On Feb. 3, 2013, Chaplain (Capt.) Mendy Stern spoke at a remembrance service at Fort Hamilton Chapel, N.Y. The service honored the day in 1943 when four Army chaplains gave their lives to save their fellow Soldiers aboard the Army Transport Ship Dorchester.
Stern knew the story of Lt. George Fox, Lt. John Washington, Lt. Alexander Goode and Lt. Clark Poling after entering chaplaincy school at Fort Jackson, S.C.
But as he shared their story at the place where the four chaplains served and then deployed from on the SS Dorchester, Stern said he noticed something he had not seen before when they assisted others in harm’s way.
“They did not seek out only their faith group,” said Stern, the Jewish chaplain for the Military District of Washington, National Capital Region, which includes Fort Belvoir. “They served the Soldier.”
Indeed Fox, a Methodist, Goode, a Jewish Rabbi, Washington, a Roman Catholic priest and Poling, a Dutch Reformed minister, did what they were called to do in such a situation: Sacrifice their lives so others could live.
“When you hear the testimony of the survivors, it’s humbling to hear,” said Col. Tom Faichney, Fort Belvoir Garrison Chaplain.
On Jan. 23, 1943, the SS Dorchester left New York Harbor with 902 servicemen, merchant seamen and civilian workers on board.
In February, the Dorchester departed from Newfoundland for the Army Command Base in southern Greenland.
But in the early morning hours of Feb. 3, a German submarine fired a torpedo that struck the middle of the ship on its starboard side.
The Dorchester immediately began to sink as the captain issued the order to abandon ship.
As panic and chaos ensued, Fox, Goode, Washington and Poling stepped in and offered a calming presence.
Petty Officer John J. Mahoney met Goode when going back to his cabin to retrieve gloves. Goode gave Mahoney his gloves, telling him he had a second pair.
Mahoney figured out later than Goode planned on going down with the Dorchester.
The four chaplains also gave up their life jackets to four Soldiers. Stern cited that story as well in his talk.
“The heroic actions of the four Chaplains constitute one of the purest spiritual and ethical acts a person can make,” Stern wrote. “The Chaplains exemplified the very creed they pledged to protect – I will never quit, I will never leave a fallen Comrade. When giving their life jackets, Chaplain Goode did not search for a Jew; Chaplain Washington did not seek a Catholic nor did Chaplains Fox and Poling call out for a Protestant. They simply gave their life jackets to the next man in line.”
Survivors recall seeing the four Chaplains arm in arm in prayer as the ship sank in less than 27 minutes.
Only 203 survived.
To honor the four chaplains’ actions, Congress authorized and President Dwight D. Eisenhower awarded the Special Medal for Heroism Jan. 18, 1961.
The four chaplains’ example still inspires chaplains today.
“Just their composure and how love empowered their selfless sacrifice in laying down their lives,” Faichney said.
“Their story resonates deeply with me,” said Stern. “It resonates deeply with all chaplains I speak with.”