Four military chaplains mutually bound by the oath of office and a strong faith, Army Lts. George Fox, Alexander Goode, Clark Poling and John Washington had all met at the Army chaplain school, which was housed at Harvard University during World War II. Fox was a Methodist minister, Goode was a rabbi, Poling was a Catholic priest, and Washington was a Reformed Church of America minister. They were friends and were nicknamed “The God Squad.” By all accounts, they were well liked. 

All four of them were also on board the troop transport ship USAT Dorchester en route to various assignments in the European theater of World War II when their ship was attacked by a German U-boat in the North Atlantic and sank quickly. The ship was equipped with an inadequate supply of life jackets, so they calmly and uniformly gave up their own to other soldiers and helped them board lifeboats. In an attempt to succor the remaining crew left aboard, witnesses say the four chaplains joined arms, sang hymns and prayed as the ship sank underwater.

At the time, their story was a model of interfaith cooperation and a shining testament to the American religious experience. A war bond campaign was launched and inspired a country to give – as a posthumous tribute to these men and the unusual story of their bonding and mutual sacrifice. The story has motivated subsequent generations of military chaplains who strive to support the voluntary free exercise of religion, model interfaith cooperation and help others keep “faith” – regardless of their specific religious beliefs.

But, at a February 3 event the Navy Memorial co-hosted with the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project, Vietnam veteran and retired military chaplain Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff asserts that the story of the Four Chaplains is not as well known among the ranks of the military – nor is it often taught in history classes. “I think more organizations – both religious and secular – should consider joining together for special programs on February 3 – ‘Four Chaplains Day,’ using it as a day to honor all chaplains: military, police, prison, hospital, campus, etc. – all chaplains who regularly work in areas of interfaith cooperation. Today, when it is so easy to find stories of religious hostility and hatred, it is more important than ever to tell stories like this one.”

The Library of Congress is hosting two more commemorative events – one on February 15 with retired military chaplains and one on February 16 with military chaplains serving today.

Posted by The Bunny in History
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  • Ed Sloan

    There is a memorial to the Four Chaplains in the lobby of the State Supreme Court Building in Brooklyn, New York.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    Great post, Bunny.

    One of the Four Chaplains, Lieutenant George Fox, was Pastor of the Methodist Church right up the road from me in Union Village VT, and later in Gilman, VT. He was also the State American Legion historian between the wars.

    My little AL Post conducts a short memorial prayer for Lt Fox and his Harvard classmates every Memorial Day.

  • Mittleschmerz

    Excellent – thanks for sharing. Any one know if they cover this event at Chaplain School?

  • The four chaplains are memorialized at the Post Chapel at Carlisle Barracks, PA, home to the Army War College, and Military History Intsitute. They are immortalized in the stained glass window behind the altar.

    Indeed, their story is taught to the military–those who attend church, anyway.

  • Grey Goat

    Just a quibble:

    “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.”

    Chaplain Poling was the Pastor of the 1st Dutch Reformed Church in Schenectady, NY, which dates back to 1680.

  • Elise T.

    Hi Bunny-

    I read your post as I was doing some web work for the US Navy -thank you for sharing! The story of The Four Chaplains is a timeless story. Glad to see their heroism is being celebrated as well. I thought you and your readers might be interested in browsing through the Navy Chaplains Fan Page on Facebook. It’s a great place for chaplains to share their stories and those interested in chaplaincy to ask questions. In any case, I encourage you to visit! We’d love to hear from you!