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Passing Parade: The Last Ounce of Courage

Nelson A. Pryor: Guest Columnist

Everyday heroes! Yes, that describes the four chaplains and their sacrifice. It was on Feb. 3, 1943, that the U.S.A.T. Dorchester, a military transport ship carrying 902 American servicemen and civilian workers, was torpedoed by a German submarine. The Dorchester was about 100 miles off the coast of Greenland. And it took about 18 minutes to sink below the frigid sea.

On board, panic had ensued. The sailors who were not killed in the explosion or trapped below rushed to the decks, where some of the lifeboats had frozen to the ship, survivors recounted. But four chaplains standing on the decks remained calm, distributing life jackets. When the supply ran out, the chaplains gave out their own, to the awaiting sailors.

The Feb. 5, 2018, New York Times, p. 15 a, carried the story as: “Remembering Four Chaplains And Their Sacrifice.”

Moved By the Memory

Stirred by witness accounts of how the men gave up their life jackets, the US government in 1944 posthumously awarded each chaplain the Distinguished Service Cross and a Purple Heart. In 1948, a postage stamp was dedicated in their honor. In 1988, Feb. 3 was established by a unanimous Act of Congress as an annual “Four Chaplains Day.”

Only 230 men survived the sinking of the Dorchester, making it one of the worst naval tragedies for Americans in World War II.

Inspired Leadership

Witnesses recalled seeing the four chaplains standing with arms interlocked, each praying in his own way, as the ship sunk. They were Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant: Rabbi Alexander B. Goode, the Rev. George L. Fox, a Methodist Minister, the Rev. Clark Poling of the Reformed Church in America, and the Rev. John P. Washington, a Roman Catholic priest.

Onward Christian Soldiers

As the Andrew Sisters used to sing: “We’ve got a job to do,” so have the rest of us. Keeping the memory of the four chaplains alive is growing more difficult. Mrs. Christine Beady, the executive director of the Four Chaplains Foundation, in Philadelphia, explains the difficult situation. The number of World War II veterans is shrinking. According to U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 558,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II were still alive in 2017.

They are dying at the rate of 362 per day, the department reports. Among the survivors of the Dorchester disaster that day, only one remains alive: Bill Bunkelman, who is in a nursing home in Michigan, Mrs. Beady said.

Awards for Valor

The Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation tries to raise awareness through scholarship competitions, awards for valor, school group visits to its chapel and by funding an emergency chaplain corps.

Faith of our Fathers

Each year on the first Sunday in February, St. Stephen’s Roman Catholic Church, of Kearny, N. J., rings with the remembrance of a selfless act of valor now 75 years old.

Before volunteering for the war in 1942, Father Washington, one of those chaplains, had last served at the Kearny, NJ church, and each year, a Mass is celebrated in honor of him and the other chaplains, attracting veterans from near and far.

Many are called, but few are chosen for the ultimate sacrifice. Greatness is among us. When called, let’s measure up!

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