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Caritas in Action: The Story of the Four Chaplains

By William Federer, adapted by Jared Carman (Head of School)

On the cold night of February 3, 1943, the overcrowded Allied ship U.S.A.T. Dorchester, carrying 902 servicemen, plowed through the dark waters of the Atlantic near Greenland. At 1:00 am a Nazi submarine fired a torpedo into the transport’s flank, killing many in the explosion and trapping others below deck. The ship sank in 27 minutes. Two escort ships were able to rescue only 231 survivors.

In the chaos of fire, smoke, oil and ammonia, four chaplains calmed sailors and distributed lifejackets. The chaplains’ names were:

Lt. George L. Fox, a Methodist;

Lt. Clark V. Poling, of the Dutch Reformed church;

Lt. John P. Washington, a Roman Catholic; and

Lt. Alexander D. Goode, who was Jewish.

When there were no more lifejackets, the four chaplains pulled off their own and put them on four young men. As the ship went down, survivors floating in rafts could see the four chaplains linking arms and bracing themselves on the slanting deck. They bowed their heads in prayer as they sank to their icy deaths.

Survivor Grady Clark wrote: “As I swam away from the ship, I looked back. The flares had lighted everything. The bow came up high and she slid under. 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.”

Congress honored them by declaring February 3 “Four Chaplains Day.” In February of 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower gave a speech. He said:

“Only a decade ago, aboard the transport Dorchester, four chaplains of four faiths together willingly sacrificed their lives so that four others might live…

“In the three centuries that separate the Pilgrims of the Mayflower from the chaplains of the Dorchester, America’s freedom, her courage, her strength, and her progress have had their foundation in faith…

“Together we thank the Power that has made and preserved us a nation. By the millions, we speak prayers, we sing hymns-and no matter what their words may be, their spirit is the same-‘In God is Our Trust.’”


This historical thought was delivered by our high school students at devotional on 2/2/23. Each week one class leads the student body in prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance, scripture recitation, a meditation, and an historical thought. Family and friends are welcome, Thursdays 8:30-9:05 am.

Belmont is an independent K-12 school in the classical, Christian tradition. In partnership with parents, we invest in students — helping them acquire an education of the highest quality, find joy in life, and become influences for good in the world. If you are interested in receiving updates about Belmont, please subscribe to Exulto here by inserting your email.


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