The word “courage” is derived from Old French (corage), Modern French (coeur), as well as Latin (cor), all of these words referring to the heart. Now since the heart symbolizes love, true courage must be an expression of love. Just as there is a paradoxical relationship between life and death, so too, the same obtains between love and courage. How does one begin to understand this apparent contradiction? The soldier, surrounded by danger, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a certain readiness to die. If he clings too tenaciously to life, he is a coward. If he rushes headlong into death, he is a fool. But if he has genuine courage, as the master of the paradox, G. K. Chesterton, asserts, “he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine.” We do not honor the suicide who prefers death to life; but we do honor the hero who accepts death while displaying his love for life. Christ testifies to the validity of this paradox when he tells us that there is no greater love than to lay down your life for a friend (John 15:13). Four chaplains, each uniformed in military dress and all of the same heart, have beautifully and heroically illustrated the legitimacy of this paradox.
On January 23, 1943, the SS Dorchester, carrying 904 passengers, mostly military men, left for Greenland. During the early morning hours of February 3, 1943, the ship was torpedoed by the German submarine U-223 off the coast of Newfoundland. The blast knocked out the electrical system, leaving the ship in the dark. Panic ensued. Four chaplains sought to calm the men and organize an orderly evacuation. Life jackets were passed out until the limited supply ran out. The chaplains then removed their own life jackets and gave them to others. When they could no longer be of help, they linked arms, prayed, and sang hymns. Two ships that accompanied the Dorchester stopped and rescued 230 men from the frigid waters. Nearly 700 perished, including the chaplains, making it the third largest loss at sea of its kind for the United Stated during World War II.
The four chaplains, though of different faiths, shared the conviction that there is no greater love than to lay down your life for a friend. One survivor provided a moving testimony: “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.” According to the testimony of another survivor: “I could hear men crying, pleading, praying. I could also hear the chaplains preaching courage. Their voices were the only thing that kept me going.”
Who were these courageous and self-sacrificing men? George L. Fox was a Methodist preacher who had been decorated for bravery and was awarded the Silver Star, Purple Heart and the French Croix de Guerre. Alexander D. Goode, the son of a rabbi, followed in his father’s footsteps. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University. Clark V. Poling was ordained in the Reformed Church of America and studied at Yale University’s Divinity School. John P. Washington, a Catholic priest, was chief of the Chaplains Reserve Pool in Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana.
On December 19, 1944, all four chaplains were awarded the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross, posthumously. In 1988, Congress established February 3 as “Four Chaplains Day.” The United States Post Office Department issued a commemorative stamp in 1948 honoring the quartet. The Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation is located at the former South Philadelphia Navy Yard. Its mission statement is “to further the cause of ‘unity without uniformity’ by encouraging goodwill and cooperation among all people.”
We often admire what we are reluctant to imitate. Nonetheless, our willingness to honor genuine heroes keeps our sights on the right ideal and may be the first step in gaining the willingness to do something heroic. Meanwhile, there are the unheroic acts of self-sacrifice that remain within our grasp. One way of honoring the “Immortal Chaplains” and their like is by making small acts of generosity. That may very well have been the apprenticeship of chaplains Fox, Goode, Poling and Washington long before they boarded the ill-fated S. S. Dorchester. L
DR. DONALD DEMARCO is a senior fellow of Human Life International, professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University (Waterloo, Ontario), adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College (Cromwell, CT) and regular columnist for St. Austin Review. His books, including latest work, How to Remain Sane in a World That Is Going Mad, are available through Amazon.com.