Four Immortal Chaplains: America remembers the interfaith sacrifice of 1943

“This interfaith shrine… will stand through long generations to teach Americans that as men can die heroically as brothers so should they live together in mutual faith and goodwill.”
President Truman, in a dedication ceremony for the Chapel of the Four Chaplains

Black-and-white stamp of Four Immortal Chaplains

This U.S. postage stamp was issued in honor of the Four Immortal Chaplains, in 1948. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 2 and MONDAY, FEBRUARY 3: As millions gather in front of their televisions to take in the Super Bowl, “legends” of a different variety will be recognized in churches, by the American Legion and by interfaith activists who recall this true story of heroism known as the Four Immortal Chaplains.

On February 3, 1943, an Army transport ship known as the Dorchester was hit by a German torpedo, carrying hundreds of soldiers en route to serve in World War II. Aboard the ship, four chaplains of differing faiths—Roman Catholic, Jewish, Methodist and the Reformed Church of America—made history that night as they provided serenity and selfless assistance to the frenzied soldiers on board. In the end, they made an ultimate sacrifice, and surviving soldiers report a final vision of the four chaplains, linking arms in prayer as the ship sank. Memorials take place throughout the country on Feb. 3, and today—the first Sunday in February—has been deemed Four Chaplains Sunday.

The Dorchester, a civilian cruise ship, was converted for military service in World War II. Following conversion, the ship held more than 900 passengers and crew. The U.S.A.T. Dorchester left New York on January 23, 1943, departing for a destination unbeknownst to most on board. It was during the earliest morning hours of February 3 that the ship—as it was tossed amid the crashing, icy waves off the coast of Greenland—was hit by a German torpedo. (Wikipedia has details.) The ship immediately went dark, and sailors clamored in the night to find life jackets. The ship was sinking quickly; within 20 minutes, it would be swallowed by the sea.

During the 20 minutes between the attack and the ship’s sinking, the four Army chaplains on board earned their place in history. The men began preaching courage, offering prayers and leading the men to evacuation points. When life jackets ran out, the chaplains gave the vests off their backs to other soldiers and passengers. (Learn more from the Immortal Chaplains Foundation.) As the ship sank, the four chaplains—George L. Fox, Alexander D. Goode, Clark V. Poling and John P. Washington—joined arms, praying different hymns and languages to their common God.

PURPLE HEART, A STAMP AND A CHAPEL

The four chaplains were posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and Distinguished Service Cross. In 1948, February 3 was deemed Four Chaplains Day. (A first-class stamp was issued in their honor that same year.) Three years later, President Truman dedicated a chapel to the chaplains, and in 1960, a Congressional Medal of Valor was created and presented to the chaplains’ next of kin. Stained glass windows of the men still exist in a number of chapels across the country—and at the Pentagon—and each year, American Legions posts nationwide continue to honor the Four Chaplains with memorial services. (Learn more here.) The Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation continues to honor those who exemplify the heroic traits of the Four Chaplains, promoting “unity without uniformity.”

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