Chaplains' heroism honored

February 08, 1998|By AMY WALLAUER

by Joe Crocetta / staff photographer

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Chaplains' heroism honored

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - In the icy water off of Greenland during World War II, an American transport ship was torpedoed by a German submarine, sending three-quarters of the men on board to their deaths.

But in the 27 minutes between the hit and the sinking, four men did their best to save as many lives as they could by calming the sailors and organizing an evacuation.

They gave up their own life jackets to four frightened sailors, encouraged those who had survived the blast, and tended to the wounded. When the ship went down, they went with it.


Those four men - the ship's chaplains - were honored Sunday at a special service at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Martinsburg.

"Four men, chaplains of different faiths ... displayed their spiritual deeds through spiritual teamwork," said Lay Rabbi Howard G. Malin, a chaplain with the medical center and chief of podiatry.

"They stood shoulder to shoulder, unselfishly giving away their gloves and life jackets to the very next soldier," Malin said. "They didn't care if the soldier was Roman Catholic, Protestant, Methodist or Jewish - they just wanted to meet the needs of the nearest soldier."

Donald LeFaber, staff chaplain at the VA, said he hopes this yearly commemoration reminds people of the lessons of the past.

"Somewhat the futility of war, but also the dedication," LeFaber said.

The U.S. Army transport Dorchester was carrying 902 men when it was hit by the torpedo.

Panic ensued: The blast killed many men, injured scores more and sent the rest scrambling for life jackets and fumbling with the lifeboats.

Amid the chaos on the sinking ship, the four chaplains - Lt. George Fox, a Methodist; Lt. Alexander D. Goode, a Jewish rabbi; Lt. John P. Washington, a Roman Catholic; and Lt. Clark V. Poling, a Presbyterian; - calmed the men on board. When life jackets ran out, the chaplains gave their own.

Those who survived say they saw the chaplains kneeling together in prayer as the ship went down - with bowed heads and arms linked to brace themselves against the slanting deck.

"Aboard the sinking Dorchester, the four chaplains passed their life jackets on to others. They lay down their lives so that others might live," said Pastor Elsie May McKenney, of Bunker Hill, W.Va., United Methodist Church and former chaplain at Perry Point Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

"The good shepherd, Jesus said, lay down his life for his sheep," McKenney said.

Nearly 20 years after the Feb. 2, 1943, attack on the Dorchester, Congress issued a posthumous Special Medal for Heroism to the four chaplains who gave their lives. The awards were never before given and never to be given again: Congress wanted to give the Medal of Honor, but couldn't because it can only be given for heroism performed while under fire.

The special awards were designed just for the chaplains, intended to have the same prestige as the Medal of Honor.

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