California Forum

A Memorial Day story: ‘Four chaplains. Two faiths. One God.’

The California State Honor Guard pays tribute during Memorial Day at Mount Vernon Memorial Park and Mortuary in Fair Oaks.
The California State Honor Guard pays tribute during Memorial Day at Mount Vernon Memorial Park and Mortuary in Fair Oaks. lsterling@sacbee.com

The closest I’ve ever come to giving my life for my country was on May 6, 2009.

I was on board a chartered DC-10 with 168 troops returning from Iraq, when our plane bounced three times along a runway in Baltimore. Our pilot aborted the landing and went around for another attempt.

As we gained altitude, we discovered several injuries among the passengers. Parts of the plane were strewn on the runway as well as about the cabin. People were crying, praying and cursing. I was doing all three.

Nevertheless, as a chaplain, I knew my job had just gone active. I joined hands with a few of the tearful ones around me. My own prayer was that if I were to die, I hoped I would die in the courageous tradition of the “Four Chaplains” of World War II.

In the winter of 1943, these four chaplains were also on board a public transport. They were sailing in the USS Dorchester, a 5,649-ton luxury liner converted into a U.S. Army troopship. The ship was heavy with more than 900 men and it fell behind its escort off the Greenland coast.

Gale-force winds made for a nauseating voyage, according to later reports. Fortunately, among those doing their best to alleviate the discomfort were four chaplains: Father John Washington, the Rev. Clark Poling, Rabbi Alexander Goode and the Rev. George Fox.

Like a lot of chaplains on ships, they pulled double duty as activity directors. They organized sing-alongs and talent shows, but mostly they took confessions and held worship services, no matter what their faith.

On the evening of Feb. 2, 1943, the ship’s captain, concerned over the sightings of three enemy submarines, instructed passengers to wear life jackets to bed. Deep in the ship, the engine heat and overwhelming claustrophobia, made it too uncomfortable for those sleeping in the lower decks to follow the order.

On Feb. 3 at 12:55 a.m. as the Dorchester approached Greenland, a periscope sliced through the icy Atlantic waters. An officer aboard the German submarine U-223 gave orders to fire a fan of three torpedoes. One decisive hit on the starboard side below the water line killed scores in a searing flash of flames.

Survivors, some dressed only in their underwear, clambered on deck. Among them were the four chaplains: two Protestant pastors, a Catholic priest and a Jewish rabbi. Survivors would later recall these men of faith seeking to calm the passengers and organize them into lifeboats.

When the chaplains saw many were without life vests, they dug around and found extras to give to the men. They instructed the soldiers to pray as they abandoned their ship and imbued them with courage to remain steadfast in their purpose.

Eventually, the chaplains discovered that there just weren’t enough life jackets. With the supply depleted, each chaplain removed his own vest and gave it to another man.

The following information comes from the vantage point of those who made it into the lifeboats.

“I could hear men crying, pleading, praying,” a soldier named William B. Bednar recalled. “I could also hear the chaplains preaching courage. Their voices were the only thing that kept me going.”

It is said that in the light of the fiery oil, the chaplains were seen standing arm in arm on the ship’s keel, leading an interfaith service. Eighteen minutes after the torpedo hit, the Dorchester rolled into the Labrador Sea on its starboard side.

In the most published quote of the tragedy, survivor John Ladd called it “the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven.”

It would be the third largest U.S. maritime loss during World War II: 672 men died on the Dorchester, most from hypothermia. Only 230 men saw the sunrise in Greenland.

When the nephew of Chaplain Fox, David Fox-Benton, interviewed Dorchester survivors in the 1990s, the ship’s first sergeant, Michael Warish recalled of the Four Chaplains: “These men were always together. They carried their faith together. Remember, this was 1943. Protestants didn’t talk to Catholics back then, let alone either of them talk to a Jew.”

A Memorial Day eulogy 60 years later repeated the sentiment when it recalled the chaplains’ act as “Despair caught in hope’s grasp. Four chaplains. Two faiths. One God.”

The chaplains’ story seems to merit the Medal of Honor, but that medal can only be awarded for actions under direct fire. So Congress created a special medal in 1960 that praised the chaplains for their “selfless acts of courage, compassion and faith.” The award was called the “Chaplain’s Medal for Heroism,” and it can never be awarded again.

Fortunately, I was never a candidate for the award.

As our charted jet came in for re-approach 66 years after the Dorchester tragedy, the flight attendants told us to grab our ankles and lower our heads. They yelled “Brace, brace, brace.” But instead of a disastrous impact, we landed as calmly as a sailboat on a lake.

Slowly we looked up from our crash/prayer position and started clapping. Five people were transported to the hospital, including the first officer with a broken back.

We were grateful to be alive. We would be present for the next Memorial Day service to honor those who weren’t so fortunate.

Norris Burkes is a Sutter hospice chaplain and the author of “Hero’s Highway.” He retired from the Air National Guard in 2014. He can be contacted at comment@thechaplain.net, or follow him on Twitter @chaplain.

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