In a prior post I asked why is it important to study history? Some of the possible answers included things like: to help us better understand people and societies; to help us understand change; and to help us better define our own identities.
Remembering is different from studying – we hold remembrance ceremonies and erect monuments to accomplish several things (including, but not limited to):
- honoring the sacrifice of others,
- paying respect to people who paved the way for us to enjoy the liberty, freedom and peace that we currently enjoy, and
- teaching young people character lessons about their role and responsibility as a participating citizen.
Monuments and ceremonies may commemorate broadly defined topics like veterans who died in World War II, or more specific events like the attack on Pearl Harbor. When the moment in time is specifically defined and the details are clear, we can honor specific people whose actions were notable for courage, compassion or leadership in a time of chaos and calamity.
One such event occurred when four chaplains gave their lives in selfless service to their fellow soldiers in the early in the morning hours of February 3rd, 1943.
The U.S.A.T. Dorchester, a former luxury coastal liner, converted into an Army transport ship was struck by a torpedo at 12:55 AM. The vessel was crowded to capacity, carrying 902 service men, merchant seamen and civilian workers.1 The damage was significant, including the loss of electrical power and/or radio functions. The ship was sunk within 20 minutes with the loss of 672 men. Only 230 survived.
“Aboard theDorchester, panic and chaos had set in. The blast had killed scores of men, and many more were seriously wounded. Others, stunned by the explosion were groping in the darkness. Those sleeping without clothing rushed topside where they were confronted first by a blast of icy Arctic air and then by the knowledge that death awaited.
Men jumped from the ship into lifeboats, over-crowding them to the point of capsizing, according to eyewitnesses. Other rafts, tossed into the Atlantic, drifted away before soldiers could get in them.
Through the pandemonium, according to those present, four Army chaplains brought hope in despair and light in darkness. Those chaplains were Lt. George L. Fox, Methodist; Lt. Alexander D. Goode, Jewish; Lt. John P. Washington, Roman Catholic; and Lt. Clark V. Poling, Dutch Reformed.
Quickly and quietly, the four chaplains spread out among the soldiers. There they tried to calm the frightened, tend the wounded and guide the disoriented toward safety.
“Witnesses of that terrible night remember hearing the four men offer prayers for the dying and encouragement for those who would live,” says Wyatt R. Fox, son of Reverend Fox.
One witness, Private William B. Bednar, found himself floating in oil-smeared water surrounded by dead bodies and debris. “I could hear men crying, pleading, praying,” Bednar recalls. “I could also hear the chaplains preaching courage. Their voices were the only thing that kept me going.”
Another sailor, Petty Officer John J. Mahoney, tried to reenter his cabin but Rabbi Goode stopped him. Mahoney, concerned about the cold Arctic air, explained he had forgotten his gloves.
“Never mind,” Goode responded. “I have two pairs.” The rabbi then gave the petty officer his own gloves. In retrospect, Mahoney realized that Rabbi Goode was not conveniently carrying two pairs of gloves, and that the rabbi had decided not to leave the Dorchester.
By this time, most of the men were topside, and the chaplains opened a storage locker and began distributing life jackets. It was then that Engineer Grady Clark witnessed an astonishing sight.
When there were no more life jackets in the storage room, the chaplains removed theirs and gave them to four frightened young men.
“It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven,” said John Ladd, another survivor who saw the chaplains’ selfless act.
Ladd’s response is understandable. The altruistic action of the four chaplains constitutes one of the purest spiritual and ethical acts a person can make. When giving their life jackets, Rabbi Goode did not call out for a Jew; Father Washington did not call out for a Catholic; nor did the Reverends Fox and Poling call out for a Protestant. They simply gave their life jackets to the next man in line.
As the ship went down, survivors in nearby rafts could see the four chaplains–arms linked and braced against the slanting deck. Their voices could also be heard offering prayers.”
On February 3rd of each year, commemoration services are held to remember the four chaplains. Their story should challenge each of us to do our very best in all circumstances each day.
The Boy Scout motto is “be prepared.” In the first edition of the Boy Scout Handbook, the motto is explained in this manner:
“The motto, “Be Prepared,” means that the scout is always in a state of readiness in mind and body to do his duty. To be prepared in mind, by having disciplined himself to be obedient, and also by having thought out beforehand any accident or situation that may occur, so that he may know the right thing to do at the right moment, and be willing to do it. To be prepared in body, by making himself strong and active and able to do the right thing at the right moment, and then to do it. [emphasis added]
When we make time to remember the heroism of individuals, we can teach young men:
- the value of being ready for whatever circumstances may arise,
- to recognize the nobility of selflessness over the materialism of a “me-first” attitude
- that scouting ideals connect to real life situations
- that we should honor and respect those who’ve sacrificed to help others.
If you’d like to learn more about the Four Chaplains, please visit: http://www.fourchaplains.org/