Special Report

Faith on Deck

The story of the Immortal Four chaplains of the USAT Dorchester.

By 2.5.08

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Sixty-five years ago this week, a German U-boat torpedoed the USAT Dorchester in the icy North Atlantic near Greenland. Nearly 700 U.S. military personnel were killed, including the Immortal Four chaplains.

The Catholic priest, Jewish rabbi, Dutch Reformed pastor, and Methodist minister helped the evacuees off the ship, led men in prayer, and ultimately relinquished their own life vests so that others could live. All four clergy were last witnessed aboard the deck of the sinking ship, singing hymns. The vision remained ingrained on the minds of many of the 200 survivors.

The heroism of the Immortal Four, rooted in religious faith and war-time patriotism, is not frequently recalled today, even by their respective denominations. One exception is the Christian Reformed Church, which issued a news release and convened a commemorative prayer service at the West End Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

"The four chaplains of the Dorchester embody the ministry of presence in the most humble, yet heroic manner," Christian Reformed Church Chaplaincy director Reverend Herman Keizer told his denominational news service. "Their story is one that should be told continually because it demonstrates the presence of God in a manner that transcends differences of faith and doctrine."

He asked congregations of the Christian Reformed Church to honor the Immortal Four in the worship services this week.

Keizer recalled at the commemorative service, "They came from very different backgrounds, experiences, cultures and religions. If they shared any one thing it was a belief in God, who was the creator of the universe and of all things in that universe."

The heroic chaplains were Methodist minister George Fox of Vermont; Rabbi Alexander Goode of Pennsylvania; Father John P. Washington of New Jersey; and Dutch Reformed Pastor Clark Poling.

"Through all this commotion and disorder, the soldiers heard the calm voices of the chaplains," Keizer remembered. "They saw them handing out life jackets; heard them urge for order." Amid the upheaval and mass death, the Immortal Four remained steadfast on the deck, while others desperately leapt into the inky, frozen waters, even without life jackets.

"The soldiers reported hearing songs and hymns from the chaplains," Keizer said. "They heard over the screams of pain and terror, the chaplains giving their final testimony. They were giving and receiving strength to each other and to their soldiers with their final declaration of faith."

THE OLDEST AMONG the Immortal Four was the Reverend Fox, age 42. His son has recalled that on the Sunday of Pearl Harbor, the family was seated at the dinner table. When the radio reported the Japanese attack, his father struck his fists together and said, "Now we'll go after them."

Fox was no pacifist, evidently. This contrasted with his Methodist Church denomination, which in 1940 had voted officially at its governing General Conference to endorse pacifism.

After Pearl Harbor, the Methodist bishops quickly did damage control, declaring, "In this crisis, as in all previous crises in our history, the Methodists of America will support our President and our nation."

Even in 1944, the Methodist Church's governing convention debated the war and narrowly defeated the 1940 pacifist stance in favor of resistance to aggression. The body declared instead, "We repudiate the theory, that a state, even though imperfect in itself, must not fight against intolerable wrongs....We are well within the Christian position when we assert the necessity of the use of military forces to resist an aggression which would overthrow every right which is held sacred by civilized men."

Pacifism had taken strong root in America's mainline churches after World War I. Reverend Fox, along among the Immortal Four, was a World War I veteran, having enlisted in the U.S. Army at age 17. Serving in an ambulance company, he was gassed twice. During the second gassing, he had removed his own mask to place it on a wounded American officer, whom he rescued while under fire, and for which he was awarded the Silver Star.

Fox's son has recounted that his father had been called "the little minister" even as a teen-age soldier because of his stature (he grew to 5 feet 4 inches tall) and his proficiency in settling religious arguments.

After World War I, Fox sensed the call to ministry, attending Boston School of Theology, a Methodist school that ironically was central to importing European pacifist theologies into American religious thought. Fox went on to pastor Methodist churches in the Berkshire villages of northern Vermont.

AT THE TIME of Pearl Harbor, Fox was already 41 and had a son old enough to join the U.S. Marines. But the older Fox did not hesitate to enlist as a U.S. Army Chaplain in early 1942.

He would meet the other three of the Immortal Four at Army Chaplains School at Harvard University. Like the other three, Fox enlisted for overseas duty, believing that his World War I combat experience would equip him for ministry among young soldiers.

The USAT Dorchester was a converted passenger liner that was among three troop transport ships that had left New York for Greenland. Heading through "Torpedo Ally," the ship's captain had ordered the men to sleep in their clothes with their life vests close by, but the crowded heat of the ship barracks had persuaded many to ignore these orders.

The torpedo strike, which would sink the ship in less than 30 minutes, pushed hundreds of men onto the deck, many unclothed in the February night.

Amid the chaos, as panicking soldiers capsized their crowded lifeboats, while others jumped or fought over life jackets, the chaplains helped people while they calmly witnessed to their faith.

Those among the 200 survivors who saw them would never forget.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.