For Memorial Day, 2009: The Lesson of the Four Chaplains, 1943

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When I was child, my father, a World War II Navy veteran, taught me the story of the four chaplains of the USAT Dorchester.

I thought of the four chaplains during the presidential election when I listened to former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell explain why he endorsed Barack Obama for President of the United States.

In stating why he could not support the candidacy of John McCain, Powell referred to the death of U.S. Army Corporal Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, a 20 year old from Manahawkin, N.J., who was killed in Iraq and to a photograph he had seen of the soldier’s mother pressing her head against his gravestone at Arlington National Cemetery.

The headstone was engraved with the soldier’s name, his military awards (the Purple Heart and Bronze Star), and the Muslim symbol of the crescent and star.

As the New York Times observed, “Powell mentioned Mr. Khan’s death to underscore why he was deeply troubled by Republican personal attacks on Mr. Obama, especially false intimations that he was Muslim. Mr. Obama is a lifelong Christian, not a Muslim, he said. But, he added, ‘The really right answer is, what if he is?’ ‘Is there something wrong with being Muslim in this country? No, that’s not America,’ he said. ’Now, we have got to stop polarizing ourselves in this way.’ Mr. Powell said that he had heard senior members of the Republican Party ‘drop this suggestion that he [Obama] is a Muslim and he might be associated with terrorists.’ ‘Now, John McCain is as nondiscriminatory as anyone I know. But I’m troubled about the fact that within the party we have these kinds of expressions.’”

General Powell probably thought, too, of the four chaplains of the USAT Dorchester.

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On the night of February 3, 1943, United States Army Transport ship Dorchester was en route from Newfoundland to England via Greenland, when it was hit by torpedoes from a German submarine.

The Dorchester listed sharply to starboard and began to sink almost immediately into the icy water.  The ship was overcrowded and there were insufficient lifeboats or lifejackets for the 904 men on board.

As the Dorchester sank, the  ship’s four U.S. Army chaplains aided the wounded, helped get the men into lifeboats and then gave up their own lifejackets when the supply ran out.

A survivor later explained:

“As I swam away from the ship, I looked back. The flares had lighted everything. The bow came up high and she slid under. The last thing I saw, the four chaplains were up there praying for the safety of the men. They had done everything they could. I did not see them again. They themselves did not have a chance without their life jackets.”

As the ship went down, survivors in nearby lifeboats could see the four chaplains – their arms linked and braced against the slanting deck. Their voices could also be heard offering prayers.

Twenty-seven minutes after the torpedoes hit, the Dorchester was gone.

The four U.S. Army chaplains were:

Lt. George L. Fox, age 42, Methodist.
Lt. Alexander D. Goode, age 32, Jewish.
Lt. John P. Washington, age 34, Roman Catholic.
Lt. Clark V. Poling, age 32, Reformed Church in America.

According to the Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation, the lesson of their sacrifice is “unity without uniformity” and “selfless service to humanity without regard to race, creed, ethnicity, or religious beliefs.”

My father had a simpler lesson to teach me:  We are all Americans.

In a speech on in Fayetteville, North Carolina, near Fort Bragg, Barack Obama said that “The men and women from Fayetteville and all across America who serve in our battlefields may be Democrats or Republicans or independents, but they have fought together and bled together and some died together under the same proud flag, They have not served a red America or a blue America. They have served the United States of America.”

Amen.