady Clark witnessed an astonishing sight. When there were no more lifejackets in the storage room, the chaplains removed theirs and gave them to four frightened young men.
"It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven," said John Ladd, another survivor who saw the chaplains' selfless act. Ladd's response is understandable. The altruistic action of the four chaplains constitutes one of the purest spiritual and ethical acts a person can make. When giving their life jackets, Rabbi Goode did not call out for a Jew; Father Washington did not call out for a Catholic; nor did the Reverends Fox and Poling call out for a Protestant. They simply gave their life jackets to the next man in line.
As the ship went down, survivors in nearby rafts could see the four chaplains —arms linked and braced against the slanting deck. Their voices could also be heard offering prayers.
When the news reached American shores, the nation was stunned by the magnitude of the tragedy and heroic conduct of the four chaplains.
"Valor is a gift," Carl Sandburg once said. "Those having it never know for sure whether they have it until the test comes." That night Chaplains Fox, Goode, Poling and Washington passed life's ultimate test. In doing so, they became an enduring example of extraordinary faith, courage and selflessness.
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