The Immortal Chaplains of S.S. Dorchester

United States - Scott #956 (1948)
United States – Scott #956 (1948)

On February 3, 1943, the United States War Shipping Administration troop ship S.S. Dorchester was sunk in the Labrador Sea by a torpedo from a German U-boat. Of the 904 on board, 675 died. Dorchester had been sailing to Greenland as part of naval convoy SG 19 when the U-boat attacked. The loss of the ship became especially famous because of the story of the death of four Army chaplains, sometimes referred to as the “Immortal Chaplains” or the “Dorchester Chaplains”, who gave their lives to save other civilian and military personnel as the ship sank. They helped other soldiers board lifeboats and gave up their own life jackets when the supply ran out. The chaplains joined arms, said prayers, and sang hymns as they went down with the ship. Congress established February 3 as “Four Chaplains Day” to commemorate this act of heroism, and on July 14, 1960, created the Chaplain’s Medal for Heroism, presented posthumously to the next of kin of each of the chaplains by Secretary of the Army Wilber M. Brucker at Fort Myer, Virginia on January 18, 1961. The date is also also considered a Feast Day by the Episcopal Church.

The Four Chaplains of S.S. Dorchester
The Four Chaplains of S.S. Dorchester

Dorchester, one of three identical ships, the first being Chatham (torpedoed and sunk August 27, 1943) and the last being Fairfax, was built for the Merchants and Miners Transportation Company by the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company. Keel laying was September 10, 1925, with launching on March 20, 1926, and delivery on July 17, 1926. The ship was designed for the coastwise trade with a capacity for 302 first class and 12 steerage passengers for a total of 314 with a crew of 90 along the East coast between Miami and Boston. Propulsion was by a 3,000 horsepower, triple expansion steam engine supplied by four oil fired Scotch boilers with steam at 220 pounds pressure driving a single propeller for a speed of 13.5 knots (15.5 mph; 25.0 km/h).

S.S. Dorchester postcard

S.S. Dorchester postcard
Postcards picturing S.S. Dorchester of the Merchants & Miners Line

Passengers were provided three decks, two promenade decks and the boat deck, with four suites having private baths and thirty rooms with beds, ninety-eight with double berths and eight with single berths with most opening onto both the corridor and deck and all had “European style” telephones with receiver and transmitter in one handset. Public spaces included a dance pavilion and sun parlor in addition to the typical lounge and smoking rooms. Cargo of about 3,300 tons was all handled through side ports rather than deck hatches. Refrigerated spaces of 1,873 cubic feet (53.0 m³) for provisions, including ice cream storage, was provided to six compartments cooled by a 4-ton Brunswick compressor. A separate chilled pantry had 210 cubic feet (5.9 m³) of storage.

S.S. Dorchester, circa 1942
S.S. Dorchester, circa 1942

The ship was delivered by Merchants and Miners Transportation Company to the War Shipping Administration (WSA) at Baltimore on January 24, 1942, for operation by Atlantic, Gulf & West Indies Steamship Lines (Agwilines) as agent for WSA and allocated to United States Army requirements. Dorchester was converted to a troopship by Agwilines in New York, and fitted with additional lifeboats and life rafts, as well as four 20 mm guns, a 3″/50 caliber gun fore, and a 4″/50 caliber gun aft.

Dorchester entered troopship service in February 1942, crewed by many of her former officers, including her master initially, and a contingent of Navy Armed Guards to man the guns and to handle communications. The ship was neither owned nor bareboat chartered by the Army and thus not officially designated a United States Army Transport (USAT). The allocation to Army requirements, transport of Army personnel and presence of the Army administrative staff under the Transport Commander in command of embarked troops, led some to assume the ship was an Army transport.

S.S. Dorchester, during her brief service as a troopship.
S.S. Dorchester, during her brief service as a troopship.

The American writer Jack Kerouac served on Dorchester, where he befriended an African-American cook named “Old Glory,” who died when the ship sank after the torpedo attack. Kerouac would have also been on the ship during the attack, but for a telegram he received from coach Lou Little, asking him to return to Columbia University to play football.

On January 23, 1943, Dorchester left New York harbor, bound for the Army Command Base at Narsarsuaq in southern Greenland. SG-19 consisted of six ships: SS Dorchester, two merchant ships (SS Lutz and SS Biscaya) that were leased by the United States from the Norwegian government-in-exile, and their escorts, the small United States Coast Guard cutters Comanche, Escanaba (both 165 feet), and Tampa (240 feet). Dorchester was carrying the four chaplains and approximately 900 others. Most of the military personnel were not told the ship’s ultimate destination.

