An Uncommon Brotherhood

The following is an article from the book Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Salutes the Armed Forces.

Four heroes who never saw a battlefield, but who left an impression on the people who witnessed their bravery.


The men who are known as “the Four Immortal Chaplains” came from varied religious backgrounds in an era when religions didn’t mix, so it was somewhat unusual that they became close friends at Chaplain’s School at Harvard University in 1942. They did have at least these things in common: three of the four had served as Boy Scout leaders, each held the rank of lieutenant in the U.S. Army, and each was a member of the Chaplain Corps.

The official duties of the Army’s Chaplain Corps were to serve their country through spiritual leadership, to minister to soldiers and their families, to lead worship, to visit the wounded, and to raise morale. A few months after their meeting, the four chaplains were appointed to accompany more than 900 soldiers and civilians who were being transported to Europe on the USAT Dorchester during World War II.

Colonel Frederick Gillespie Sr. was in charge of choosing the chaplains who would sailing the Dorchester. He’d completed his list, but at the last minute was forced to fill two spots when two chaplains were pulled from his roster. With a Protestant minister and a rabbi already on the list, Gillespie’s superior told him to find a second Protestant and a Catholic. For the later he chose John Washington, whom he didn’t know personally but who happened to be from his own hometown of Newark, New Jersey. The colonel’s other choice was Clark Poling, who was the son of a famous Baptist evangelist.


Rabbi Alexander Goode, 31, was the son of a rabbi. Born in Brooklyn, Goode was an all-around athlete in high school. He graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 1934 and earned a doctorate in Oriental languages from Johns Hopkins University in 1940. He and his wife Theresa -the niece of singer Al Jolson- had one daughter. He was one of the 309 rabbis who served during World War II.

Reverend Clark Poling, 32, born in Columbus, Ohio, was a seventh-generation Protestant minister whose father had served in the Chaplain Corps in World War I. A Yale divinity school grad, the younger Poling was a Dutch Reformed minister, married with one child. A second child was born three months after his death.

Father John P. Washington, 35, grew up in New Jersey, the oldest of six children in a middle-class Irish immigrant family. He earned diplomas from New Jersey’s Seton Hall University, and attended seminary in Darlington, New Jersey. His poor eyesight didn’t stop him from enlisting in the service; he tricked the Army into letting him serve by cheating on his eye exam.

Reverend George L. Fox, 41, from Pennsylvania, first enlisted in the Army at age 17, serving as a medical orderly during World War I. After the war, he completed high school and studied at Moody Bible Institute and Illinois Wesleyan University. Ordained as a Methodist minister in 1934, Fox reenlisted as an Army chaplain in 1942, the same day that his son, Wyatt, enlisted in the Marine Corps.

All four men were sociable, and the friendship forged at Chaplain’s School continued. They told jokes among themselves, ate and prayed together, and were eager to tend their shipboard flock.


The Dorchester was a retired luxury liner that had been converted into a military transport ship, one of three being escorted by three Coast Guard cutters (the Tampa, the Escanaba, and the Comanche) en route to Greenland. With a capacity load of 902 servicemen, merchant seaman, and civilian workers, the Dorchester was less than 150 miles from it destination on the night of February 3, 1943, when it cruised into the crosshairs of the German submarine U-223. Gthe U-boat fired three torpedoes at the Dorchester. Only one hit the ship, but it hit on the starboard side below the waterline and knocked out the ship’s power.

The captain gave the order to abandon ship, but panic had set in, disrupting any possibility of orderly evacuation. Men stood dazed on the deck. Others jumped into lifeboats, overcrowding and capsizing  them. Rafts were tossed from the ship into the icy waters, but drifted away before anyone could board them. In the midst of pandemonium, the chaplains remained composed. They spread out among the soldiers to calm them down, tend to the wounded, and guide disoriented men toward safety. Soldiers and crew lined up and the chaplains handed out life jackets from a storage locker. When the supply ran out, the chaplains removed their own life jackets and gave them to the next four men in line.

As the ship sank, the chaplains linked arms and braced themselves against the slanting deck, singing hymns and praying in Latin, Hebrew, and English. Survivors floating in life rafts heard their songs and prayers above the chaos. In less than 20 minutes, the Dorchester sank beneath the Atlantic waters. Two of the cutters, the Comanche and the Escanaba, had responded to the explosion, and picked up 229 survivors.


On December 19, 1944, the four chaplains were posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross. Congress has designated February 3 as “Four Chaplains Day.” To commemorate their service and sacrifice, the U.S. Postal Service issued a three-cents stamp in 1948.

The honor his deceased son, and to celebrate the Four Chaplain’s courage, Reverend Daniel Poling organized the Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation, a nonprofit organization honoring people whose deeds symbolize goodwill and cooperation as demonstrated by the four chaplains -a list that has included four presidents (Harry S, truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan), and famous figures like Bob Hope, John Glenn, and Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm.

The Chapel of the Four Chaplains, and interfaith chapel at Temple University in Philadelphia, was dedicated by President Harry S. Truman on February 3, 1951.

Several books have also kept the story alive, including Sea of Glory by Kan Wales and No Greater Glory by Dan Kurzman. A 2004 TV documentary, The Four Chaplains: Sacrifice at Sea, also told their remarkable tale of courage and selflessness.

(YouTube link)


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Salutes the Armed Forces.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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