Flags are flying at half-staff in Minnesota Feb. 3, but it isn’t because of a recent military casualty. It’s in memory of the heroic sacrifice made exactly 69 years ago by four Army chaplains on a troop transport ship torpedoed in the icy North Atlantic in the middle of World War II.
Gov. Mark Dayton has proclaimed Feb. 3 Immortal Four Chaplains Day in the state of Minnesota to honor the men and their interfaith spirit.
A Catholic News Service story from 2002 recalled the tragic, yet inspiring, story of the four chaplains — Father John Washington, a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J.; the Rev. Clark Poling, a Dutch Reformed minister; Jewish Rabbi Alexander Goode; and the Rev. George Fox, a Methodist.
Gone in 18 minutes
On Feb. 3, 1943, a German U-boat fired three torpedoes at the Dorchester. One of them hit the ship’s boiler room, and it started to sink quickly.
David Fox, a nephew of Rev. Fox, told the story:
After the torpedo hit, “the chaplains were the first on board to calm the men. [They] found the lockers with lifejackets in them, handed them out and, when they ran out, witnesses said that … the chaplains simply removed their own and placed them on the men. They never asked, ‘What religion are you? What race are you?’ It didn’t matter to them. It was simply an action of compassion and love they extended to their fellow human being.”
Fox said the four men “were last seen, as the ship rolled onto its side, standing on the hull of the ship. All joined hands together — with heads bowed — praying together, each in their own way, as the ship went down with 672 men.” It was the third largest loss of life at sea for the United States during World War II.
The Dorchester sank in just 18 minutes about 100 miles off the coast of Greenland. Although it resulted in a huge loss of life, the chaplains’ actions are credited with helping to save the lives of 230 men.
The chaplains’ story is forever linked with their actions on the Dorchester, but they also changed lives before that fateful day.
A niece of Father Washington, Joanne Brunetti, spoke in the same CNS story about her uncle, who “knew from the time he got out of grammar school that his calling was to be a priest.”
She remembered him as a “friendly, outgoing, fun-loving” man with a great sense of humor and a love of music who enjoyed working with youths.
“He ran the CYO and ran the youth groups in the parish. He took young teen-agers who had never been to a Broadway show to matinees just to open up their minds. He was just always trying to do something to make things better for someone else … and bridge the gap of the generations.”
Today, the chaplains’ memory lives on in sculptures, plaques and chapels around the country, including at nearby Fort Snelling Memorial Chapel, which features a stained glass window of the men.
Today, after reading those words of David Fox, I can’t get them out of my mind: “They never asked, ‘What religion are you? What race are you?’ It didn’t matter to them. It was simply an action of compassion and love they extended to their fellow human being.”
If only we heeded those words more often in our own lives, particularly when it isn’t easy and when the cost may be great. That’s the legacy the chaplains leave us — an example that we should never forget and that we should always try to emulate.