On the frigid night of Feb. 3, 1943, the overcrowded Allied ship U.S.A.T. Dorchester, carrying 902 servicemen, plowed through the dark waters near Greenland. At 1:00 a.m., a Nazi submarine fired a torpedo into the transport’s flank, killing many in the explosion and trapping others below deck. It sank in 27 minutes. The two escort ships, Coast Guard cutters Comanche and Escanaba, were able to rescue only 231 survivors.
In the chaos of fire, smoke, oil and ammonia, four chaplains calmed sailors and distributed life jackets:
- Lt. George L. Fox, Methodist
- Lt. Clark V. Poling, Dutch Reformed
- Lt. John P. Washington, Roman Catholic
- Lt. Alexander D. Goode, Jewish
When there were no more life jackets, the four chaplains ripped off their own and put them on four young men. As the ship went down, survivors floating in rafts could see the four chaplains linking arms and bracing themselves on the slanting deck. They bowed their heads in prayer as they sank to their icy deaths.
Survivor Grady Clark wrote: “As I swam away from the ship, I looked back. The flares had lighted everything. The bow came up high and she slid under. The last thing I saw, the Four Chaplains were up there praying for the safety of the men. They had done everything they could. I did not see them again. They themselves did not have a chance without their life jackets.”
Congress honored them by declaring this “Four Chaplains Day.”
President Franklin D. Roosevelt acknowledged Protestants, Catholics and Jews working together for liberty in his address at Madison Square Garden, Oct. 28, 1940: “Your government is working … with representatives of Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish faiths. Without these three, all three of them … things would not be as … easy.”
On Feb. 7, 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower spoke from the White House for the American Legion ‘Back-to-God’ Program: “And we remember that, only a decade ago, aboard the transport Dorchester, four chaplains of four faiths together willingly sacrificed their lives so that four others might live. …”
Eisenhower continued: “Today as then, there is need for positive acts of renewed recognition that faith is our surest strength, our greatest resource. This ‘Back to God’ movement is such a positive act. … Whatever our individual church, whatever our personal creed, our common faith in God is a common bond among us. … Together we thank the Power that has made and preserved us a nation. By the millions, we speak prayers, we sing hymns – and no matter what their words may be, their spirit is the same – ‘In God is Our Trust.'”
Another inspiring story of a Christian risking his life to save soldiers was combat medic Desmond Doss, as portrayed in the award-winning film “Hacksaw Ridge” (2016).
Yet another inspiring story was that of Chaplain William Thomas Cummings, who served with the U.S. Army in the Philippines during World War II. He was captured by the Japanese and died when his unmarked prisoner ship was sunk sailing to Japan on Jan. 18, 1945. Earlier, while serving with the American troops during the Battle of Bataan, Jan. 7 to April 9, 1942, Chaplain Father Cummings gave a stirring field sermon in which he declared: “There are no atheists in the foxholes.”
Eisenhower repeated these words in his address Feb. 7, 1954: “As a former soldier, I am delighted that our veterans are sponsoring a movement to increase our awareness of God in our daily lives. In battle, they learned a great truth – that there are no atheists in the foxholes. They know that in time of test and trial, we instinctively turn to God for new courage and peace of mind. All the history of America bears witness to this truth. … In the three centuries that separate the Pilgrims of the Mayflower from the chaplains of the Dorchester, America’s freedom, her courage, her strength, and her progress have had their foundation in faith.”
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