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Legion members remember four chaplains
Written by Mark Lineberger   
Wednesday, 09 February 2011 00:00

Chaplain George L. Fox, a Methodist ministerIt may have been Super Bowl Sunday, but for dozens of people in Camp Verde, there was a much more important event earlier that day.

They filled up the hall at the American Legion David C. Johnson Post No. 93 to remember a tragedy and the inspirational story that came out of it.

The USAT Dorchester left port in New York on Jan. 23, 1943. The ship, a converted civilian liner pressed into military service in the midst of World War II, was an army transport carrying more than 900 men bound for Greenland.

The Atlantic can be a treacherous place, even more so in those days when enemy submarines patrolled the waters looking for ripe targets. The Dorchester left as part of a convoy with two other transports and three U.S. Coast Guard cutters, the Comanche, the Escanaba and the Tampa.

Chaplain Alexander D. Goode, a Jewish rabbiIn the early morning hours of Feb. 3, 1943, a wartime sailor’s worst fear came to pass. At 12:55 a.m., as the Dorchester was sailing off the coast of Newfoundland, the ship took a direct torpedo hit from the German submarine U-223. The strike was well below the water line, and within 30 minutes, the Dorchester sunk. It’s what happened in those 30 minutes that drew veterans, their friends, families and supporters to the legion Sunday.

Image courtesy of the Four Chaplains Memorial FoundationOn board the Dorchester were four chaplains of different denominations and faiths, four men who had been classmates at the Army Chaplain School at Harvard.

They were George Fox, a Methodist; Alexander Goode, a Jewish rabbi; John Washington, a Roman Catholic priest; and Clark Poling, a minister with the Dutch Reformed Church.

The torpedo knocked out electricity to the boat, leaving the men panicked and scrambling for their lives in the dark. An order was given for the men to sleep in their life jackets, but many ignored it.

Chaplain Clark V. Poling, a minister with the Dutch Reformed Church“Through all this pandemonium, four chaplains brought hope to despair and light to the darkness,” said Sharon Doran, vice president of the American Legion Auxiliary Department of Arizona.

Doran said survivors later recounted it was the voices of the chaplains in the darkness that kept them going. They did their best to keep the men calm and helped to pass out life jackets. When the life jackets were gone, the chaplains gave their own life jackets to the next men in line. As the deck tilted ever more severely, the four chaplains linked arms and spoke the Lord’s Prayer as the sea swallowed the Dorchester once and for all.

Chaplain John P. Washington, a Roman Catholic priestOf the 902 men on board, only 230 were rescued.

As the story of the four chaplains spread, people looked for a way to properly honor the men posthumously. At first, the Medal of Honor was discussed, Auxiliary First Vice President Sue Hand said. However, that wasn’t possible due to the strict requirements of courage “under fire” in order to be awarded the medal.

Rick Brenfleck, a past commander of the Sons of the American Legion Post 93, lights a candle to honor the memory of Lt. Clark Poling, one of four chaplains who died while helping other soldiers aboard the USAT Dorchester in 1943. The American Legion Post 93 held its annual ceremony to honor the men’s bravery Sunday, Feb. 6.Congress instead created a new medal, the Chaplain’s Medal for Heroism, an honor Hand said was intended to carry almost the same weight as a Medal of Honor.

“It’s vital to understand what selfless service on behalf of others can accomplish,” Hand said.

The ceremony continued with men lighting candles next to a portrait of each of the chaplains before reading their biographies and placing a single rose in honor of each one. Emotion was evident on the faces of the candle-lighters as they snapped off a salute in each chaplain’s memory.

While those four men never made it out of the world-spanning conflict alive, many others did. Nine World War II veterans were present at the ceremony Sunday and were singled out with appreciation for the service they gave nearly seven decades ago.

Post No. 93 Cmdr. Tom Dimock went a step further and challenged these veterans to write down their memories of their wartime experiences so they could be shared in the legion’s newsletter.

A rifle salute was fired in honor of the chaplains and the men who died in service of their country and fellow man, followed by the playing of taps.

“They gave their lives in brotherhood,” post Chaplain Rosalie McKnight.


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