German World War II U Boat 534 at Birkenhead Docks, Merseyside, England. Photo taken on March 4, 2007.
German World War II U Boat 534 at Birkenhead Docks, Merseyside, England. Photo taken on March 4, 2007.

The ship’s captain, Hans J. Danielsen, had been alerted that Coast Guard sonar had detected a submarine. Because German U-boats were monitoring sea lanes and had attacked and sunk ships earlier during the war, Captain Danielsen had the ship’s crew on a state of high alert even before he received that information, ordering the men to sleep in their clothing and keep their life jackets on. “Many soldiers sleeping deep in the ship’s hold disregarded the order because of the engine’s heat. Others ignored it because the life jackets were uncomfortable.”

During the early morning hours of February 3, 1943, at 12:55, Dorchester was torpedoed by German submarine U-223. The torpedo knocked out the Dorchester’s electrical system, leaving the ship dark. Boiler power was lost and there was inadequate steam to sound the full 6-whistle signal to abandon ship. Loss of power prevented the crew from sending a radio distress signal, and no rockets or flares were launched to alert the escorts. A severe list prevented launch of some port side lifeboats, and some lifeboats capsized through overcrowding.

Panic set in among the men on board, many of them trapped below decks. The chaplains sought to calm the men and organize an orderly evacuation of the ship, and helped guide wounded men to safety. As life jackets were passed out to the men, the supply ran out before each man had one. The chaplains removed their own life jackets and gave them to others. They helped as many men as they could into lifeboats, and then linked arms and, saying prayers and singing hymns, went down with the ship.

As I swam away from the ship, I looked back. The flares had lighted everything. The bow came up high and she slid under. 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.
— Grady Clark, survivor

According to some reports, survivors could hear different languages mixed in the prayers of the chaplains, including Jewish prayers in Hebrew and Catholic prayers in Latin. Dorchester sank by the bow in about 20 minutes.. Only 230 of the 904 men aboard the ship were rescued. Life jackets offered little protection from hypothermia, which killed most men in the water. The water temperature was 34 °F (1 °C) and the air temperature was 36 °F (2 °C). By the time additional rescue ships arrived, “hundreds of dead bodies were seen floating on the water, kept up by their life jackets.”

Painting of the rescue of S.S. Dorchester survivors by USCGC Escanaba (WPG-77) on February 3, 1943, in the North Atlantic Ocean. From United States Coast Guard Historian's Office at
Painting of the rescue of S.S. Dorchester survivors by USCGC Escanaba (WPG-77) on February 3, 1943, in the North Atlantic Ocean. From United States Coast Guard Historian’s Office.

Survivors in the water were so stiff from cold they could not even grasp the cargo nets on rescue vessels. The crew of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Escanaba (WPG-77) employed a new “retriever” rescue technique whereby swimmers clad in wet suits swam to victims in the water and secured a line to them so they could be hauled onto the ship. By this method, Escanaba saved 133 men (one died later) and Comanche saved 97 men of the 904 aboard Dorchester. The sinking of Dorchester was the worst single loss of American personnel of any American convoy during World War II.

The four relatively new chaplains all held the rank of first lieutenant. They included Methodist minister the Reverend George L. Fox, Reform Rabbi Alexander D. Goode (PhD), Roman Catholic priest Father John P. Washington, and Reformed Church in America minister the Reverend Clark V. Poling. Their backgrounds, personalities, and denominations were different, although Goode, Poling and Washington had all served as leaders in the Boy Scouts of America. They met at the Army Chaplains School at Harvard University, where they prepared for assignments in the European theater, sailing on board Dorchester to report to their new assignments.

The Four Chaplains
The Four Chaplains

George L. Fox was born March 15, 1900, in Lewistown, Pennsylvania, the eldest of eight children. When he was 17, he left school and lied about his age in order to join the Army to serve in World War I. He joined the ambulance corps in 1917, assigned to Camp Newton D. Baker in Texas. On December 3, 1917, George embarked from Camp Merritt, New Jersey, and boarded the USS Huron en route to France. As a medical corps assistant, he was highly decorated for bravery and was awarded the Silver Star, Purple Heart and the French Croix de Guerre. Upon his discharge, he returned home to Altoona, where he completed high school. He entered Moody Bible Institute in Illinois in 1923. He and Isadora G. Hurlbut of Vermont were married in 1923, when he began his religious career as an itinerant preacher in the Methodist faith. He later graduated from Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, served as a student pupil in Rye, New Hampshire, and then studied at the Boston University School of Theology, where he was ordained a Methodist minister on June 10, 1934. He served parishes in Thetford, Union Village, and Gilman, Vermont, and was appointed state chaplain and historian for the American Legion in Vermont.

