Editor’s note: Today’s column is excerpted from Norris’ book, “Hero’s Highway.”
Fortunately, I retired from the Air Force chaplaincy without ever coming close to giving my life for my country. But I always prayed that if that day were to come, I would follow the courageous tradition of the “Four Chaplains” of World War II.
Their story begins in 1943 on board the USS Dorchester, a 5,649-ton luxury liner converted into a U.S. Army troopship. Heavy with more than 900 men, the ship fell behind its escort off the Greenland coast.
Gale-force winds made for a nauseating voyage, according to later reports. Fortunately, among those doing their best to alleviate the discomfort were four chaplains: Father John Washington, the Rev. Clark Poling, Rabbi Alexander Goode and the Rev. George Fox.
Like a lot of chaplains on ships, they pulled double duty as activity directors. They organized sing-alongs and talent shows, but mostly they took confessions and held worship services, no matter what their faith.
On the evening of Feb. 2, 1943, the ship’s captain, concerned over the sightings of three enemy submarines, instructed passengers to wear life jackets to bed. Deep in the ship, the engine heat and overwhelming claustrophobia made it too uncomfortable for those sleeping in the lower decks to follow the order.
On Feb. 3 at 12:55 a.m., as the Dorchester approached Greenland, a German periscope sliced through the icy Atlantic waters. An officer aboard the submarine U-223 gave orders to fire a fan of three torpedoes. One decisive hit on the Dorchester’s starboard side below the water line killed scores in a searing flash of flames.
Troops, some dressed only in their underwear, clambered on deck. Among them were the four chaplains: two Protestant pastors, a Catholic priest and a Jewish rabbi. Survivors would later recall these men of faith seeking to calm the passengers and organize them into lifeboats.
When the chaplains saw many were without life vests, they dug around and found extras to give to the men. They instructed the soldiers to pray as they abandoned their ship and imbued them with courage to remain steadfast in their purpose.
Eventually, the chaplains discovered that there just weren’t enough life jackets. With the supply depleted, each chaplain removed his own vest and gave it to another man.
The following information comes from the vantage point of those who made it into the lifeboats.
“I could hear men crying, pleading, praying,” a soldier named William B. Bednar recalled. “I could also hear the chaplains preaching courage. Their voices were the only thing that kept me going.”
It is said that in the light of the fiery oil, the chaplains were seen standing arm in arm on the ship’s deck, leading an interfaith service. Eighteen minutes after the torpedo hit, the Dorchester rolled into the Labrador Sea on its starboard side.
In the most published quote of the tragedy, survivor John Ladd called the chaplains’ steadfastness as “the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven.”
It would be the third largest U.S. maritime loss during World War II: 672 men died on the Dorchester, most from hypothermia. Only 230 men saw the sun rise in Greenland.
When the nephew of Chaplain Fox, David Fox-Benton, interviewed Dorchester survivors in the 1990s, the ship’s first sergeant, Michael Warish recalled of the four chaplains: “These men were always together. They carried their faith together. Remember, this was 1943. Protestants didn’t talk to Catholics back then, let alone either of them talk to a Jew.”
A Memorial Day eulogy 60 years later repeated the sentiment when it recalled the chaplains’ act as “Despair caught in hope’s grasp. Four chaplains. Two faiths. One God.”
The chaplains were ineligible for the Medal of Honor since they were never under “direct fire.” Therefore, Congress created a special medal in 1960 that praised the chaplains for their “selfless acts of courage, compassion and faith.” The award was called the “Chaplain’s Medal for Heroism,” and it can never be awarded again.
Fortunately, I was never a candidate for such an award. Like most of today’s combat veterans, I came home from war on a chartered plane. So I tell this story this Memorial Day weekend to honor those who didn’t make it home on ships or planes.
Consider it a message from those of us who enjoyed our families’ welcoming embrace to those families who never celebrated the joyous return of their loved one.
We pledge to you that we will always remember our heroes.