"The Bid was Four Hearts," the story of the Four Chaplains

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The story of the Four Chaplains seems largely unknown now, but throughout the 1940’s and 50’s their story served as a symbol of bravery and sacrifice to many. In 1948, February 3rd was declared Four Chaplains Day by a unanimous vote of Congress, and the chaplains were mentioned in President Eisenhower’s famous 1953 “Back to God” speech. The docudrama presented here originally aired on Memorial Day 1950.

In January 1943 the USAT Dorchester, captained by Hans J. Danielsen, departed New York bound for Greenland, carrying over 900 passengers. Among the servicemen and civilian workers, four Army lieutenants served as chaplains: Rev. George L. Fox, Methodist; Rabbi Alexander D. Goode, Jewish; Fr. John P. Washington, Roman Catholic; and Rev. Clark V. Poling, Dutch Reformed. On February 2nd, as the Dorchester was nearing its destination, Captain Danielsen was alerted to a potential threat in the waters. The Dorchester’s Coast Guard escorts had detected a submarine in the area. Acutely aware of the threat this represented, Danielsen placed his crew on high alert and ordered his men to sleep clothed with life jackets on. Sadly, this order was ignored by many.


At 12:55 am on February 3, 1943 a German submarine, the U-233, torpedoed the Dorchester, killing many, knocking out the ship’s electrical system, and damaging several lifeboats. Thrown into darkness, many aboard the now disabled ship began to panic. Men rushed to the deck from the crowded lower levels of the large vessel, inadequately clothed to confront the prevailing Arctic temperatures. Amidst the chaos, the four chaplains attempted to instill order and calm. They spread out through the ship to comfort the wounded and dying and encourage those with a chance of survival to make their way on to the deck. Once most of the men had reached the deck the chaplains distributed life jackets, and when they had run out, removed their own life jackets and handed them to others. 27 minutes after the torpedo struck, the Dorchester sunk.

Only 230 men survived the sinking of the USAT Dorchester. Survivors aboard emergency rafts reported that as the ship went down they could see Fox, Goode, Washington, and Poling standing together, praying, their “arms linked and braced against the slanting deck.” [1]

In 1944 the Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart were awarded posthumously to the four men’s next of kin, and in 1961 President Eisenhower awarded a Special Medal for Heroism, a one time award authorized by Congress and “intended to have the same weight and importance as the Medal of Honor.” [2] 


[1]  http://www.bigspring.va.gov/features/Four_Chaplain_Memorial_Service.asp

[2] http://usarmyinsigniahomepage.110mb.com/histdeco.html


Audio courtesy NYC Municipal Archives collection.