In 1942, Fox volunteered to serve as an Army chaplain, accepting his appointment July 24, 1942. He began active duty on August 8, 1942, the same day his son Wyatt enlisted in the Marine Corps. After Army Chaplains school at Harvard, he reported to the 411th Coast Artillery Battalion at Camp Davis. He was then reunited with Chaplains Goode, Poling and Washington at Camp Myles Standish in Taunton, Massachusetts, where they prepared to depart for Europe on board the Dorchester.

Reform Rabbi Alexander D. Goode (PhD) was born in Brooklyn, New York on May 10, 1911, the son of Rabbi Hyman Goodekowitz. He was raised in Washington, D.C., attending Eastern High School, eventually deciding to follow his father’s footsteps by studying for the rabbinate himself, at Hebrew Union College (HUC), where he graduated with a B.H. degree in 1937. He later received his PhD from Johns Hopkins University in 1940. While studying for the rabbinate at HUC, he worked at the Washington Hebrew Congregation during summer breaks.

He originally applied to become a Navy chaplain in January 1941, but was not accepted. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, he applied to the Army, receiving his appointment as a chaplain on July 21, 1942. Chaplain Goode went on active duty on August 9, 1942, and was selected for the Chaplains School at Harvard. Chaplain Goode was then assigned to the 333rd Airbase Squadron in Goldsboro, North Carolina. In October 1942, he was transferred to Camp Myles Standish in Taunton, Massachusetts, and reunited with chaplains Fox, Poling and Washington, who had been among his classmates at Harvard.

Clark V. Poling was born August 7, 1910, in Columbus, Ohio, the son of evangelical minister Daniel A. Poling, who was rebaptized in 1936 as a Baptist minister. Clark Poling studied at Yale University’s Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut and graduated with his B.D. degree in 1936. He was ordained in the Reformed Church in America, and served first in the First Church of Christ, New London, Connecticut, and then as Pastor of the First Reformed Church, in Schenectady, New York. He married Betty Jung.

With the outbreak of World War II, Poling decided to enter the Army, wanting to face the same danger as others. His father, who had served as a World War I chaplain, told him chaplains risk and give their lives, too — and with that knowledge, he applied to serve as an Army chaplain, accepting an appointment on June 10, 1942, as a chaplain with the 131st Quartermaster Truck Regiment, reporting to Camp Shelby, Hattiesburg, Mississippi, on June 25. Later he reported to Army Chaplains School at Harvard, where he would meet Chaplains Fox, Goode, and Washington.

John P. Washington was born in Newark, New Jersey on July 18, 1908. He studied at Seton Hall, in South Orange, New Jersey, to complete his high school and college courses in preparation for the Catholic priesthood. He graduated in 1931 with an A.B. Degree, entering Immaculate Conception Seminary in Darlington, New Jersey, where he received his minor orders on May 26, 1933. He served as a subdeacon at all the solemn masses and later became a deacon on December 25, 1934. He was elected prefect of his class and was ordained a priest on June 15, 1935. Father Washington’s first parish was at St. Genevieve’s, in Elizabeth, New Jersey. He later served at St. Venantius for a year. In 1938, he was assigned to St. Stephen’s in Kearny, New Jersey.

Shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack of December 7, 1941, Washington received his appointment as a chaplain in the United States Army, reporting for active duty on May 9, 1942. He was named Chief of the Chaplains Reserve Pool, in Ft. Benjamin Harrison, Indiana, and in June 1942, he was assigned to the 76th Infantry Division in Ft. George Meade, Maryland. In November 1942, he reported to Camp Myles Standish in Taunton, Massachusetts, and met Chaplains Fox, Goode and Poling at Chaplains School at Harvard.

In December 1944, the four chaplains were awarded the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross. 

Postcard depicting a mural at the Chapel for the Four Chaplains in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Postcard depicting a mural at the Chapel of the Four Chaplains in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The Chapel of the Four Chaplains was dedicated on February 3, 1951, by President Harry S. Truman to honor these chaplains of different faiths in the basement of Grace Baptist Church of Philadelphia. In his dedication speech, the President said, “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.” The Chapel dedication included a reminder that the interfaith team represented by the Four Chaplains was unusual. Although the Chapel was dedicated as an All-Faiths Chapel, no Catholic priest took part in the dedication ceremony, because, as Msgr. Thomas McCarthy of the National Catholic Welfare Conference explained to Time magazine, “canon law forbids joint worship.”

