Local veterans remember sacrifice of 4 chaplains
By Ronda Wertman
KEYSER - “Welcome to the ceremony honoring the Four Chaplains,” Boyce Houser Post 41 commander Jim Shumaker said recently as the post held a members-only program remembering those four chaplains who sacrificed themselves to save some of their fellow passengers as the USS Dorchester was taken down by the Germans.
“Boyce Houser Post 41 has participated in the annual event since 2019,” Shumaker explained. “Our historians tell us that we used to conduct this ceremony earlier in our history, and now we are back on track to continue this tradition.”
The program was private this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Shumaker explained that in 1988, a joint resolution of the United States Congress honored the sacrifice of the Four Chaplains aboard the United States Army Transport (USAT) Dorchester and the National Legion Organization asked posts to remind the public of their selfless acts.
“We thank all of you for coming to this ceremony and hope we will be able to open it to the public next year,” he added.
“I would like to thank non-post members who contributed to today’s presentation: Linda Roleff; Robin Haupt, who organized the power point; and Terrie Rogers, who designed the program,” said second vice commander Frank Roleff. He also offered thanks to post members participating in the ceremony, including Roger Whisner, Grady Bonsner, and Dean Keller of the color guard, as the colors were posted by Steve Cox.
“The Dorchester was one of three identical ships built in Newport News, Virginia. It sailed the east coast waters from Boston to Miami as a cruise ship with a capacity for 302 first class, 12 steerage passengers, and a crew of 90,” Roleff explained.
It served in as a cruise ship from July 1926 until its takeover by the War Shipping Administration in January 1942, when it was converted to a troop ship.
“On Feb. 3, 1943, the USAT Dorchester, carrying 902 servicemen, merchant seamen and civilian workers, was sunk by a German torpedo in the cold Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Greenland,” recounts Roleff.
“Through the pandemonium, according to those present, four Army chaplains brought hope in despair and light in darkness. Those chaplains were Lt. George L. Fox, Methodist; Lt. Alexander D. Goode, Jewish; Lt. John P. Washington, Roman Catholic; and Lt. Clark V. Poling, Dutch Reformed,” he added.
“Quickly and quietly, the four chaplains spread out among the soldiers. There they tried to calm the frightened, tend the wounded, and guide the disoriented toward safety.
“The chaplains opened a storage locker and began distributing life jackets. It was then that engineer Grady Clark witnessed an astonishing sight. When there were no more lifejackets in the locker, the chaplains removed theirs and gave them to four frightened young men,” said Roleff. “As the ship went down, survivors in nearby rafts could see the four chaplains—arms linked and graced against the slanting deck. Their voices could also be heard offering prayers.
“Of the 902 men aboard the Dorchester, 692 died, leaving 230 survivors. When the news reached American shores, the nation was stunned by the magnitude of the tragedy and heroic conduct of the four chaplains,” Roleff added. “That night Reverend Fox, Rabbi Goode, Reverend Poling and Father Washington passed life’s ultimate test. In doing so, they became an enduring example of extraordinary faith, courage and selflessness.”
Jim Chaney shared that Chaplain George Fox was the oldest of the Four Chaplains. Lying about his age in 1917, Fox enlisted in the Army as a medical corps assistant. He received the Silver Star for rescuing a wounded soldier from a battlefield filled with poison gas and the Croix de Guerre for outstanding bravery in an artillery barrage that left him with a broken spine. After the war, he became an accountant and was married with two children when he heard God’s call to the ministry. Fox went back to school and was ordained as a Methodist minister. When war came, he once again enlisted, telling his wife, “I’ve got to go. I know from experience what our boys are about to face. They need me.”
David Frederick gave insight into Chaplain Alexander D. Goode. Growing up in Washington, D.C., he was an outstanding athlete and scholar. Following in his father’s footsteps, he became a rabbi. While he pursued his studies, he served in the National Guard.
The return of the body of the Unknown Soldier to Arlington National Cemetery had a profound effect on Goode as he attended the ceremonies, choosing to walk the 15 miles there and 15 miles back because he thought it showed more respect. Goode married his childhood sweetheart and they had a daughter. He was serving a synagogue in York, Pennsylvania, when World War II broke out.
Tom Valentine spoke of Chaplain Clark V. Poling, the youngest of the Four Chaplains and the seventh generation of ministers in the Dutch Reformed Church. When World War II broke out, he was anxious to go, but not as a chaplain, telling his father he was not going to hide behind the church out of the firing line. His father reminded him that as a chaplain he would have the best chance in the world to be killed. Poling left his pastorate in Schenectady, New York, and became an Army chaplain. He taught his men “to not harbor personal hatred for the Germans and the Japanese but to hate the system that made your brother evil, it is the system we must destroy.”
First vice commander Bill Roberts shared information about Chaplain John P. Washington, who grew up poor, scrappy and determined in Newark, New Jersey; one of nine children born to an Irish immigrant family.
Washington had a love for music as well as a good fight, leaving a street gang when his was called to the priesthood. He played ball with the boys of the parish and when the war broke out, he went with his “boys” into the Army. It was his songs and prayers to comfort those around him, that could be heard in his final moments.
Roleff shared how the sacrifices of these four were recognized as The Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart were awarded posthumously and a one-time only posthumous Special Medal for Heroism was authorized by Congress.
To commemorate the dedicated service and sacrifice of the chaplains, Taps was played by Jim Chaney followed by a moment of silence as the service was closed in prayer by Chaplain Rev. Wayne Gosnell.