The Four Chaplains

Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. – John 15:13

On a frigid February 3, 1943, the US troop ship Dorchester was sailing through rough seas in a convoy out of Newfoundland bound for Greenland.  They were about 150 miles off the coast.  Down in the old converted cruise ship’s stifling hold, 4 US chaplains circulated among the frightened young men, some lying wide-eyed in their bunks, others nervously playing cards or shooting dice.  Chatting with the troops, the chaplains eased tensions, calmed fears and passed out soda crackers to alleviate seasickness.

The troops anxiously looked forward to reaching Greenland the next day.  They knew that U-boats prowled their ship’s course.  They did not know that by morning nearly 3/4s of them would be dead, and that the rest would have their lives changed forever.  Nor did they know the magnificent way in which these four chaplains would minister to them.

Father John Washington was from a big Irish Catholic immigrant family in NJ.  At age 12, near death from a throat infection, he was given last rites.  Miraculously he recovered.  He told his sister: “God must have something special for me to do.” 

Alexander Goode came from a long line of rabbis.  He remembered standing in Arlington National Cemetery at age 10 watching through tear-filled eyes the Unknown Soldier being laid to rest.  After Pearl Harbor he left his temple in York, PA, requesting overseas duty.

Clark Poling, a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church, had turned down a law career to carry on his family’s 7-generation heritage of religious service.  “Don’t pray for my safe return,” he told his father before embarking on the Dorchester.  “Pray that I do my duty.”

“Old man” of the four was George Fox, who had received the Silver Star, Purple Heart and France’s Croix de Guerre in WWI.  On returning home, he entered seminary.  Ordained a Methodist minister, he served a circuit of small Vermont churches until 12/7/41. “I must go,” he told his wife. “I know what these boys are facing.”

Empathy with the troops came naturally to the four chaplains. They became highly popular, mixing easily with all faiths, counseling, organizing entertainment and praying.

The ship carried a crew of approximately 150 crew and 700 soldiers and passengers.  About 12:55 am on a frigid morning, a German submarine, lurking in the shipping lane struck the Dorchester with a single torpedo.  The explosion ripped a large whole in the hull, stopped the engines, and caused a list.  Within 3 minutes, the captain gave the order, “Abandon ship!”  Just 2 of 14 lifeboats got away as the ship rolled over and went down, bow first, in water 11,000 feet deep.

Survivors remember blackness and panic.  Silhouettes darted about with flashlights.  The Dorchester’s steam whistle could barely summon strength to blow abandon ship.  Lifeboats overfilled and sank.  Men froze in fear, hanging onto the deck railing with a death grip.

Jolted from their bunks, the men clambered to the deck and found 4 Army chaplains—2 Protestant ministers, a Catholic priest and a rabbi—distributing the last of the life jackets.

The 4 finally stripped off their own jackets to save others, and, the survivors said, then linked arms and bowed their heads prayerfully as the ship disappeared beneath the waves.

The chaplains—the Rev George Fox (Methodist), Rabbi Alexander Goode (Jewish), Clark Poling (Reformed) and the Rev. John Washington (Roman Catholic)—gave up their life jackets, and lives, to save others on the ship.

Walter Miller, one of the Dorchester survivors, remembers floating free on a lifeboat and looking back at darkened figures massed on deck.  “We could hear, from a distance, many voices saying the Lord’s Prayer.  The more voices, the more it echoed over the water.”

Our Father who art in heaven,

hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come.

Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread,

and forgive us our trespasses,

as we forgive those who trespass against us,

and lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the Kingdom, and the Power and the glory forever, Amen.

James Eardley, another survivor, recalls the Dorchester later laying flat on its side with its keel half out of the water.  On the keel, he said, stood four men he presumed to be the chaplains.  “And they were holding hands—one, two, three, four, all in a row.”

Other survivors wrote: “I saw all 4 chaplains taking off their life belts and giving them to soldiers who had none.”

“They were praying and talking with the men.”

“They stood near the rail praying for those already in the water as the ship went under.”

“I think their names should be on a list of the greatest heroes of the war.”

The strongest eyewitness account came shortly after the war from a merchant seaman, Hugh Moffett, a former NYC policeman, now deceased:

“I moved toward my position, elbowing through a confused mass of soldiers.  In the center of the deck were four Army officers standing in a semi-circle… A soldier wandered into their midst.  He was in a daze.  His lifeboat was out of commission and he couldn’t find a life belt.  He looked blankly at the chaplains and started moving off.

“Father Washington grabbed him by the arm.  With his free hand, he unhooked his own life preserver and slipped it over the head of the soldier.

“God bless you, Father,’ the soldier mumbled and moved off toward the railing.

“Other soldiers minus life belts, wandering helplessly on the deck of the sinking vessel, were also stopped; and in the space of a minute Dr. Fox, Dr. Poling and Rabbi Goode had all taken off their own life preservers and strapped them on the backs of soldiers who needed them…Even after the padres were out of my sight, I could hear their voices, loud and firm in prayer.”

These are just a few of many statements in affidavits sent to the US Army by survivors.

Only 2 lifeboats and a few rafts were launched before the ship began to go down by the bow. The Dorchester sank in just 20 minutes.

Their sacrifice was captured in a large mural depicting the terror and confusion of those last minutes and the icy waters of the North Atlantic closed in around them.