In 1972, the Grace Baptist Church congregation moved to Blue Bell and sold the building to Temple University two years later. Temple University eventually decided to renovate the building as the Temple Performing Arts Center. In February 2001, the Chapel of the Four Chaplains moved to the chapel at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.

In addition to supporting work that exemplifies the idea of Interfaith in Action, recalling the story of the Four Chaplains, the Chapel presents awards to individuals whose work reflects interfaith goals. The first time that the award went to a military chaplain team composed of a rabbi, priest, and minister was in 1984, recalling in a special way the four chaplains themselves, when the Rabbi Louis Parris Hall of Heroes Gold Medallion was presented to Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff; Catholic Priest Fr. George Pucciarelli; and Protestant Minister Danny Wheeler — the three chaplains present at the scene of the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing. The story of these three United States Navy Chaplains was itself memorialized in a Presidential speech by President Ronald Reagan, on April 12, 1984.

Chaplain's Medal for Heroism
Chaplain’s Medal for Heroism

In 1957, The American Legion, at their 39th National Convention in Atlantic City, passed a resolution asking Congress to award the Medal of Honor to the Four Chaplains; however, criteria for the Medal of Honor included “combat with the enemy.” A special medal — intended to have the same weight and importance as the Medal of Honor — was approved by the Senate in 1958, and approved by an Act of Congress on July 14, 1960 (P.L. 86-656, 74 Stat. 521).

The statute awarding the medal is listed as follows:

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the President is authorized to award posthumously appropriate medals and certificates to Chaplain George L. Fox of Gilman, Vermont; Chaplain Alexander D. Goode of Washington, District of Columbia; Chaplain Clark V. Poling of Schenectady, New York; and Chaplain John P. Washington of Arlington, New Jersey, in recognition of the extraordinary heroism displayed by them when they sacrificed their lives in the sinking of the troop transport Dorchester in the North Atlantic in 1943 by giving up their life preservers to other men aboard such transport. The medals and certificates authorized by this Act shall be in such form and of such design as shall be prescribed by the President, and shall be awarded to such representatives of the aforementioned chaplains as the President may designate.

Also known as the Chaplain’s Medal of Honor and the Chaplain’s Medal for Heroism, its design commemorates the actions of the Four Chaplains who gave their lives in the line of duty on February 3, 1943. The medal was designed by Thomas Hudson Jones (1892–1969) of the United States Army Institute of Heraldry. It was presented posthumously to their next of kin by Secretary of the Army Wilber M. Brucker at Fort Myer, Virginia, on January 18, 1961.

The Four Chaplains have been depicted on several stained-glass windows in churches throughout the United States.
The Four Chaplains have been depicted on several stained-glass windows in churches throughout the United States.

The Immortal Chaplains Foundation was incorporated in October 1997 as a Minnesota non-profit corporation. The original concept for the Foundation was from David Fox, nephew of Chaplain George Fox, and Rosalie Goode Fried, the daughter of Chaplain Alexander Goode. The organization’s goal is “to honor individuals, both past and present, whose lives exemplify the compassion of the four ‘Immortal Chaplains’ and who have risked all to protect others of different faith or ethnicity.” The group presents an annual “Prize for Humanity,” “to broaden national and international awareness of the legacy of the four ‘Immortal Chaplains,'” “to inspire youth to the values of the four ‘Immortal Chaplains,'” and “to find new partners and ways to tell this story and preserve the legacy.” At the 1999 Award Ceremony, held in Minnesota, South African Bishop Desmond Tutu helped present Prizes for Humanity that included posthumous awards for Amy Biehl, an American Stanford University student and Fulbright scholar who was stabbed to death in South Africa while working to establish a Legal Education Center; and Charles W. David, an African-American Coast Guardsman on board the Coast Guard Cutter Comanche, who rescued many of the Dorchester survivors, later dying from pneumonia as a result of his efforts. Unfortunately, the establishment of the Immortal Chaplains Foundation included some controversy, when The Chapel of Four Chaplains sued Fox to prevent him and his new group from using the phrase “The Four Chaplains” or the image of them that appeared on the U.S. postage stamp.

Four Chaplains Monument, Ann Arbor, Michigan by Carlton W. Angell.
Four Chaplains Monument, Ann Arbor, Michigan by Carlton W. Angell.

