The Inspiring and Tragic Saga of the Four Chaplains During World War II

The remarkable heroism and interfaith cooperation of the Four Chaplains — one of whom has strong Connecticut connections — continues to move a nation and is remembered every February.


The torpedo struck the Dorchester at 12:55 am on Feb. 3, 1943, near the coast of Greenland in the North Atlantic. Within 27 minutes, the ship had disappeared beneath the waves into the cold water. Of the 902 people on board, only 230 survived — the third-worst sea disaster of the war. Among the dead were four Army chaplains: two Protestant ministers, a Jewish rabbi, and a Catholic priest.

After the explosion, the four chaplains spread out among the men onboard, calming the frightened, leading men to safety, and handing out life vests. Each eventually gave his life vest to a soldier onboard the Dorchester, thereby insuring his own death. Survivors saw the four chaplains on the foredeck of the ship — arms locked together and praying — as the ship went under. It was an unforgettable sight and has become a symbol of interfaith cooperation and heroism. One of the chaplains — Clark V. Poling — had strong connections to Connecticut.

At age 32, Poling was the youngest of the four chaplains. Born in Ohio in 1910, Poling spent much of his youth in Auburndale, MA,  and later moved to Poughkeepsie, NY, where he graduated from Oakwood — a Quaker high school. Poling was a very good student and athlete at Oakwood. After graduating from Rutgers in 1933, Clark Poling spent three years in New Haven, graduating from Yale Divinity School in 1936. His first assignment as a minister was with the First Church of Christ in New London.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Poling felt the need to serve his country as a chaplain,  just as his father — Rev. Daniel Poling — had once served in World War I. His father warned him of the high casualty rate for chaplains during wartime, but Clark remained undeterred and joined the U.S. Army as a chaplain in June of 1942. He soon attended chaplain school at Harvard University. It was at Harvard that Poling was to meet the three other chaplains who were to perish with him on the Dorchester: a Catholic priest from New Jersey named John P. Washington; a rabbi from Washington, D.C., named Alex Goode; and a Methodist minister from Pennsylvania named George L. Fox — the oldest of the group at 42 and a decorated veteran of World War I, where he had served as a medic.

One survivor who witnessed the chaplains giving up their own vests described it this way: "It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven." Another survivor, Ernest Heaton, the last remaining survivor from the sinking of the Dorchester, spent nearly five hours in the water before he was rescued. Heaton, who visited Connecticut in November 2008 to tell the story of the four chaplains to a synagogue in Orange, just turned 89 on Valentine's Day this year. On Heaton's birthday, an interfaith memorial service for the four chaplains was celebrated at St. Sebastian Catholic Church in Heaton's hometown of Vero Beach, FL. Over 150 people attended the service where Heaton spoke, saying that he clearly remembers seeing the four chaplains — arms locked together on the foredeck — disappear into the sea. He added, "They gave up their life jackets to men without them, knowing they would go down with the ship." As part of the ceremony, a new memorial for the chaplains was unveiled.

Clark Poling's father, Reverend Daniel Poling, began "The Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation" on Feb. 3, 1951, the eighth anniversary of the sinking of the Dorchester and three years after the United States Postal Service had issued a commemorative stamp in their honor. President Harry S. Truman assisted in the dedication of the foundation, whose mission it is to further the cause of "unity without uniformity" by urging goodwill and cooperation among people with diverse beliefs. The foundation's headquarters is located at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. The foundation annually hosts an awards ceremony in Philadelphia in memory of the four chaplains to honor those who exemplify their selfless service. This year's ceremony is to be held on Feb. 26.

Yet another event commemorating the selflessness of the four chaplains occurred this month in Congress. On Feb. 7, Rabbi Jeffrey Astrachan from Chaplain Goode's synagogue in York, PA, offered the opening prayer to the House of Representatives. Rep. Todd Platts, a congressman from York, then spoke about the contributions of the four chaplains. (Rabbi Goode, incidentally, had married his childhood sweetheart, Theresa Flax, niece of Al Jolson, in 1935 — eight years before he went down with the Dorchester.)

In February of 2000, a reconciliation ceremony was held in Washington, D.C., between the survivors of the Dorchester and the surviving members of German U-Boat 233, the submarine that had sunk the Dorchester. First Officer of U-233, Gerhard Buske, had this to say to the Dorchester survivors and their families: "We, the sailors of U-Boat 233, regret the deep sorrow and pain caused by our torpedo. Never again should be such a murderous war ... We should all live as these Immortal Four Chaplains — to love where others hate."

During World War II, the United States lost 182 members of its chaplain corps — a casualty rate only exceeded in percentage by both the infantry and the Army Air Corps. The selfless and courageous manner in which the four chaplains of the Dorchester met their deaths has inspired millions throughout the world. Many monuments to their memory have been dedicated over the years in states such as Florida, Pennsylvania, Vermont, New York, Virginia, and Arizona.

