In the early morning hours of Feb. 3, 1943, the USS Dorchester churned through the icy waters from Newfoundland toward an American military base in Greenland.
The 5,649-ton vessel was once a cruise ship and had been converted into a military transport vessel as a part of the war effort. Over 900 soldiers, merchant marines and civilian workers were aboard when a German submarine fired the torpedoes that struck the Dorchester. One of them struck the starboard side, at mid-ship, far below the water line.
Captain Hans J. Danielson immediately ordered the crew to abandon ship. The Dorchester would sink within 20 minutes of being hit. The tragic end of the story was that 672 Americans died that night. There were 230 survivors.
But there is another part of the story that lives on in the hearts and minds of the American people. It is a story of religious ecumenicism that we desperately need to remember in times like today.
Imagine the pandemonium racing through the crew, the fear and terror spreading like wildfire. There were four military chaplains on the Dorchester who also met their fate on that night, but what they did before their deaths would be enshrined in American history. Rabbi Alexander L. Goode (Jewish), the Rev. George P. Fox (Methodist), Father John P. Washington (Roman Catholic) and the Rev. Clark V. Poling (Dutch Reformed) began distributing life jackets to the crew.
According to survivor accounts, the four worked to calm the crew and assist them in their efforts to abandon ship. They recited prayers for the injured who had no chance of survival. They tried to instill courage and determination in the sailors. When there were no more life jackets, the chaplains took off their own and gave them to four terrified sailors.
“It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven,” said John Ladd, a survivor who saw the chaplains’ selfless act. Survivor accounts also remember that, as the ship sank into the sea, the chaplains linked arms and recited prayers until their final breaths.
The nation was shocked at the death of so many, but the courage and faith of the four chaplains would provide an element of inspiration and comfort to America in the ensuing years of the war and much later on.
In 1951, eight years to the day of the sinking, a special chapel was constructed and dedicated to these heroic men. The chapel is on Constitution Avenue in Philadelphia’s Naval Yard. President Harry Truman spoke at the chapel’s dedication.
“This chapel commemorates something more than an act of bravery or courage. It commemorates a great act of faith in God,” Truman said. “Those four chaplains actually carried out the moral code which we are all supposed to live by. They obeyed the divine commandment that men should love one another. They really lived up to the moral standard that declares: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
Finally, Truman uttered words that speak to us today.
“We must never forget that this country was founded by men who came to these shores to worship God as they pleased. Catholics, Jews and Protestants, all came here for this great purpose.
“They did not come here to do as they pleased, but to worship God as they pleased, and that is a most important distinction. The unity of our country comes from this fact. The unity of our country is a unity under God. It is a unity in freedom, for the service of God is perfect freedom.
“If we remember our faith in God, if we live by it as our forefathers did, we need have no fear for the future.”
Those words resonate today in the face of the fear that seems to be pervasive in our society, particularly regarding religion and unity in our nation. Truman reminded us then that religious diversity was and is a strength in the moral fiber of America. These four chaplains gave up their lives for the cause of freedom. They understood that, in a time of war, Americans could unify by transcending religious differences and taught us the lesson that, when there is a respect for unity in our nation, the fear of the future could never divide us.
When we observe Memorial Day this year, there will be many stories of the sort of bravery shown that night on the Dorchester.
These days we hear a lot of talk about religious freedom in regard to politics and freedom of speech. But the real freedom of religion that America gave us was achieved by paying a high price in time of war. This is why we need to treat Memorial Day with the utmost respect for the fallen of our nation.
Aren’t these the kinds stories that are supposed to remind us that religious freedom not only prevails in battle but should help us fashion a unity of spirit that brings us together for the welfare of America in time of peace as well?
Should we not take heed of Truman’s words that fear for the future of America can be abated if we remember to respect the humanity and aspiration of all religions?
The supreme sacrifice of the Dorchester chaplains 74 years ago should also teach clergy that we, too, need to forge bonds of friendship and devotion to each other for the betterment of our nation and our faith traditions.