Monday January 28, 2013

I have often wondered how many Vermonters know why the chapel at the Vermont Veterans Home is named "the Four Chaplains All Faith Memorial Chapel." The Vermont Veterans Home (once referred to as the Old Soldiers Home) dates back to November 1884. The chapel naming is relatively recent, May 1990. And by doing so, the deeds of four great American heroes have been memorialized.

To know who these four individuals were one must go back 70 years, to Feb. 2, 1943. On that day a small U.S. troop ship (6,000 tons), the U.S.S. Dorchester, was heading up the North Atlantic coast not far from Newfoundland. Its mission was to transport hundreds of U.S. Army soldiers to Greenland. A hundred or so miles from its destination and early in the morning of Feb. 3, 1943, the Dorchester came under fire from a German submarine.

The captain of the submarine was clever enough to evade the Dorchester’s three escort vessels and fire his torpedoes directly at the troop transport. One such torpedo found its mark -- the Dorchester was mortally wounded and hundreds of soldiers and ship’s crew were in immediate danger of drowning.

The Dorchester was not a big ship. In fact, it had been converted from its original purpose, a civilian passenger liner. Its size and makeup only added to the chaos that ensued among the survivors -- searching for a way off the ship and into the freezing waters of the North Atlantic.

Life jackets had been removed from large bins and distributed to the panic stricken soldiers and sailors. Among those who were handing out the life jackets were four military chaplains -- Rabbi Alexander Goode, Fr. John Washington, a Catholic priest, the Rev. Clark Poling of the Dutch Reformed Church and the Rev. George Fox of the Methodist Church, who prior to the outbreak of World War II, had served as a pastor in Vermont.

All four clergymen were Army officers and had worked together in servicing the spiritual needs of their fellow soldiers.

Soon after the life jacket distribution started, it came to an abrupt end -- there were many more passengers than life preservers.

The four chaplains knew what had to be done. The Dorchester was sinking rapidly. Many passengers were already in the freezing waters. Two rescue ships were on their way to pick up survivors -- however, their distance was still great. The jackets that the four chaplains had put on were needed by others. Without hesitation the four removed their only hope of surviving and gave their jackets to other military personnel.

From a distance and within the safety of their lifeboats, survivors witnessed the four chaplains, in prayer, on the deck of the sinking Dorchester.

In less than an hour from the time the ship was struck by the torpedo, America would experience one of its gravest moments in naval history. Of the 900 on board, 672 lives, 75 percent, were lost. The scale of the tragedy would be noted by military historians, alongside the tragedy that would engulf the U.S.S. Arizona and the U.S.S. Indianapolis.

Just days before he left office, in January 1961, President Eisenhower awarded, posthumously, the Special Medal of Heroism to the families of the chaplains. Also, in late 1944 the Army’s highest award, the Distinguished Service Cross was awarded.

Today we read and hear a great deal about the spirit of the Ecumenicalism Movement which had its beginnings in the 70s and 80s. The four chaplains, now referred to as, The Immortal Chaplains, showed us the true spirit of ecumenicalism, 70 years ago -- It just took us several generations to recognize it.

How fitting it is to know that we have a memorial here in Bennington, honoring the memory, spirit and heroism of these four men of "The Cloth."

Don Keelan writes a bi-weekly column and lives in Arlington.