Immortal sacrifice

Top row: George Lansing Fox, Alexander David Goode. Bottom row: Clark Vandersall Poling, John Patrick Washington

When World War II broke out, a young Dutch Reformed minister named Clark Poling wanted immediately to enlist. His father, Daniel Poling, was also a minister, and a pioneer in broadcast ministry who had a weekly radio program in the 1920s and 1930s. His father had also been a chaplain during World War I, and had been hit by a gas attack.

Clark initially resisted the idea of following his father into the chaplaincy — that seemed like a cop-out at a time when, surely, men of action were more necessary to the survival of the Free World. But Daniel Poling gently pointed out to his son that since chaplains are unarmed, it actually takes more courage for them to be on the front lines.

Clark Poling became a chaplain. And on Feb. 2, 1943, he and three of his fellow chaplains — Methodist pastor George Fox, Catholic priest John Washington and rabbi Alexander Goode — became immortal.

The “Four Chaplains,” or the “Immortal Chaplains,” as they are sometimes called, are the central figures in what I consider one of the most moving stories of heroism and sacrifice in military history. I first learned of the story many years ago, when some group — I think it was the DAR, although Dad doesn’t remember exactly — invited my father, a United Methodist minister and a history teacher, to present a program. I had stopped by my parents’ home and noticed the stack of materials Dad had gathered to research his program on the Four Chaplains. I borrowed the non-fiction book “Sea Of Glory” by Francis Thornton, and devoured it. Sadly, the book is now out of print.

About a decade ago, I bought a different book with that same title, “Sea Of Glory,” by Ken Wales and David Poling (a cousin of Clark Poling). This one, released on September 1, 2001, was a novel, and while I was pleased to see the story of the chaplains preserved, I found the novelization kind of cheesy and contrived.

For my birthday on Tuesday, one of my gifts was an Amazon card, and one of several things I bought with it was the Kindle edition of No Greater Glory: The Four Immortal Chaplains and the Sinking of the Dorchester in World War II, by Dan Kurzman. This one is exactly what I had been hoping for — a gripping, thoroughly-researched non-fiction book that reads with the narrative power of fiction.

The four chaplains had not known each other long, but seemed, according to all accounts, unusually close and collegial, and they were a powerful team in ministering to the troops on board the SS Dorchester. This was an Army transport ship — a former ocean liner jury-rigged into service for moving soldiers across the ocean. It was under Army command, operated by the Merchant Marine, with naval officers working the radio and radar. (At a luncheon today, I happened to be seated at the same table with Brent Canady, a local banker who had a distinguished career as a Navy captain. When I mentioned the story to him, he remarked that the Army actually has far more ships than many people realize.)

The Dorchester was part of a convoy on its way to Greenland, although many of the enlisted men on board didn’t know their actual destination. That trip carried the ship through waters infested by both icebergs and German U-boats. On the night of Feb. 2, German submarine U-223, which was supposed to be waiting for reinforcements, decided it had a chance to sink an unidentified nearby Allied ship and fired three torpedoes, one of which hit the Dorchester.

The passengers on the Dorchester — soldiers, remember, not sailors — had been told to wear their life jackets and even their parkas to bed in case of a submarine attack. But the ship was miserable below decks, and many of the men had been suffering from nausea and seasickness from the treacherous journey. When the torpedo hit, confusion reigned supreme, as soldiers looked for their life jackets and outerwear and tried to find their assigned lifeboat or raft.

There were more than enough life boats for the 900 or so men on board the ship, but in the confusion some of them were destroyed or inaccessible due to the icy weather. And many of the soldiers did not have life jackets.

The four chaplains worked tirelessly to load men into lifeboats, and in the process each of the four gave away his life jacket to a soldier in need of one. One of them gave away his gloves, telling a soldier the white lie that he had another pair handy.

There are several accounts of soldiers seeing the men, arm-in-arm, going down with the ship. Many accounts have them praying or singing.

Kurzman does a great job at telling the Four Chaplains’ story, including their diverse backgrounds and childhoods. But this book is not about the four chaplains alone. He also does a wonderful job telling us about the survivors, and the general atmosphere that surrounded the Dorchester’s voyage and its tragic end.

There’s also some controversy. Strict operational rules, which some feel were applied wrongly, hindered some of the other ships in the convoy from beginning rescue operations as quickly as they might have. Those rules were based on the possibility that other submarines might be nearby and ready to attack the other ships in the convoy while they were distracted by rescue operations. In truth, there was only one sub, and as soon as it had delivered its fatal blow it went into hiding, fearful of depth charges from the other ships in the convoy.

A little more than 200 of the 900 men aboard the ship were rescued. Many others froze in the North Atlantic waters, the little flashing red lights on their life jackets signaling their presence.

The Four Chaplains were recognized with a postage stamp in 1948, which required bending the rules because they had not yet been dead the required 10 years. The justification was that their names were not included and that the stamp commemorated an event rather than a person or persons. (The same type of justification was later used to release stamps featuring Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.)

Today, though, I don’t think a lot of people know the story. When I first ordered the Kurzman book, I had to post on the wall of my Facebook friend Robert Richard Stevenson. We worked together on the shipping floor of Empire Pencil Company during our summers home from college, and Richard went on to become a chaplain in the Army.

He was delighted to hear of my interest in the Four Chaplains and mentioned various places they are memorialized at military bases. (The cover of Kurzman’s book is a stained glass window at the Pentagon.) The facility in South Carolina where Army chaplains are trained has teaching halls named for each of the four chaplains.

This is a great book, and I highly recommend it. Even if you don’t read the book, take a few moments and look up some of the information about the chaplains online. Their message of service, of interfaith understanding, and of heroic self-sacrifice is something we need a lot more of today.