Four Chaplains Shabbat

In addition to the celebrations in New Orleans and nationwide in honor of the Super Bowl, we will mark 4 Chaplains' Shabbat: The 70th anniversary of the sinking of the USAT Dorchester.  

On February 3, 1943, the Dorchester was attacked by a German U-boat, and four chaplains -- one Catholic priest, two Protestant ministers, and one rabbi -- gave their lifejackets to other sailors and went down with the ship.  Read below to find out about their inspiring story.

This Shabbat, we read Parshat Yitro which contains the peak of the Israelite experience in the desert--Revelation at Sinai (notably, the Ten Commandments, Aseret Ha-Dibrot, which I translate as the Ten Utterances to more fully represent the Hebrew and Jewish theology).  This important Torah reading begins with Yitro, Moses' father-in-law and a priest of Midian, to the Israelite camp.  He offers Moses' important instructions on communal leadership and justice.  Just as the story of the Four Chaplains reminds us of the connections we have to people of different faiths, the part of the Torah containing Revelation begins with an acknowledgment that practical and theoretical knowledge comes from multiple traditions.

My work on campus as a Chaplain/Religious Advisor/Hillel Director (the titles vary) and now as Interim Co-Director of Religious Life at Amherst College) has taught me that despite the many important differences between various faith and ethical traditions, we hold similar views about the importance of helping others and reaching out to people in need.

Shabbat Shalom,

The Four Chaplains

Click on the names for their Biographies

THE STORY  (copied from The Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation)


It was the evening of Feb. 2, 1943, and the U.S.A.T. Dorchester was crowded to capacity, 
carrying 902 service men, merchant seamen and civilian workers.

Once a luxury coastal liner, the 5,649-ton vessel had been converted into an Army transport ship.
The Dorchester, one of three ships in the SG-19 convoy, was moving steadily across the icy
waters from Newfoundland toward an American base in Greenland. SG-19 was escorted by Coast
Guard Cutters Tampa, Escanaba and Comanche. 

Hans J. Danielsen, the ship's captain, was concerned and cautious.

Earlier the Tampa had detected a submarine with its sonar. Danielsen 
knew he was in dangerous waters even before he got the alarming
 information. German U-boats were constantly prowling these vital sea 
lanes, and several ships had already been blasted and sunk.
The Dorchester was now only 150 miles from its destination, but the 
captain ordered the men to sleep in their clothing and keep 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.

On Feb. 3, at 12:55 a.m., a periscope broke the chilly Atlantic waters.

Through the cross hairs, an officer aboard the German submarine U-223
spotted the Dorchester.
The U-223 approached the convoy on the surface, and after identifying

and targeting the ship, he gave orders to fire the torpedoes, a fan of
three were fired. The one that hit was decisive--and deadly--striking the
starboard side, amid ship, far below the water line.

Danielsen, alerted that the Dorchester was taking water rapidly and 

sinking, gave the order to abandon ship. In less than 20 minutes, the
Dorchester would slip beneath the Atlantic's icy waters.

Tragically, the hit had knocked out power and radio contact with the three escort ships. The CGC Comanche,

however, saw the flash of the explosion. It responded and then rescued 97 survivors. The CGC Escanaba circled 
the Dorchester, rescuing an additional 132 survivors. The third cutter, CGC Tampa, continued on, escorting the
remaining two ships
Aboard the Dorchester, panic and chaos had set in. The blast had killed scores of men, and many more were

seriously wounded. Others, stunned by the explosion were groping in the darkness. Those sleeping without 
clothing rushed topside where they were confronted first by a blast of icy Arctic air and then by the knowledge that
death awaited.

Men jumped from the ship into lifeboats, over-crowding them to the point of capsizing, according to eyewitnesses.

Other rafts, tossed into the Atlantic, drifted away before soldiers could get in them.

Through the pandemonium, according to those present, four Army chaplains brought hope in despair and light in 

darkness. Those chaplains were Lt. George L. Fox, Methodist; Lt. Alexander D. Goode, Jewish; Lt. John P. 
Washington, Roman Catholic; and Lt. Clark V. Poling, Dutch Reformed.

Quickly and quietly, the four chaplains spread out among the soldiers. There they tried to calm the frightened, tend 

the wounded and guide the disoriented toward safety.

"Witnesses of that terrible night remember hearing the four men offer prayers for the dying and encouragement for

those who would live," says Wyatt R. Fox, son of Reverend Fox.

One witness, Private William B. Bednar, found himself floating in oil-smeared water surrounded by dead bodies

and debris. "I could hear men crying, pleading, praying," Bednar recalls. "I could also hear the chaplains preaching 
courage. Their voices were the only thing that kept me going."

Another sailor, Petty Officer John J. Mahoney, tried to reenter his cabin but Rabbi Goode stopped him. Mahoney, 

concerned about the cold Arctic air, explained he had forgotten his gloves.

"Never mind," Goode responded. "I have two pairs." The rabbi then gave the petty officer his own gloves. In 

retrospect, Mahoney realized that Rabbi Goode was not conveniently carrying two pairs of gloves, and that the
 rabbi had decided not to leave the Dorchester.

By this time, most of the men were topside, and the chaplains opened a storage ocker and began distributing life jackets. It was then that Engineer Grady Clark witnessed an astonishing sight.

When there were no more lifejackets in the storage room, the chaplains removed theirs and gave them to four frightened young men.

"It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven," said John Ladd, another survivor who saw the chaplains' selfless act.

Ladd's response is understandable. The altruistic action of the four chaplains  constitutes one of the purest spiritual
and ethical acts a person can make. 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.

As the ship went down, survivors in nearby rafts could see the four chaplains--arms linked and braced against the 

slanting deck. Their voices could also be heard offering prayers.

Of the 902 men aboard the U.S.A.T. Dorchester, 672 died, leaving 230 survivors. When the news reached American 
shores, the nation was stunned by the magnitude of the tragedy and heroic conduct of the four chaplains. "Valor is
gift," Carl Sandburg once said. "Those having it never know for sure whether they have it until the test comes."

That night Reverend Fox, Rabbi Goode, Reverend Poling and Father Washington passed life's ultimate test. In
doing so, they became an enduring example of extraordinary faith, courage and selflessness.

The Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart were awarded posthumously December 19, 1944, to the next
of kin by Lt. Gen. Brehon B. Somervell, Commanding General of the Army Service Forces, in a ceremony at the
post chapel at Fort Myer, VA.

A one-time only posthumous Special Medal for Heroism was authorized by Congress and awarded by President
Eisenhower on January 18, 1961. Congress attempted to confer the Medal of Honor but was blocked by the 
stringent requirements that required heroism performed under fire. The special medal was intended to have the 
same weight and importance as the Medal of Honor.


Additional material for Four Chaplains Shabbat

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