I was never a commissioned Air Force chaplain, however I spent eight years serving as a chaplain services specialist, better known in military circles as a chaplain’s assistant.

In that capacity I worked with chaplains of all faiths. I was impressed with their willingness to give of their time in enhancing the spiritual lives of those who sought it. Often they were the only source to which men could turn especially in times of heartbreak or feelings of dejection by loved ones; particularly those men stationed at my overseas base on Okinawa, who had been “hit” with a “Dear John” letter from a sweetheart or wife.

I never served during times of war, but I think one of the most inspirational stories to come out of World War II was of four chaplains who followed the savior’s injunction that “greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

I think you will agree that the four of whom I’m writing exemplified that level of love.

Some few may know of it, but I think most of you will be surprised to learn that one of the four, Alexander Goode, had spent time right here in Goldsboro at Seymour Johnson. That, on his first duty assignment as a chaplain.

They made the ultimate sacrifice

Feb. 5, 2007

Among nearly 700 men lost when the torpedoed U.S. troop ship, Dorchester, went down off Greenland in World War II were four chaplains whose sacrifice was remembered Sunday in a memorial by Jacksonville Beach veterans.

The four perished, a priest, a rabbi and two Protestant ministers, gave up their own life jackets and remained on board to comfort and pray with the hundreds of men who were lost when the ship went down Feb. 3, 1943.

Sunday, the American Legion Post 129 honored the sacrifice in a memorial service observed by veterans nationwide.

“The only shred of hope, order or discipline on that ship came from those four chaplains,” retired Marine Corps Col. Jim Fugit told an audience at the post. “The last thing any of the 230 survivors reported hearing before the ship went under, following three torpedo strikes, was a recitation of The Lord’s Prayer,” he said.

The sacrifice became a national symbol of selfless service and unity, said post chaplain Bill Reno. Three crosses and a Star of David honor the men at Arlington National Cemetery and a Congressional medal was struck in the names of chaplains George L. Fox, Alexander D. Goode, Clark V. Poling and John P. Washington. They were honored posthumously with the Distinguished Service Cross.

The Sandalwood High School Air Force Junior ROTC color guard presented the colors in the service that included a rifle salute among the tributes.

It was the evening of Feb. 2, 1943, and the USAT Dorchester was crowded to capacity, carrying 902 service men, merchant seamen and civilian workers.

Once a luxury coastal liner, the 5,649-ton vessel had been converted into an Army transport ship. The Dorchester, one of three ships in the SG-19 convoy, was moving steadily across the icy waters from Newfoundland toward an American base in Greenland.

SG-19 was escorted by Coast Guard Cutters Tampa, Escanaba and Comanche.

Hans J. Danielsen, the ship’s captain, was concerned and cautious. Earlier the Tampa had detected a submarine with its sonar. Danielsen knew he was in dangerous waters even before he got the alarming information. German U-boats were constantly prowling these vital sea lanes, and several ships had already been blasted and sunk.

The Dorchester was now only 150 miles from its destination, but the captain ordered the men to sleep in their clothing and keep life jackets on. Many soldiers sleeping deep in the ship’s hold disregarded the order because of the engine’s heat. Others ignored it because the life jackets were uncomfortable.

German sub torpedoes the Dorchester

On Feb. 3, at 12:55 a.m., a periscope broke the chilly waters. Through the cross hairs, an officer aboard the German submarine U-223 spotted the Dorchester.

The U-223 approached the convoy on the surface and after identifying and targeting the ship, he gave orders to fire the torpedoes. A fan of three were fired. The one that hit was decisive — and deadly — striking the starboard side, amid ship, far below the water line.

Capt. Danielsen, alerted that the ship was taking on water rapidly and sinking, gave the order to abandon ship. In less than 20 minutes, the Dorchester would slip beneath the Atlantic’s icy waters.

Tragically, the hit had knocked out power and radio contact with the escort ships. The CGC Comanche, however, saw the flash of the explosion. It responded and then rescued 97 survivors. The CGC Escanaba circled the Dorchester, rescuing an additional 132 survivors. The third cutter, Tampa, continued on, escorting the remaining two ships.

Aboard the Dorchester, panic and chaos had set in. The blast had killed scores of men, and many more were seriously wounded. Others, stunned by the explosion, were groping in the darkness. Those sleeping without clothing rushed topside where they were confronted first by a blast of icy Arctic air and then by the knowledge that death awaited.

Men jumped from the ship into lifeboats, overcrowding them to the point of capsizing, according to eyewitnesses. Other rafts, tossed into the Atlantic, drifted away before soldiers could get in them.

Chaplains’ courage saves others

Through the pandemonium, according to those present, four Army chaplains brought hope in despair and light in darkness. Those chaplains were Lt. George L. Fox, Methodist; Lt. Alexander D. Goode, Jewish; Lt. John P. Washington, Roman Catholic; and Lt. Clark V. Poling, Dutch Reformed.

Quickly and quietly, the chaplains spread out among the soldiers. There they tried to calm the frightened, tend the wounded and guide the disoriented toward safety.

“Witnesses of that terrible night remember hearing the four men offer prayers for the dying and encouragement for those who would live,” says Wyatt R. Fox, son of the Rev. Fox.

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

Sources: “The Four Chaplains” from the Arlington National Cemetery website and the Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation.

Sherwood Williford writes a weekly column for the News-Argus. Contact him at 919-440-8811, Sherwoodowl@hotmail.com or P.O. Box 175, Princeton, NC 27569.