The Four Chaplains: Bravery & Selflessness

By | February 3, 2019

[February 3, 2019]  Someone once said that the mythic journey of life is always about selflessness.  And so, in today’s leadership blog, I recognize the sacrifice of four U.S. Army Chaplains.  Their bravery and selflessness in the face of mortal danger show us the pinnacle of what it means to be a man of profound decency.

On this date, February 3, 1943, darkness just after midnight obscured visibility but German submarine U-223 spotted the U.S. Army Transport ship, the SS Dorchester; carrying 902 servicemen, seamen, and workers.  A torpedo that hit far below the waterline insured the ship would sink.1  But in the brief moments before the ship slipped below the waves, four chaplains would conduct themselves in such a way that is more than us normal humans could imagine.

Panic and chaos quickly set in after the explosion.  But through the pandemonium, four men spread out among the Soldiers, calming the frightened, tending to the wounded, and guiding the disordered to safety.  The four chaplains were Army chaplains, Lt. George Fox, a Methodist; Lt. Alexander Goode, a Jewish Rabbi; Lt John Washington, a Roman Catholic priest, and Lt. Clark Poling, a Dutch Reformed minister.  I write their names here because writing them down is my way of saying what they did was important and should be remembered for all times.

Petty Officer John J. Mahoney, reeling from the cold, headed back towards his cabin. “Where are you going’” a voice of calm in the sea of distressed asked’ “To get my gloves,” Mahoney replied. “Here, take these,” said Rabbi Goode as he handed a pair of gloves to the young officer. “I can’t take those gloves,” Mahoney replied. “Never mind,” the Rabbi responded. “I have two pairs.” It was only long after that Mahoney realized that the chaplain never intended to leave the ship.2

Once topside, the chaplains opened a storage locker and began distributing life jackets. It was then that Engineer Grady Clark witnessed an astonishing sight. When there were no more lifejackets in the storage room, the chaplains simultaneously removed theirs and gave them to four frightened young men.

“Not for my safe return, that wouldn’t be fair. Just pray that I shall do my duty…never be a coward…and have the strength, courage, and understanding of men. Just pray that I shall be adequate.” – U.S. Army Chaplain Clark Poling to his father before boarding the ship

As the ship went down, survivors in nearby rafts could see the four chaplains, arms linked and braced against the slanting deck. Their voices could also be heard offering prayers and singing hymns.  Of the 902 men aboard the Dorchester, only 230 survived.

Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

15 thoughts on “The Four Chaplains: Bravery & Selflessness

    1. Janna Faulkner

      Lydia, yes and that is the point and why I keep coming back to this leadership blog. You can read the daily articles in only a few minutes to get a few great intellectual nuggets or research thru the links and find out more. Great place to quickly augment your knowledge.

  1. Mr. T.J. Asper

    Bravery is not easily come by. Only a few will ever show real physical courage. But to sacrifice one’s self for the greater good is a level rarely attainable. These men were the real heroes.

  2. Greg Heyman

    The survivors told the story of how these four brave men joined hands, sang hymns, and gave prayers as the ship went down. These chaplains serve as modern day role models. Even thought they came from different cultures, they realized and lived what the Bibles says.

  3. Drew Dill

    This event was the catalyst for Americans to embrace interfaith understanding. Until the Dorchester, there was no mention in print of Catholics, Protestants and Jews working together in this manner, especially in prayer. It was a transformational moment for America, the first time all three denominations were recognized by the mainstream population as serving together and with common purpose.

    1. Max Foster

      Drew makes an excellent point. Sometimes it takes a seminal event to bring people together. Usually it’s a tragedy (manmade or nature). In this case, the sinking of the Dorchester and the loss of so many lives. These chaplalins unknowingly helped bring together the main religions in the USA. No one should overlook their sacrifice.

  4. Army Captain

    I read about this story in high school. My teacher was a WW2 vet and he told many stories of bravery and self-sacrifice. It scared me at the time but I always enjoyed the events told my Mr. Chaffee, Chemistry teacher. Thank you M.r Chaffee.

    1. José Luis Rodriguez

      One witness, Pvt. William B. Bednar, found himself floating in oil-smeared water surrounded by dead bodies and debris. “I could hear men crying, pleading, praying,” Bednar recalls. “I could also hear the chaplains preaching courage. Their voices were the only thing that kept me going.”

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