Clergy Appreciation Week


The Four Chaplains

On February the 3rd, 1943 the USS Dorchester, a US Army transport ship, cut through the frigid waters of the North Atlantic carrying 905 servicemen, merchant seaman, and civilian workers from Newfoundland to Greenland in support of the wartime effort. Little did they know their mission would be cut short as they encountered the treacherous waters infested with Nazi submarines.

Just a few hours short of its destination, the Dorchester was hit by a torpedo from a Nazi submarine that had been following the vessel undetected. Many of the men were trapped below decks and died instantly when the torpedo hit. Those surviving the initial blast fell from their bunks and made their way to the upper deck. The ship began to list starboard, and since distress signals were prohibited for security reasons, other escort ships continued in the darkness unaware the Dorchester had been hit. Overcrowded lifeboats capsized while many drifted away before anyone could reach them.

Four ChaplainsFour men of God helped quiet the panic and fear of the soldiers aboard, as their sinking ship slipped into the icy waters of the North Atlantic. Amongst the confusion and terror of the incident, Army Chaplains George L. Fox, Alexander D. Goode, Clark V. Poling, and John P. Washington moved about the ship, calming the frightened and bewildered soldiers while directing them to life boats. The chaplains distributed life jackets without any regard for their own safety. Suddenly they came upon four soldiers without life vests. The chaplains hastily stripped off their own vests and gave them to the young soldiers.

The Four men of God (one Catholic, one Jewish, and two Protestant) had given their only means of saving themselves in order to save others. Those rowing away from the sinking ship in lifeboats saw the chaplains clinging to each other on the listing deck. Their arms were linked together as their heads were bowed praying to the one God whom each of them loved and served. The Dorchester sank beneath the icy waters of the North Atlantic, she carried with her the four chaplains and some 675 servicemen.

In Remembrance...

Every year in the first week of February, Civitan's nationwide pause to remember and say thank you to the clergy of all faiths in their communities. Clergy Appreciation Week is a significant event throughout North America. The week has been sponsored by Civitan clubs since 1960 when the Albuquerque, N. M. Breakfast Civitan Club first set aside the week to honor its community clergy. Since then Civitan Clubs have spread this idea to countless other communities.

The Four...

George FoxGeorge L. Fox was the oldest of the chaplains. In Vermont they called him “The Little Minister” because he was only five feet, seven inches tall. In 1917 he lied about his age and enlisted in the Marines as a medical corps assistant, winning a Silver Star for rescuing a wounded soldier from a battlefield of poison gas. He did not have a gas mask on. He won the French Croix de Guerre – and months in a hospital with a broken spine – for outstanding bravery in an artillery barrage. When he came home, he continued his education and became a public accountant as he had planned. He was successful, happily married, with two children. One evening he came home from work and told his wife he wanted to study for the ministry. She approved, so George Fox became a minister. When war came again he told his wife, “I’ve got to go, I know from experience what our boys are about to face. They need me.” Once again George L. Fox went off to war. Before he boarded the Dorchester, he wrote a letter to his daughter. She received it after the news that the ship was torpedoed. “I want you to know,” he wrote, “how proud I am that your marks in school are so high — but always remember that kindness, charity and courtesy are much more important.”

Alexander GoodeAlexander D. Goode was too young for World War I. He was receiving medals at Eastern High School, Washington, D. C., for tennis, swimming, and track. He led his class in scholarship, too. He planned to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a Rabbi, but that did not keep him from having a fun-loving, out-going boyhood with all the Protestant and Catholic boys in the neighborhood. When the body of the Unknown Soldier was brought to Arlington National Cemetery, Alexander Goode attended the ceremonies. He could just as well have ridden that 15 miles – there were trolleys and busses in Washington, and the Goode family had a fine family car. But he thought it showed more respect to walk; and walk he did – all the way to Arlington and all the way back home . . . 30 miles. That was how he felt about the Unknown Soldier. He married his childhood sweetheart, and they had four children. One day in 1943 Mrs. Goode received a telegram from her husband . . . “Having a wonderful experience,” it read, and then Mrs. Goode knew that her husband had found warm companionship with the men with whom he could share his faith and his laughter.

Clark PolingClark V. Poling was the youngest of the chaplains. His first letter was written to his Father in square block printing. His Mother addressed it. The letter found Dr. Poling in 1918 on the Western Front of World War I. The letter read: “Dear Daddy: Gee, I wish I was where you are. Love, Clark.” And in 25 years, that eager little boy received his wish. Clark was the seventh generation in an unbroken line of ministers. He was ordained in a Dutch Reformed Church (Presbyterian Church) and assigned to a pulpit in Schenectady, New York. He married a girl named Betty and they had one little boy, Corky. A little girl was born to Mrs. Poling after the Dorchester’s sinking. When the war came along he did not want to go as a Chaplain. “I can carry a gun as well as the next guy,” he told his Father. “I’m not going to hide behind the Church in some safe office out of the firing line.” “I think you’re scared,” the elder Poling joked. “Don’t you know the mortality rate of the Chaplains is the highest of any? The only difference is, you can’t carry a gun to kill anyone yourself.” And so Clark Poling became a Chaplain. Just before Clark sailed he visited his father and said; “Dad, do not pray for my safe return – just pray that I do my duty . . . that I shall be adequate.” Dr. Poling said that was the prayer he prayed.

John WashingtonJohn P. Washington was a little Irish boy from Newark, New Jersey. Things were not always easy for the family of Irish immigrants. Things usually are not easy for people who are poor, but Johnny had his Father’s Irish grin and his Mother’s Irish ability to stick to a job, so Johnny sold newspapers. He liked to play ball as much as any other boy on his block, but if he took time off from his newspaper route, it was just so many pennies less to take home to Mom. There were nine mouths to feed in the Washington household. Johnny loved music and sang in the church choir, and became an altar boy. And Johnny was always laughing, right through his training as a priest and after being ordained. He played ball in the streets with the boys from his parish; he organized baseball teams, and when the war came along and his boys went into the Army, Father Johnny went right along with them as a matter of course. He received his appointment as a chaplain shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He attended chaplains school at Harvard with fellow Chaplains George L. Fox, Alexander D. Goode, and Clark V. Poling. They say that when the Dorchester went down, he was still laughing, singing, and praying to comfort those who could not reach a lifeboat.

Clergy StampAnd so these four men – Protestant, Catholic, Jew, from four different towns – the country boy from Vermont; the city boy from Washington; the slum kid from Newark; and the parson’s son from New York City – met on the Dorchester. It was a rendezvous with God. As they prayed, their voices rose above the cold, black, churning water: “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done . . . .” The hand of God plucked these four men from their parishes and set them together in an act of heroism that inspires people of goodwill today and forever. This information was written by Dovie Yeatts Install, who adapted this article from the books Ted Malone’s Favorite Stories and Faith is Power for You by Daniel A. Poling.