Remembering the Four Chaplains and Their Ultimate Sacrifice
Posted February 4, 2018 6:03 p.m. EST
KEARNY, N.J. — Each year on the first Sunday in February, St. Stephen’s Roman Catholic Church here rings with the remembrance of a selfless act of valor now 75 years old.
On Feb. 3, 1943, the USAT Dorchester, a military transport ship carrying 902 U.S. servicemen and civilian workers, was torpedoed by a German submarine about 100 miles off the cost of Greenland. In 18 minutes, the ship would be lost under the frigid sea.
Panic ensued. The sailors who were not killed in the explosion or trapped below rushed to the decks, where some of the lifeboats had frozen to the ship, survivors recounted. But four chaplains, standing on the decks, remained calm, distributing life jackets. When the supply ran out, the chaplains gave the sailors their own.
Only 230 men survived the sinking of the Dorchester, making it one of the worst naval tragedies for the United States in World War II. Witnesses recalled seeing the four chaplains standing on the deck with arms interlocked, each praying in their own way, as the ship sunk. They were Catholic, Jewish and Protestant: Rabbi Alexander B. Goode; the Rev. George L. Fox, a Methodist Minister; the Rev. Clark V. Poling of the Reformed Church in America; and the Rev. John P. Washington, a Roman Catholic priest.
Before volunteering for the war in 1942, Washington had last served at St. Stephen’s church in Kearny, New Jersey, and each year, a Mass is celebrated in honor of him and the other chaplains, attracting veterans from near and far. Among them on Sunday was Gene Swarbrick, 93, who served with Washington as an altar boy.
“He was a beautiful man,” Swarbrick, who now lives in Daytona Beach, Florida, said. “He was a prize fighter before he became a priest, and he used to play stick ball with us right behind the church. He loved kids; he just loved them.”
Swarbrick was drafted months before Washington died, and remembers hearing the news of the loss. “I was mortified,” he said. “Can you imagine taking off your life jacket and giving it to someone else?”
John Nicaretta, 87, a Korean War veteran from nearby Bayonne, New Jersey, said he is still moved by the memory that “these people gave their lives for others.”
“I’ve been coming here so many years, and every year, I’m touched,” Nicaretta said.
The Rev. Timothy P. Broglio, archbishop for military services in the United States, celebrated the Mass and was joined by a color guard of veterans and Boy Scouts, in a church filled with hymns and patriotic songs led by a choir, orchestra and bagpipes. This is thought to be among the largest of the several hundred remembrances held each year to mark the chaplains’ sacrifice at veteran’s posts and in churches and temples around the country, said Christine Beady, executive director of the Four Chaplains Foundation in Philadelphia.
But keeping the memory of the four chaplains alive is growing more difficult. Each year, the number of living World War II veterans shrinks. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 558,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II were still alive in 2017.
They are dying at the rate of 362 per day, the department reports. Among the survivors of the Dorchester, only one remains alive: Bill Bunkelman, who is in a nursing home in Michigan, Beady said.
Stirred by witness accounts of how the men gave up their life jackets, the government in 1944 posthumously awarded each chaplain the Distinguished Service Cross and a Purple Heart. In 1948, a postage stamp was dedicated in their honor. In 1988, Feb. 3 was established by a unanimous Act of Congress as an annual “Four Chaplains Day.”
The Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation tries to raise awareness through scholarship competitions, awards for valor and school group visits to its chapel, and by funding an emergency chaplain corps.
In Kearny, St. Stephen’s commissioned a large bronze sculpture depicting the chaplains on the sinking ship for the church grounds, and set up a special chapel with photographs of the four men. The local Boy Scout troop uniforms bear an image of the chaplains as their patrons.
“We honor the four chaplains,” Broglio said in his homily, “so that we might learn to imitate their charity. We want to learn from them how to use our gifts and talents to serve others.” This year, a niece and grandnephew of Washington attended the Mass, as did the son-in-law, grandson, and other relatives of Goode, who was born in the Brooklyn borough of New York and worked at the Beth Israel Synagogue in York, Pennsylvania.
“The message of ecumenicalism and sharing and caring is timeless,” said Mark S. Auerbach, a cousin of Goode from Passaic, New Jersey. “This is one of the least known stories out of World War II, and one of the greatest.”
Brian Hoffman, 47, a grandnephew of Washington, has been coming to the Mass annually to honor the chaplains and their sacrifice, but he said he also was aware of the personal context of his relative’s loss.
In Hoffman’s pocket was a folded family tree that included the fate of Washington’s six brothers and sisters. One brother died in the war. Another went missing in action, but was later found shellshocked. His sister died as a teenager of a disease. His father died in the 1930s.
“I always think of his mother, and her suffering,” Hoffman said. “To me, that’s a forgotten part of the story.”