Great Cloud of Witness: The Dorchester Chaplains
On January 23, 1943, the USAT Dorchester, a converted cruise ship, set sail with a troop convoy from New York City for Greenland, with 902 persons on board. Among them were four U.S. Army chaplains, Lt. George L. Fox (Methodist), Lt. Alexander D. Goode (Jewish), Lt. Clark V. Poling (Dutch Reformed), Lt. John P. Washington (Roman Catholic).
George Fox had served as a medical corps assistant in WWI, where he was decorated for heroism. Alexander Good joined the National Guard while he was studying for the rabbinate. Clark Poling’s father told him that chaplains had a high mortality rate. He prayed for strength, courage, and understanding, then joined the Army Chaplains Corps. John Washington was a gang leader in Newark, New Jersey, when he was called to the priesthood.
On February 3, one day from their destination, a German U-Board fired torpedoes, striking the boiler room of the Dorchester. Even though everyone was sleeping with their life jackets, many of the soldiers left them behind as they clambered topside to seek escape and safety. Unfortunately, only two of the fourteen lifeboats were successfully lowered into the water, making it necessary for most men to dive into the nineteen degree water.
The four chaplains moved among the men, assisting, calming, and passing out life jackets from the ship’s store to those forced to jump into the freezing ocean. Having given up their own life vests to save the lives of the soldiers, the chaplains remained on the aft deck, arms linked in prayer until the ship sank, claiming their lives. Two hundred thirty men were rescued from the icy waters by other ships in the convoy. Many survived because of the selflessness and heroism of the four chaplains. The memory of the self-sacrifice of the chaplains is maintained today within the United States military chaplain corps.
Chaplains Fox, Goode, Poling, and Washington responded to a high calling to represent God’s love among men or war. On the day they died, they personified the words of Jesus found in John 15:13: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”
Holy God, you inspired the Dorchester chaplains to be models of steadfast sacrificial love in a tragic and terrifying time; Help us to follow their example, that their courageous ministry may inspire chaplains and all who serve, to recognize your presence in the midst of peril; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.