Chaplain Corps History: The Four Chaplains

By Paul StampsFebruary 3, 2020

The Four Chaplains
(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

When the U.S. Army Transport Dorchester was torpedoed by German submarines on Feb. 3, 1943, four U.S. Army Chaplains offered aid to the hundreds of men aboard the transport ship, sacrificing their own lives as the ship sank.

Lt. George L. Fox, a Methodist minister; Lt. Alexander D. Goode, a Jewish Rabbi; Lt. John P. Washington, a Roman Catholic Priest; and Lt. Clark V. Poling, a Dutch Reformed minister, collectively, are known as the "Four Chaplains".

The Dorchester was carrying 902 servicemen, merchant seamen and civilians on a transport mission across the North Atlantic when it was struck by a German torpedo. The attack punctured the hull and disrupted the ship's electrical system, forcing the crew to evacuate in darkness.

Amid the chaos, the chaplains helped guide the wounded and panicking men to safety. Life jackets were in short supply, and the chaplains removed their own jackets and gave them to others. They helped as many men as possible into the lifeboats, and then linked arms on the ship's deck, singing hymns and prayers as the ship sank into the sea.

U.S. Army Chaplain Corps historian, Dr. Mark W. Johnson, reflected on the heroism displayed by the four chaplains:

"The chaplains remained on the Dorchester not due to panic or fear, but rather because they made the conscious decision to do so, attempting to calm, inspire, and assist others--even though by doing so they were knowingly sealing their fates. It is a testament to the chaplains' impact in those final moments that so many of the survivors later noted this ministry of presence. When searching for an inspirational example of chaplains at war, look no further: in the storied history of the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps, the Four Chaplains stand out as exemplars of selflessness and devotion to the needs of others. Their courage has been equaled by few, exceeded by none."

For their actions, the men were posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross. Later, Congress authorized a one-time only Special Medal for Heroism that was awarded to the next of kin by President Eisenhower on January 18, 1961.

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