The Four Chaplains – A Commentary

Iā€™m touched by the story of The Four Chaplains. By the heroism, the sacrifice and the amazing constellation of circumstance that brought these four men together. At that hour. At that place. What are the odds that four friends – clergy of four different faiths — would be together when on that dark night, a torpedo changed the world for them.

Let me ask. Do you think the fellow who got priest’s life jacket was first asked ā€œare you Catholic?ā€  Do you think the rabbi inquired – “are you Jewish?” Or the Methodist or Reformed Church pastors asked- “are you Methodist? Reformed?” I suspect not. Four men died so that four men could live. John 15:13 states “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

Could it be that there is a higher message? When these four heroes died, what was important was saving the life of a fellow human being. Knowing that they were sacrificing their own. Might God’s benevolence be similar? Is the criteria for salvation that one be Methodist? Lutheran? Catholic? Jewish? Episcopalian? I’m just askin’. . . .

The Four Chaplains

On January 23, 1943, the SS Dorchester set sail from New York en route to Greenland. The Dorchester carried 900 civilian and military personnel as part of a convoy of three ships. During the early morning hours of February 3, 1943, the ship was torpedoed by the German submarine U-223 off the coast of Newfoundland. Four chaplains were on board: George L. Fox (Methodist minister); Alexander D. Goode (Jewish Rabbi); John P. Washington (Catholic Priest); and Clark V. Poling (Reformed Church Minister). The four had met at the Army Chaplains School at Harvard University. All had served as leaders of the Boy Scouts of America.

As the ship began to sink, the Chaplains helped organize the evacuation of the ship, they hurried men into the lifeboats and when the supply of life jackets ran out, the Four Chaplains each gave theirs – to another. As the bow began to raise, the Four Chaplains linked arms and began praying and singing hymms. A survivor – Grady Clark – said “As I swam away from the ship, I looked back. . . The last thing I saw – the Four Chaplains were up there praying for the safety of the men. They had done everything they could. I did not see them again. They themselves did not have a chance without their life jackets.”

The story was received back in America with considerable emotion. Each of the Four Chaplains was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Purple Heart. They were nominated for the Medal of Honor but were found technically ineligible as their deaths did not occur in combat.

On May 28, 1948, a stamp was issued to honor the legacy of the Four Chaplains. I still have my stamp collection and my examples of this iconic stamp.

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