The Four Chaplains were four U.S. Army chaplains who sacrificed their lives to save others in the North Atlantic on February 3, 1942. This remarkable story of unity, courage, and selflessness exemplifies the highest ideals of human spirit. The chaplains came from different religious backgrounds, but their shared commitment to serving others transcended these differences.
Tonight, retired Navy Captain Lou Cavaliere, chair emeritus of The Chapel of the Four Chaplains at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, joins us to share the full story of the four American heroes who gave away their life jackets to save the lives of sailors aboard the SS Dorchester in World War II.
On the fateful night of February 3, 1943, SS Dorchester, a transport ship carrying over 900 soldiers and civilians, was en route to Greenland. Among the passengers were four chaplains: Methodist Reverend George L. Fox, Rabbi Alexander D. Goode, Catholic Priest John P. Washington, and Reformed Church in America Reverend Clark V. Poling. The ship was sailing through the frigid waters of the North Atlantic when it was struck by a German U-boat torpedo.
As chaos unfolded, the chaplains immediately began helping the frightened and disoriented soldiers. They distributed life jackets, provided comfort, and, most significantly, offered prayers to those in need. The supply of life jackets, however, was insufficient, and the chaplains quickly realized that they had to make the ultimate sacrifice. In an extraordinary act of heroism, each chaplain gave his own life jacket to a soldier, ensuring that others had a chance to survive.
As the Dorchester sank beneath the icy waters, the four chaplains were last seen linked arm in arm, praying together and singing hymns. Their unity in the face of impending doom left an indelible mark on the survivors, who bore witness to this selfless act of solidarity. The sacrifice of the Four Chaplains became a symbol of hope and inspiration during a dark time in World War II.
In recognition of their extraordinary bravery and devotion, the U.S. Congress posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart to the Four Chaplains. Additionally, various honors and memorials were established to commemorate their sacrifice. The Chapel of the Four Chaplains, dedicated in their memory, stands as a testament to the enduring legacy of these men who, in the face of death, prioritized the welfare of others over their own lives.
Beyond the military context, the story of the Four Chaplains has become a powerful symbol of interfaith harmony. Their different religious backgrounds – Methodist, Jewish, Catholic, and Reformed Church – reflect the diversity of America, and their unity in the face of tragedy emphasizes the common humanity that binds people together.