The Dorchester Chaplains, Models of Faith in Action

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If I heard someone start off a sentence with a priest, a rabbi, and two Protestant ministers meeting somewhere or going somewhere together, I would probably expect a funny story to ensue. After all, many such jokes have them walking into a bar where something funny happens. Today’s commemoration, however, is of a very different sort. Even though it involves a priest, a rabbi, a Methodist minister, and a Dutch reformed clergyman, there’s no funny story, just one of courage, and a sense of duty, honor, and obedience to the lessons of Jesus.

 

On the night of February 2, 1943, the four ministers were on board a naval ship, the USS Dorchester, as part of a small convoy heading through the dangerous waters of the North Atlantic from Newfoundland to Greenland. It was a dangerous route, one known for its deadly qualities, caused by Nazi submarines which had already accounted for many ships being sunk in that area. Even though they were close to their destination, only about 150 miles away, the danger was still very high. During the night, a Nazi sub surfaced and fired a fan volley of three torpedoes. The other ships were missed, but the Dorchester took one below the waterline and amidships, a fatal wound for the ship, which soon began to fill with water.

 

The crew scrambled to get to the main deck and escape the fast-filling water inside the hull. Some jumped overboard and swam to lifeboats, sometimes overcrowding them almost to the point of capsizing. It was a night of confusion and quite often panic, although fortunately two ships managed to pick up many survivors from the waters. Still on board the Dorchester were many sailors, including four clergymen, who encouraged their shipmates to be calm, and who went about comforting and assuring the frightened and freezing sailors still on board. They found a locker that still contained some life preservers, so they handed them out until there were no more. At that time, the brave four took off their own lifejackets and gave them to the sailors.

 

People in lifeboats looked back at the ship and saw the four standing on the deck, speaking the word of God and praying together as the waters rose quickly to submerge them. It was an unbelievable moment, and one that stuck in the minds of many of the survivors who witnessed what was happening.

 

Jesus taught that “greater love hath no man than that he give up his life for his friends (John 15:13).” There been many examples through history, both Christian and non-Christian, and those people have been honored for their sacrifice of themselves for a greater purpose, to save the lives of others. Martyrs are those who give up their lives for their faith, but there are also those who give up their lives for their fellow man regardless of religion. The chaplains gave up their life vests, recognizing that this meant certain death for themselves, without asking what religion or faith the recipients followed. They simply handed over the lifejackets with the devout hope that it would save the lives of at least four people. It must have been hard to face their own mortality in a moment like that and yet they did it, seemingly without reservation or consideration. They simply remembered what they believed that God expected, and they followed those beliefs unto death.

 

They were not given a Medal of Honor for their gallantry to the death because technically they were not under enemy fire, although the sinking was the result of enemy fire. Instead, they were posthumously given an award created especially for the four of them, an award that would never be duplicated but which would be equal in respect to the Medal of Honor. It was called the Special Medal for Heroism and was awarded in 1961 nearly 20 years after their deaths. Yet they are not remembered for their medals, however. Instead it is for their faith, compassion, and example that they are honored today.

 

I should remember, the next time I hear a story that starts out with “Four men walked …,” that there is not always a joke that comes afterwards, especially when the four men are members of different religious groups or clergy of different denominations or even faiths. These four men walked out onto a deck that was sinking. They stood their ground, they did what they could do to help others, and they exhibited a desire to show the love of God to all under dire circumstances. Their bravery was incredible, and their courage and faith deserved and continues to deserve remembrance.

 

This week I think I will be remembering the Dorchester chaplains in my reflections. I may not be the one who goes down with the ship after having helped others to escape certain death, but I can learn to man the metaphoric life preserver locker and pass out words of life, words that would help others who are struggling and afraid. The faith of all four was in the same God, and so it is a reminder how important faith is and how obedience to God can make such a big difference.

God bless the memories of Lt. George L. Fox (Methodist), Lt. Alexander D Goode (Rabbi), Lt. John P. Washington (Roman Catholic priest), and Lt. Clark V. Polling (Dutch Reformed). May they rest in peace and rise in glory and be seated at the right hand of the Father in glory.

 

God bless.

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