At the Belmont Park racetrack in Elmont, NY, a memorial plaque dedicated to the four chaplains sits on a large rock between the racing secretary's office and the clubhouse, placed there by World War II veterans who worked at the track. A small group of veterans still gathers at the Belmont rock each Memorial Day for a brief service. In New Jersey, the first southbound exit on the New Jersey Turnpike has a 5-foot bronze marker dedicated to the memory of Chaplain Goode. Ironically, Goode's only daughter, Rosalie, was killed in an auto accident on the New Jersey Turnpike long after the memorial had been placed there.

During World War II, approximately 100 Allied ships per month were sunk — that's more than three per day. Traveling by ship, particularly in the North Atlantic, was very dangerous. Evening blackouts of ship lights was a common practice; unfortunately, on the evening of May 3, 1943, the blackout cover on a door leading to the main lobby on the Dorchester became dislodged, causing light to be emitted each time the door was opened and closed. That was sufficient for German U-boat 233 to draw a bead on the Dorchester and fire a fan of three torpedoes, one of which fatally struck the troop transport.

Prior to boarding the Dorchester, Clark V. Poling asked his father to pray for him to be strong enough to do his duty and to be "adequate" to the job at hand. He and his three fellow chaplains were more than adequate in meeting their responsibilities onboard the ill-fated ship — they were heroic. In fact, in one of his last acts as President, Dwight Eisenhower presided over a ceremony in which the Four Chaplains Medal was awarded to the families of the Four Chaplains at Fort Meyer, Virginia. The medal shows the Star of David, the tablets of Moses, and the Christian cross in relief along with the names of each of the Four Chaplains.

Notes, Sources, and Links

1. Dan Kurzman, prolific writer of military non-fiction — especially dealing with World War II — wrote a book in 2005 dealing with the story of the four chaplains titled No Greater Glory: The Four Immortal Chaplains And The Sinking of the Dorchester in World War II. It is one of the sources for this article.

2. activerain.com blog about the Dorchester

3. homeoftheheroes.com

4. New Haven Register, 11/10/08

5. To visit the 4 chaplains memorial foundation, click here:  http://www.fourchaplains.org/

6. TCpalm.com/news

George Hedrick February 25, 2012 at 11:58 AM
My father Ralph Hedrick was a combat engineer in the Army he was supposed to ship out on the Dorchester, at the last mintue he was reassigned to Ft. Belvoir Va. After the sinking of the Dorchester He shipped out on the Fairfax to go to Greenland. He was an electrician he maintained and built weather stations in Greenland, where he spent the war. Many of his fellow combat engineers went down on the Dorchester. After the war was over when they came home on the troop ship the ship stopped over the area where the Dorchester went down for a moment of silence and laid a wreath on the water. One of his lifelong friends George Evener survived the sinking. My father and Mr. Evener worked together for over 40 years after the war. I was named after Mr. Evener and remember him telling me of the terror and horror of the fateful day.
George Hedrick February 25, 2012 at 12:08 PM
My VFW post in Clark N.J. was named after Jack L Ruddy who also was one of the casualties of the torpedoing of the Juneau. And you are right Skeptic there were 5 Sullivan brothers. I believe the Juneau was a cruiser.
Philip R. Devlin February 26, 2012 at 01:26 AM
Thank you all for your kind words and thanks to George, especially, for such an interesting personal anecdote. The story of the 4 chaplains is very inspiring.
George Hedrick February 26, 2012 at 12:41 PM
Phil when I was a boy growing up in Rahway N.J. our neighbors never spoke of their WWll experiences. It wasn't until I returned home from Viet Nam that they spoke of their experiences. At a welcome back party after more than a few beers they spoke. Mr Kelly was 101st Airborne pathfinder who jumped into Normandy before the invasion. Mr. Higgins was in the first wave at Omaha Mr. Kubu was on the USS Bunker Hill and survived numerous Kamakazi attacks Mr. Costello was a B-17 pilot and was shot down over Schweinfurt and was a POW. Theirs tales were incredible and awe inspiring. Not ONE of these men thought they were heroes, but, each thought the others were. I believe it was Ernie Pyle said " uncommon valor was common" they were truly The Greatest Generation. Sadly all of these fine men have passed. Thanks for the wonderful article we must keep the memories of these brave men alive for future generations. Thanks again.
Skeptic February 28, 2012 at 12:42 AM
She was a light cruiser of the Atlanta class. Travelling in company with USS Helena and USS San Francisco, all seriously damaged in the naval battle of Guadalcanal and headed for repairs, she was torpedoed by the Japanese submarine I-26, blew up and sank in twenty seconds. The other vessels feared stopping, which would make them sitting ducks for further submarine attacks, and assumed no one had survived the massive explosion, so they kept going. In fact, an estimated 100 men of the 687 on board did survive and went into the water but when Catalina flying boats guided the destroyer USS Ballard to the scene eight days later only ten were still alive. A tragic case of routine incompetence often compared to the aftermath of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in 1945.


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