More than 600 people lost their lives, mostly to hypothermia.  US Coast Guard cutters escorting the convoy rescued about 180 people.

The four chaplains were posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross.  “Their calm attitude and sacrifice were later acknowledged by Congress, which voted to award them a medal of heroism,” Robert M. Browning Jr. wrote in US Merchant Vessel War Casualties of World War II.

After the war Baptist Temple’s Rev. Daniel J. Poling of Philadelphia, father of Clark Poling, along with the church, founded the Chapel of the Four Chaplains, with its headquarters on the lower floor at the Baptist Temple building on North Broad, the building now on Temple campus.  President Harry S. Truman dedicated the chapel in 1951.

YouTube video of the 1951 dedication by President Truman:  As the newscaster states:  There is no other monument to the brotherhood of man so symbolic of the American ideals. 

For 40 years, the Chapel of 4 Chaplains was on the lower floor of the Baptist Temple, on N Broad Street.  It commemorated the sacrifice of George Fox, Clark Poling, Johnny Washington and Alexander Goode. The mural in its sanctuary had been the focus of countless services and ceremonies promoting interfaith brotherhood.  The original memorial had granite arches and rich oak woodwork in the chapel.  It consisted of Protestant, Catholic and Jewish altars on the revolving platform.  The revolving altars was a unique feature of the chapel.

The chapel migrated from the Baptist Temple building, where it was founded, which is now part of  Temple University Campus, to a temporary home near Valley Forge to a chapel in the old Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, where it resides today.

Plaques name the 672 soldiers and civilians who died when the Dorchester sank.  A portion of the memorial reads, “Lord God of hosts be with us yet, lest we forget—lest we forget.”

Truman, in a 1947 letter endorsing a memorial to the four chaplains, wrote:  “Alas, the world today needs that example of toleration….It is a sad commentary that we as Americans found it easier to die together on the battlefields of the world than to live together in peace and good will here at home.”

So how did our church decide to build The Four Chaplains?  The church had been in discussions to build a memorial to Rev. Russell H. Conwell, who was an influential long-time well-known pastor, orator, and who, along with the church, founded Temple University.  Then, the current pastor, Dr. Daniel A. Poling lost his son, Clark, in the icy waters off Greenland.  The concept of the memorial to the four chaplains was born of that grief, the gratitude of the church for the sons they sent to war, the loss, the sacrifice.

About Dr. Daniel A. Poling (Pastor of Baptist Temple 1936-1948)

If Baptist Temple were ever to regain the status that it had in previous years, the Pulpit committee felt the need of a world known figure.  The church found such a person in Dr. Daniel Poling.  He was editor of the “Christian Herald” and had a radio program in NYC.  The problem was that he was the pastor of a church of another denomination, the Marble Collegiate Church.  This did not dissuade the committee.  A letter, stating the interest of the committee, was sent to Dr. Poling, as he was on a worldwide trip, and was at that moment, in Hong Kong.  The letter not only asked if he were interested, but was he theologically conservative?  Would he accept the Baptist principle?  Would he accept the church covenant?  Would he be immersed?  His reply satisfied the Pulpit Committee and he began his ministry with an ecumenical flair.

Dr. Poling was elected President of the International Society of Christian Endeavor and upon the death of Dr. Francis E. Clark, founder of Christian Endeavor, became the President of the World Christian Endeavor Union as well in 1927.

In the area of journalism, Dr. Poling was the author of 22 books and 300 annual book reviews.  In later years, he was in the Chaplains Reserve and filled special missions in the various theaters of WWII.  Public honors included the War Department’s citation for work as war correspondent in the European theater, citations and plaques from B’nai B’rith, the American Legion and the American Federation of Labor.  He wore the Silver Buffalo, the national award of the Boy Scouts and the Cross of the Huguenot Society.

In 6 overseas war missions he visited all active theaters, traveling by air more than 150,000 miles.  President Roosevelt referred to him as “America’s Spiritual Ambassador for good will.”  He served as one of the 9 members of the President’s Civilian Advisory Commission on universal military training.

Dr. Poling urged the congregation to consider establishing new churches in the Philadelphia area.  The idea was enthusiastically endorsed.  Because of this emphasis, the work was begun which ultimately led to the formation of 2 new churches:  Conwell Memorial of Mayfair and Conwell Memorial of West Oak Lane both of which were dedicated in 1941. 

During the tragic days of WWII nearly 200 men of the congregation became involved in the conflict.  Often Dr. Poling would meet one of these men abroad and upon occasions would visit the home of families to bring greetings from a son.  

One of the most lasting accomplishments of Dr. Poling’s ministry began in the mind of the pastor in the early days of WWII, as a memorial to Dr. Conwell.  Before such a memorial became a church project; however, came the news of the untimely death of Dr. Poling’s son, Clark Vandersall Poling.  Clark was one of four chaplains; one Catholic, one Jewish, and 2 Protestants who drowned when the USAT Dorchester was sunk by the Germans in the North Atlantic on February 3, 1943.  This heroic action by the 4 chaplains of giving their life jackets to others changed the direction of the memorial.

Dr. Poling then conceived the plan of an ecumenical Chapel, with a revolving altar of 3 sides – one representing the Jewish faith containing the Torah, another the Catholic faith, the third the Protestant faith, similar to that used in the Armed Forces.


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