by By Ben Ferguson
Acts of uncommon valor in the arena of battle, those of valiant warriors risking their own safety and survival to come to the aid of their “battle buddies,” are at the very heart of Jesus’ proclamation that, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).
Four WWII chaplains, who had studied and served together, put into practice one February morning in 1943 what they preached. They gave their lives so others might live.
The USAT Dorchester was a converted troop ship taking 902 souls from New York to war in Europe via Greenland. Anyone who’s ever been aboard a troop ship as a passenger, with troops huddled in every nook and cranny of the ship, knows it’s not a Princess Cruises excursion! The sights and smells of huddled humanity aren’t soon forgotten.
One day out of Greenland, a torpedo struck the side of the ship, killing all in the blast area, plunging the vessel into total darkness. Terrified and confused, the surviving soldiers scurried in search of exits and rescue boats.
Chaplains Alexander Goode, John Washington, Clark Poling and George Fox could have headed for the lifeboats. Instead, they went to different parts of the ship, assisting panicked and wounded soldiers to the top deck and rescue boats, handing out lifejackets to those who had left theirs behind, and giving their own away when all the lifejackets were gone.
Less than a half hour after the torpedo attack, the ship slipped below the icy waves. Inseparable at Harvard’s chaplain school, in war, and their final earthly moments, the four chaplains were last seen standing arm-in-arm against the slanted deck railing, leaning on each other. Above the din of the evacuating lifeboats the soldiers could hear Chaplain Goode, a rabbi, chanting in Hebrew, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). Chaplain Poling, a Reformed church pastor, was reciting the Lord’s Prayer while Chaplain Washington, a former New Jersey gang-member-turned Catholic priest, sang hymns of comfort.
The strongest human instinct is for survival. Why didn’t these four men immediately head to the lifeboats and save themselves? Chaplain Fox, a Methodist minister, told his wife when the war broke out, “I’ve got to go. I know from experience what our boys are about to face. They need me.” In a letter to his dad Chaplain Poling wrote, “Just pray I shall do my duty… that I shall never be a coward.”
Every chaplain who has come after them understands the risks assumed in becoming battle buddies to the warriors they accompany on their journeys through the valley of the shadow of death—many also making the same “no greater love” sacrifice as this brave quartet.
Ben, a Navy veteran, ministers as a chaplain to chaplains for Adopt-A-Chaplain. He also authored two books, God I’ve Got A Problem and The Shaping of A Man of Faith.