In 1998, February 3 of that year was established by senate resolution 169-98 as “Four Chaplains Day” to commemorate the 55th anniversary of the sinking of Dorchester and subsequent heroism of these men. Ceremonies and services are held by numerous military and civilian groups and organizations. Some state or city officials commemorate the day with official proclamations, sometimes including the order that flags fly at half-mast in memory of the fallen chaplains. In some cases, official proclamations establish observances at other times: for example, North Dakota legislation requests that the Governor issue an annual proclamation establishing the first Sunday in February as “Four Chaplains Sunday.” Civitan International, a worldwide volunteer association of service clubs, holds an interfaith Clergy Appreciation Week every year. The event honors the sacrifice of the Four Chaplains by encouraging citizens to thank the clergy that serve their communities. The First Parish Church (Unitarian Universalist) in Dorchester, Massachusetts, hosts an ecumenical “Service of the Four Chaplains” each January. The American Legion commemorates the day through services and programs at many posts throughout the nation.

The day is also observed as a feast day on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America.

On February 14, 2002, as part of the annual award of the Immortal Chaplains Prize for Humanity, a special reconciliation meeting took place between survivors of both the American and German sides of the sinking of the Dorchester. Kurt Röser and Gerhard Buske, who had been part of the crew of the German U-boat that had torpedoed the Dorchester met with three survivors of the sinking, Ben Epstein, Walter Miller, and David Labadie, as well as Dick Swanson, who had been on board the Coast Guard Cutter Comanche, escorting the Dorchester‘s convoy.

The Four Chaplains Monument at St. Stephen's Church in Kearny, New Jersey. Photo taken on July 17, 2017.
The Four Chaplains Monument at St. Stephen’s Church in Kearny, New Jersey. St. Stephen’s was Father Washington’s last assignment before he joined the Army. On the 70th Anniversary of the sinking of the Dorchester, this statue was dedicated. The front shows the four men, arms locked, praying on the stern of the Dorchester, and the back is an angel, carrying four lifejackets for the men. Photo taken on July 17, 2017.

In 2006, The American Legion, at their 88th National Convention in Salt Lake City, passed a new resolution in support of awarding the Medal of Honor to the Four Chaplains. On February 3, 2011, the Library of Congress Veterans History Project and the United States Navy Memorial co-hosted a special program at the Memorial, in Washington, D.C.

The Jewish Chaplains Monument at Arlington National Cemetery’s Chaplains’ Hill was dedicated on October 24, 2011. The monument honors 14 Jewish chaplains who died during their military service. The monument is a granite upright with a bronze plaque, similar to the three other monuments at the site honoring Catholic, Protestant and World War I chaplains. Rabbi Goode’s name is the first listed on the plaque. The Jewish Chaplains Monument was approved by the United States Congress in May 2011, and the monument itself, designed by Debora Jackson of Long Island, New York, was reviewed and approved by the U.S. Fine Arts Commission on June 16, 2011. The dedication ceremony was held in Arlington’s Memorial Amphitheater. The ceremony was attended by Ernie Heaton, who survived the Dorchester sinking, and Richard Swanson who was on the Coast Guard rescue team.

United States - Scott #956 (1948) first day cover, Artmaster cachet
United States – Scott #956 (1948) first day cover, Artmaster cachet

Scott #956 was released on May 28, 1948, in Washington, D.C., to honor the four chaplains. Designed by Louis Schwimmer, the head of the Art Department of the New York branch of the United States Post Office Department, the stamp is highly unusual because until 2011, U.S. stamps were not normally issued in honor of someone other than a President of the United States until at least ten years after his or her death.

Unreleased design for the 1948 Four Chaplains stamp issue; photo essay
Unreleased design for the 1948 Four Chaplains stamp issue; photo essay
Unreleased design for the 1948 Four Chaplains stamp issue; photo essay.
Unreleased design for the 1948 Four Chaplains stamp issue; photo essay.

The stamp design went through three revisions before the final design was chosen. None of the names of the chaplains were included on the stamp, nor were their faiths (although the faiths had been listed on one of the earlier designs): instead, the words on the stamp were These Immortal Chaplains…Interfaith in Action. Another phrase included in an earlier design that was not part of the final stamp was “died to save men of all faiths.” By the omission of their names, the stamp commemorated the event, rather than the individuals per se, thus obfuscating the ten-year rule in the same way as did later stamps honoring Neil Armstrong in 1969 and Buzz Aldrin in 1994.

The 3-cent gray black stamp was printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing on the rotary press, perforated 11 x 10½. There were 121,953,500 copies of the Four Chaplains stamp released in panes of 50.

United States - Scott #956 (1948) used on 2015 Veterans Day cover marking the sinking of the Dorchester.
United States – Scott #956 (1948) used on 2015 Veterans Day cover marking the sinking of the Dorchester.

United States Flag 1912-1959

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