“The Four Chaplains” to be Honored by Wreaths Across America

painting of The Four Chaplains in uniform

February 3 marks the 79th anniversary of the sinking of the U.S.A.T. Dorchester, and Four Chaplains Day, established by Congress in 1988, commemorates the four military chaplains whose aid, comfort, and self-sacrifice as the ship went down have become legendary. To honor and remember the tragic and heroic events of that day Wreaths Across America—an organization dedicated to sharing the stories of U.S. veterans from the Revolutionary War to today—is hosting a special Facebook Live event this Thursday at noon, where participants will hear messages and stories about Lt. George L. Fox (Methodist), Lt. Alexander D. Goode (Jewish), Lt. Clark V. Poling (Dutch Reformed), and Lt. John P. Washington (Roman Catholic), aka “The Four Chaplains.” 

Washington Hebrew has held events commemorating Four Chaplains Day in the past, as one of the four, Rabbi Goode grew up in Washington, DC, attended Eastern High School, and served Washington Hebrew Congregation while studying for ordination at Hebrew Union College. His name is the first of 14 listed on the Jewish Chaplains Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. 

It was late at night on February 3, 1943, when the USAT Dorchester was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast of Greenland as it traveled to the European front. The blast immediately killed dozens, wounded many others, and caused the Dorchester to take on water. As it became apparent that the ship would sink, the four chaplains quickly dispersed, distributing life jackets, calming the frightened, tending to the wounded, and guiding the disoriented toward lifeboats. 

Petty Officer John J. Mahoney, one of those lucky enough to survive the attack, shared a memory about trying to re-enter his cabin that frigid night to get his gloves. Rabbi Goode stopped him and gave the petty officer his own pair. When Mahoney tried to refuse the offer, the rabbi said, “Never mind. I have two pairs.” It was only long after that Mahoney realized that Rabbi Goode did not have an extra pair of gloves; he never intended to leave the ship. 

When the last life preservers had been handed out, the four chaplains removed their own and gave them away. The men then linked arms at the ship’s railing, prayed, and sang hymns offering comfort to the men in the water. The Dorchester sank 27 minutes later, with the chaplains still at the rail. The Dorchester, which had 902 servicemen, merchant seamen, and civilian workers aboard, lost 672 men that day. 

On Dec. 19, 1944, Congress posthumously awarded each of the chaplains the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross. Congress also attempted to posthumously confer the Medal of Honor on each chaplain. However, because the chaplains had acted after the torpedo attack was over, and this medal required heroism performed “under fire,” they did not technically qualify. In response, members of Congress authorized the Four Chaplains’ Medal, a special medal intended to have the same weight and importance as the Medal of Honor. 

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Learn more about The Four Chaplains