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Remembering four chaplains' selfless heroism

As their torpedoed ship sank in WWII, the Catholic priest, rabbi and two Protestant ministers gave their own life preservers to soldiers and went down praying with those who couldn't escape.

February 10, 2013|By Steve Chawkins, Los Angeles Times
  • Photos of the four chaplains — from left, Rabbi Alexander Goode, Catholic priest John Washington, Dutch Reformed minister Clark Poling and Methodist minister George Fox — are displayed at the Immortal Chaplains Memorial Sanctuary aboard the Queen Mary in Long Beach.
Photos of the four chaplains — from left, Rabbi Alexander Goode,… (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)

For a long time, the story of the four chaplains was everywhere.

In classrooms, posters showed the men of different faiths, arms linked in prayer, braced against the waves engulfing the deck of their torpedoed troop ship on Feb. 3, 1943. They had given their life preservers to frantic soldiers and urged troops paralyzed with fear to jump into the icy North Atlantic before they were sucked down by the sinking ship's whirlpool.

A postage stamp in 1948 honored the two Protestant ministers, the Catholic priest and the rabbi. Streets and schools soon were named after them, a chapel in Philadelphia dedicated to them, books written about them. Testimonials to their self-sacrifice were lavish; President Truman said, "I don't think in the history of the world that there has been anything in heroism equal to this. It was the greatest sermon ever preached."

But 70 years after one of World War II's most celebrated episodes, the story has faded, kept alive these days mainly by veterans groups, history buffs and family members of the 672 men who died in the sinking of the ill-fated Dorchester. Only 230 survived. The last among them died Jan. 12 at age 91.

Aboard the Queen Mary in Long Beach, the tiny Immortal Chaplains Memorial Sanctuary is a reminder that the old luxury liner ferried Allied troops in World War II. A few artifacts sit in display cases: a map, a signal light from a life jacket, a harmonica that belonged to a German submarine officer. The Queen Mary also ferried prisoners of war from the battlefields of Europe to camps in North America.

On a continuous loop, the deep, plummy voice of actor David Fox-Brenton tells the Dorchester's story: "It was to be the third-largest loss of life at sea for the United States in World War II. On board were almost 1,000 men — and four immortal chaplains...."

Fox-Brenton, who lives in Mission Viejo, is a nephew of one of the heroic quartet, Methodist chaplain George Fox. In 2000, Fox-Brenton introduced Dorchester survivors to former crew members of U-223, the Nazi submarine that attacked their ship. One of them, Gerhard Buske, played "Amazing Grace" on his harmonica — an instrument that he had played aboard the sub and later donated to the museum.

"It was a very emotional time," Fox-Brenton said. He started the Queen Mary tribute in 2005 after realizing about a decade before that his uncle and the three others were fast becoming unknowns.

"I was working with veterans at a hospice in Minneapolis and they had never heard of them," he said in a recent interview. "I was astonished. I thought: This story will disappear unless someone does something about it."

That's also what motivates Barry Sax, 73, a retired Department of Defense administrative law judge who lives in Oak Park. He has journeyed to Greenland twice, located a field where some of the disaster's victims were temporarily buried, and befriended men who helped rescue survivors.

"I love the story," he said. "We can't afford to lose it."

The Dorchester, a cruise ship for 300 that was converted into a troop transport for 900, plied a route between Staten Island, N.Y., and Greenland. Most of the soldiers on its final trip were young and inexperienced. Few had any idea they had been assigned to guard desolate mines and airstrips.

It was a rough ride in churning waters. Many of the men became seasick. The chaplains tried to keep their spirits up, conducting services, concocting a talent show and constantly joking.

Coming across some men playing poker, Catholic priest John Washington was asked by one player to bless his hand.

"What?" the father asked in mock outrage. "You want me to waste a blessing on a lousy pair of treys?"

Washington, 34, had cheated on an eye test to join up. Rabbi Alexander Goode, 31, son of a rabbi and a relative of the entertainer Al Jolson, left behind his young family. So did Dutch Reformed minister Clark Poling, 32, a seventh-generation clergyman and son of a fiery evangelist. Fox, 42, the Methodist minister, had lied about his age to enlist in World War I; he was 17 when he received the French Croix de Guerre after giving his gas mask to a wounded soldier.

Eleven nights after the Dorchester's voyage began, a German torpedo ripped open its hull. Men choked on ammonia pouring out of a refrigeration system and drowned as oily seawater poured into their cramped quarters below deck. Many who scrambled out after the 1 a.m. blast were clad only in their underwear, having ignored orders to sleep fully clothed, with life jackets at the ready, while crossing submarine-infested waters.

On deck, the chaplains led dozens of frightened soldiers to a cache of life vests before giving away their own. It took only 20 minutes for the Dorchester to sink. Rescuers on nearby ships saw hundreds of blinking red lights — life jacket signals bobbing beside the corpses of men who had frozen to death in the 34-degree waters 80 miles off Greenland.

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