2000-02-26 / Front Page

Sacrifice Of Four Chaplains Saluted

Members of the Queens County American Legion place a wreath at the memorial plaque outside St. Francis de Sales Church in honor of the four Army chaplains who died during World War II.

Harvey Moder, past county commander, Harry Jahnke, present county commander, and Monsignor Martin Geraghty attended the celebratory mass.

Veterans and ladies auxiliary from American Legion posts throughout Queens County gathered at St. Francis de Sales Church in Belle Harbor on Sunday, February 6 to celebrate a mass of remembrance for the four Army chaplains who sacrificed their own lives with selfless acts of heroism on a doomed troopship during World War II.

The mass was sponsored by the Queens County Committee of the American Legion, commanded by Harry Jahnke. The Queens County Ladies Auxiliary was led by its president, Ms. Patricia Shaw. Father Louis Gaetano celebrated the mass and Monsignor Martin Geraghty of St. Francis participated in the prayer service at the memorial plaque to the four chaplains, located in front of the church, following mass. Commander Jahnke read a eulogy to the four chaplains, and the Queens County color guard placed a wreath on the memorial.

The epic story of the four chaplains began on Saturday morning, January 23, 1943, when they boarded the Army transport ship, USS Dorchester, at Pier 11 on Staten Island with 902 other soldiers and some civilian workers. The old 5,600-ton ship set sail in a convoy of 50 other ships but broke off with other freighters to stop at St. John’s Harbor, Newfoundland. The Dorchester resumed the journey to Greenland where Army engineers were scheduled to build an airfield before proceeding across the Atlantic.

The seas were treacherous with floating icebergs, rising waves, dense fog and gusting snow. The worst danger was from the wolf packs of German U-boats which prowled beneath the seas. The troops were anxious, but the four chaplains, Lt. George L. Fox (Methodist), Lt. Alexander D. Goode (Jewish), Lt. John P. Washington (Catholic), and Lt. Clark V. Poling (Dutch Reformed) provided religious services, bible studies, spiritual guidance and words of encouragement to the men, helping to calm their fears.

Within 100 miles of Greenland, on February 3, the Dorchester was torn by a tremendous explosion and rolled abruptly on its side. A U-boat torpedo had found its target. Hundreds died immediately, many trapped below deck. Security regulations prevented the use of distress flares so that nearby escort ships, which could have provided assistance, sailed on blissfully unaware that the Dorchester was dying. A Coast Guard cutter, USS Comanche, did rescue some of the survivors. One of its crewmen, a black sailor named Charles W. Davis, gave his own life diving in the frigid waters to save some drowning men.

The troops, many of them badly injured, panicked in the rush to get into overcrowded lifeboats and rafts. The four chaplains calmed the frightened men, distributed life jackets to those who had left their own behind, and blessed the soldiers as they went over the side. When the life jackets were exhausted, they removed their own and gave them to four soldiers who were without them. They were last seen, arms linked, heads bowed in prayer, on the deck of the ship as it sank beneath the freezing waves.

Many of the 230 troops who survived owe their lives to the selfless heroism of the four chaplains. One of the survivors, John Ladd, said that their bravery "was the finest I have ever seen or hope to see this side of Heaven."

The story of the four chaplains was like a thunderbolt in lifting the morale of a nation in the middle of the most terrible war in history, whose outcome, in February of 1943, was far from certain. After the war, President Harry Truman, at the dedication of the Chapel of the Four Chaplains in 1951, near Valley Forge, said, "That day they preached the most powerful sermon of their lives."

In 1948 the U.S. Postal Service issued a three-cent commemorative stamp "The Immortal Chaplains" in their honor.

On December 19, 1944 the Distinguished Service Cross and the Purple Heart were awarded to the families of the four chaplains. On June 18, 1961 Congress authorized and the President awarded a posthumous Special Medal of Honor for Heroism to these four brave clergymen who exemplified the best of American values.

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