From Shaman’s Rock
By Jim Poling Sr.
There are times when we might want to despair over living in a world of selfishness.
This week isn’t one of them.
That’s because the first week of February every year brings a reminder that confirms the basic goodness and selflessness of humans. It comes in a powerful piece of history not known by many, forgotten by some.
Eighty years ago this week the SS Dorchester, an aging luxury liner converted to a U.S. Army transport ship, was sailing through Torpedo Alley between Newfoundland and Greenland. It carried 904 soldiers and others headed for the war zones of Europe.
At 12:55 a.m. Feb. 3, 1943 German submarine U-223 locked the Dorchester in its sights and unleashed four torpedoes. One found its mark, exploding in the ship’s boiler room.
Many troops in the lower areas of the ship died instantly. Others clambered through the dark and confusion to reach the upper decks.
The ship listed, taking on water quickly. Some of the Dorchester’s 14 lifeboats were damaged by the blast and the crew managed to launch only two others, plus some life rafts.
Survivors later described scenes of desperation amid mass panic. Some told of four first lieutenants treating the wounded and comforting the terror-stricken while helping to get them off the ship.
Those four lieutenants were military chaplains assigned to provide spiritual care to the troops fighting Hitler in Europe.
During the chaos. the chaplains opened a storage locker and handed out lifejackets. They urged soldiers to jump off the sinking ship and into the icy waters where they would have a chance of being picked up accompanying ships.
“They were passing out life preservers from boxes on deck,” survivor Oswald Evans said later in a sworn affidavit. “When these were gone, I saw them take the life preservers from their own persons and hand them out, too.”
Another survivor, Grady Clark, described what he saw after jumping into the ocean:
“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 themselves did not have a chance without their life jackets.”
Others told of the chaplains standing on deck, arms linked and singing and praying as the Dorchester slipped beneath the surface. The singing and praying heard by the men in the water was in Hebrew and Latin, as well as English, because the chaplains represented different faiths.
Chaplain Alexander D, Goode was a reform rabbi and son of Rabbi Hyman Goodekowitz.
Father John P. Washington was a Catholic priest recently assigned to the 76th infantry division in Maryland.
Rev. George L. Fox was a Methodist minister highly decorated as a medical assistant in the First World war.
The fourth chaplain was Dutch Reformed minister Clark V. Poling, son of Rev. Daniel A, Poling, Baptist minister and an advisor to U.S. President Harry S. Truman.
The four chaplains were among the 672 who perished in the ocean that night. Only 232 survived, some possibly in the life jackets given to them by the chaplains.
After the Dorchester sinking Rev. Daniel Poling established the Chapel of Four Chaplains in the basement of his Grace Baptist Church in Philadelphia. It was dedicated to selfless service and interfaith cooperation.
The chapel moved to different locations over the years and now is found at Philadelphia’s Navy Yard.
In testimony before Congress, one survivor, Benjamin Epstein, reflected on what he had seen that night:
“To take off your life preserver, it meant you gave up your life. You would have no chance of surviving. They (the chaplains) knew they were finished. But they gave it away. Consider that. Over the years I’ve asked myself this question a thousand times. Could I do it? No, I don’t think I could do it. Just consider what an act of heroism they performed.”
In a world that today seems to have gone crazy, I like to believe that the spirit of the four chaplains remains, giving us the courage and selflessness to help each other.