In a former life that seems light years away, I served as an Army Chaplain at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. My duties included weekly preaching to recruits in a World War Two chapel that housed the beginnings of the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps Museum.
That’s where I first heard of George Fox, Alexander Goode, John Washington, and Clark Poling. Theirs are not household names, but on this Memorial Day 2018, let’s recall them with gratitude.
Even if you know the story, it’s worth remembering.
On the evening of February 2, 1943, the U.S.A.T Dorchester—a cruise liner converted to an Army transport ship—was carrying 902 service men, merchant seamen, and civilian workers across icy waters from Newfoundland to a base in Greenland. Shortly after midnight, the German submarine U-223 spotted the Dorchester through its periscope and fired three torpedoes. One strike was deadly: mid-ship, starboard side, far below the water line. The Dorchester’s fate was sealed.
Scores of men died instantly or were seriously wounded. For those that remained, chaos reigned. As they staggered to the deck, bracing themselves in an arctic wind, many panicked, throwing themselves into the frigid water rather than lifeboats.
That’s when four chaplains began ministering in the midst of tragedy: George Fox (Methodist), Alexander Goode (Jewish), John Washington (Roman Catholic), and Clark Poling (Dutch Reformed). They calmed the frightened, tended to the wounded, and guided the disoriented to safety. As they distributed life jackets from a locker on deck, the supply ran out. Calmly, each of them took off their own preservers and gave them to others.
Survivors recalled their last image of the four men. They were standing at the railing on the slanting deck, arms locked together, still offering prayers and words of courage as the ship sank to an icy grave.
One survivor, John Ladd, said, “It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven.”
Ultimately, the deaths of these chaplains are no more meaningful than the legions of unknown soldiers who lost their lives in conflict. Their heroism, remembered in chilling detail, has no more eternal value than anonymous acts of bravery lost in the sweep of death, never to be told.
Still, there is so much here that brings hope to our souls: love, self-sacrifice, and a vision of humanity than transcends divisions of religion, class, or race.
Memorial Day should never be a glorying in the death of our troops. It is meant as a deep and sober reminder of the higher values for which they died. It calls us to embody in our own lives these words from Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural address: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive…to achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
The sinking of the Dorchester cost the lives of 672 men. On January 18, 1961, President Eisenhower awarded the posthumous Special Medal for Heroism to each of the chaplains. Stringent guidelines for the Medal of Honor, requiring “heroism under fire,” prohibited that award, but the medals these families received were meant to have the same weight.
Today, as we remember men and women who died in the tragedy of human warfare, let us include George Fox, Alexander Goode, John Washington, and Clark Poling.