by Peter Bodley
Four chaplains who gave their lives some 69 years ago during World War II in a selfless act of heroism were remembered at the Coon Rapids American Legion Sunday afternoon.The Legion hosted the Four Chaplains Memorial Service in memory of Lt. George Fox, Lt. Alexander Goode, Lt. John Washington and Lt. Clark Poling, who were aboard a troop ship that was sunk by a German U-boat torpedo off the coast of Newfoundland Feb. 3, 1943.
The National American Legion has asked its posts to have an annual remembrance service to recognize what The Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation, Philadelphia, Pa., describes as “an enduring example of extraordinary faith, courage and selflessness.”
But according to Jim Dingle, Coon Rapids American Legion chaplain, who organized Sunday’s event, it has been some years since the Coon Rapids Legion has hosted the service.
Diane Bohlman, Coon Rapids American Legion Auxiliary chaplain, read the saga of the four chaplains – a rabbi (Goode), a Catholic priest (Washington), and Methodist minister (Fox) and a Dutch Reformed Church pastor (Poling).
Presenting the individual life stories of the four chaplains were Rev. Mark Miller, Coon Rapids Methodist Church, who spoke about Fox; Paul R. Bird, Coon Rapids American Legion, who talked about Goode; Rev. Dennis Zehren, Church of the Epiphany, whose presentation was on Washington; and Rev. Mark Tiede, Zion Lutheran Church, Anoka, who gave Poling’s life story.
The four chaplains had first met at the Chaplains School at Harvard in 1942, then were reunited when they were assigned to the USAT Dorchester, a former luxury coastal liner that had been converted into an Army transport ship, in January.
The ship was en route to an American base in Greenland, with 902 service men, merchant seamen and civilian workers aboard.
It was one of three ships in a convoy escorted by three Coast Guard cutters, but off Newfoundland one of the cutters detected a German U-boat with its sonar.
Only 150 miles from its destination, at 12:55 a.m. Feb. 3, three torpedoes were fired by the U-boat at the Dorchester, one of them striking the starboard side, far below the water line.
The captain gave orders to abandon ship, which sank in less than 20 minutes.
Amid the panic and chaos aboard the Dorchester – the blast had killed scores of men and many more were seriously wounded – the four Army chaplains (Fox, Goode, Washington and Poling) “brought hope in despair and light in darkness,” according to The Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation account read by Bohlman.
“Quietly and quickly the four chaplains spread out among the soldiers,” Bohlman read. “There they tried to calm the frightened, tend the wounded and guide to the disoriented to safety.”
Witnesses said the chaplains offered prayers for the dying and encouragement and courage for those who would live.
“Their voices were the only thing that kept going,” said Pvt. William B. Bednar, one of the survivors.
According to Bohlman, when most of the men were topside, the chaplains opened a storage locker and began handing out life jackets.
“When there were no more lifejackets in the storage room, the chaplains removed their life jackets and gave them to four young men.
“The altruistic action of the four chaplains constitutes one of the purest spiritual and ethical acts a person can make,” Bohlman said, quoting from the foundation account of the events that night.
“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 Reverends Fox and Poling call out for a Protestant.
“They simply gave their life jackets to the next man in line.”
And as the ship went down, survivors in nearby rafts could see the four chaplains, arms linked and braced against the slanting deck, their voices offering prayers.
Of the 902 men aboard the Dorchester, 672 died and there were 230 survivors.
“That night Reverend Fox, Rabbi Goode, Reverend Poling and Father Washington passed the ultimate test,” Bohlman said, quoting the foundation story.
“In doing so, they became an enduring example of extraordinary faith, courage and selflessness.”
The four chaplains were awarded posthumously the Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart in December 1944 and in January 1951, they received a posthumous one-time only Special Medal for Heroism authorized by the Congress and awarded by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Goode was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in May 1911 and followed his father as a rabbi, receiving his first assignment in 1936, while Poling, who was born in August 1910 in Columbus, Ohio, and whose father was first an evangelical minister then a Baptist pastor, was ordained a Reformed Church minister in 1936. His father was a chaplain in World War I.
Washington was born in Newark, N.J., in 1908 and was ordained a Catholic priest in 1935, while Fox, who was born in Lewistown, Pa., in March 1900 was a World War I veteran when he was a medical corps assistant, earning the Silver Star and Purple Heart. He was ordained a Methodist minister in 1934.
As their individual stories were read, Miller lit a candle in memory of Fox, Bird in memory of Goode, Zehren in memory of Washington and Tiede in memory of Poling.
Betty Orton, state VFW department soloist and director of the Coon Rapids Senior Center, sang two hymns accompanied by Ruth Berg at the piano.
Miller gave the invocation, while Zehren delivered the benediction.
The Coon Rapids American Legion Color Guard comprising Steve Christensen, Joyce Semmel, Flora Ellefson, Erv Eckmann, Tom Bohlman, Butch Banken and Ted Kaspszak advanced and retired the colors, while Tom Bohlman played “Taps” on the trumpet.
Coon Rapids American Legion Commander Stacie McCabe gave the welcome, with Helen Steffen, Coon Rapids American Legion Auxiliary president, delivering final remarks.
Peter Bodley is at [email protected]