CNA, CBJ—“Most of us will never die a hero’s death… But all of us are called by the idea of faith, day in and day out, to give of ourselves,” said Newark Auxiliary Bishop Gregory J. Studerus, who presided over the Four Chaplains 80th Anniversary Mass at St. Stephen’s parish in Kearny, New Jersey, on Feb. 5, 2023. This Mass honored “the Four Chaplains”—a band of military chaplains of different faiths who sacrificed their lives to save others on the torpedoed U.S.A.T. Dorchester 80 years ago.
February 3: Four Chaplains Day
Who were these inspirational chaplains?
The Four Chaplains—Father John P. Washington, a Catholic priest; Rev. George L. Fox, a Methodist minister; Rabbi Alexander D. Goode; and Rev. Clark V. Poling, a Reformed Church in America minister—gave their life jackets to save others when their ship was torpedoed in the frigid North Atlantic in 1943.
St. Steven’s parish, where this special Mass took place, was the last parish where Fr. Washington served before being dispatched for war.
“Day in and day out we look for ways of being generous,” said Bishop Studerus, “ways of being kind, ways of reaching out and touching the heart of those who are sad and mourning, reaching out and touching those who are oppressed. And sometimes [we go] as far as the ones we honor today, giving our lives because of faith.”
Fr. Washington, Rev. Fox, Rabbi Goode, and Rev. Poling, all first lieutenants, met in 1942, having been inspired to sign-up as military chaplains after Pearl Harbor. Their vessel, the Dorchester, a troop ship bound for a U.S. military base in Greenland, was struck by a U-boat torpedo in the early morning hours of Feb. 3, 1943. Fr. Washington had celebrated Mass just hours before the hit and began to offer absolution.
The chaplains calmly assisted and encouraged numerous civilians and soldiers, offering them their own life jackets as the terrified crew sped to the lifeboats.
“When giving their life jackets, Rabbi Goode did not call out for a Jew; Father Washington did not call out for a Catholic; nor did the Reverends Fox and Poling call out for a protestant. They simply gave their life jackets to the next man in line,” a history from the Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation noted.
The chaplains themselves all stayed behind as the ship capsized and sank. It took just 20 minutes. The Four Chaplains perished with more than 670 of their peers, reportedly with locked arms and hymns on their lips.
Many of the 230 survivors lauded the chaplains’ selfless actions. At one point, Petty Officer John J. Mahoney remembered returning to his cabin to find his gloves. Rabbi Goode stopped him, saying, “Never mind. I have two pairs,” and handed him some — Mahoney later realized the rabbi had given him his only pair.
One eyewitness, John Ladd, said as reported by Columbia magazine: “It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven.”
They led by example
“The Four Chaplains did something without hesitation that a lot of us would at least pause to think about before doing,” underscored Father Joe Mancini, pastor of St. Stephen’s Church.
He continued, “They selflessly acted out of faith in God and a need to help others. They were true heroes, and it’s important to look to them at a time when so many people are only thinking about themselves. That’s the goal of this Mass and everything else we do at the parish — we want to keep the Four Chaplains at the forefront of people’s minds even 80 years later.”
Distinguished Service Cross, Purple Heart, a U.S. Postage Stamp and Four Chaplains Day
In 1944, all four men posthumously received the Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart, and in 1948 a U.S. postage stamp was issued in their honor bearing the words “These Immortal Chaplains.” Then, in 1988, as mentioned above, a unanimous act of Congress established Feb. 3 as the annual Four Chaplains Day, Columbia reported.
Ceremonies at St. Stephens parish included a presentation of colors featuring veterans organizations, Boy Scouts and the Knights of Columbus. A group of Boy Scouts received special Four Chaplains patches after completing an educational program designed by St. Stephen’s Boy Scout Unit 305 in honor of the 80th anniversary. Military veterans, their families, and Boy Scouts filled the New Jersey parish church to participate in this special Mass.
- Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation
- The Four Chaplains: Heroism and Interfaith in Icy Waters, National Museum of the United States Air Force