Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Celebrate Chaplains' Day

Faith, combat and the sea come together sometimes in life and reveal the true nature of men.

On Feb. 3, 1943, the USAT Dorchester, a converted luxury cruise ship, was transporting Army troops to Greenland in World War II, escorted by three Coast Guard Cutters and accompanied by two slow moving freighters. On board were some 900 troops, and four chaplains, of diverse religions and backgrounds, but of a common faith and commitment to serve God, country and all the troops, regardless of their religious beliefs, or non-belief. The Four Chaplains are: Rev. George Fox (Methodist); Father John Washington (Roman Catholic); Jewish Rabbi Alexander Goode; and Rev. Clark Poling (Dutch Reformed).

At approximately 12:55 a.m., in the dead of a freezing night, the Dorchester was hit by a torpedo fired by Nazi U-boat 233 in an area so infested with German submarines it was known as "Torpedo Junction." The blast ripped a hole in the ship from below the waterline to the top deck. The engine room was instantly flooded. Crewmen who were not scalded to death by steam escaping from broken pipes and the ship's boiler, were drowned. Hundreds of troops in the flooded lower compartments were drowned, or washed out to the frigid waters, where most would die.

In less than a minute, the Dorchester lost way, and listed on a 30-degree angle. Troops on deck searched for life jackets in panic, clung to rails and other handholds, saw overloaded lifeboats overturn in the turgid water, leaped overboard as a last desperate hope for life. Many with lifejackets drowned when the life-preservers became water-logged. Of the 900 troops and crew on board, two-thirds would ultimately die – most of those who survived, had lifelong infirmities and pain from their time in the icy waters.

Dorchester survivors told of the wild pandemonium on board when it was hit and began sinking. Many men had not slept in their clothes and life vests as ordered because of the heat in the crowded quarters below. There was panic, fear, terror – death was no abstraction but real, immediate, seemingly inescapable.
The Four Chaplains acted together to try bring some order to the chaos, to calm the panic of the troops, to alleviate their fear and terror, to pray with and for them, to help save their lives and souls. The chaplains passed out lifejackets, helping those too panicked to put them on correctly, until the awful moment arrived when there were no more life jackets to be given out. It was then that a most remarkable act of heroism, courage, faith and love took place:

Each of the Four Chaplains took off his life jacket, and, knowing that act made death certain, put his life jacket on a soldier who didn't have one, refusing to listen to any protest that they should not make such a sacrifice. They continued to help the troops until the last moment.

Then, as the ship sank into the raging sea, the Four Chaplains linked hands and arms, and could be seen and heard by the survivors praying together, even singing hymns, joined together in faith, love and unity as they sacrificed their lives so "that others might live."

The few survivors testified to the selfless act of the Four Chaplains:
"The ship started sinking ... and as I left the ship, I looked back and saw the chaplains ... with their hands clasped, praying for the boys. They never made any attempt to save themselves, but they did try to save the others. I think their names should be on the list of 'The Greatest Heroes' of this war," testified Grady L. Clark.

"I saw all four chaplains take off their life belts and give them to soldiers who had none ... The last I saw of them they were still praying, talking and preaching to the soldiers," attested survivor Thomas W.Myers Jr.

The Chaplain's Medal for Heroism is a decoration of the United States military which was authorized by an act of the United States Congress on July 14, 1960. Also known as the Chaplain's Medal of Honor and the Four Chaplains' Medal, the decoration commemorates the actions of the Four Chaplains who gave their lives in the line of duty on February 3, 1943.

Because the medal has only been authorized posthumously, and only for one action, it is generally considered a commemorative decoration not intended for wear on a military uniform. The medal also does not appear on any military award precedence charts, although it is considered to be ranking just below the Medal of Honor. The Chaplain's Medal for Heroism could technically be awarded again, if Congress ever bestowed the decoration for future acts of heroism involving military chaplains. Can you think of any Chaplain's action that would have qualified for this medal?

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