SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 6: Today we join with millions of veterans, churches and communities in remembering the “immortal” Four Chaplains who perished in World War II. The four men were U.S. Army chaplains—two Protestant, one Catholic and one Jewish—and they perished aboard the rapidly sinking U.S. Army Transport Dorchester, after it had been torpedoed by German forces during WWII. When the ship was hit, the four chaplains worked hard to calm the frenzied soldiers, as they duly passed out the available life vests. However, the ship sank quickly, the stock of life vests ran out—and the four chaplains handed over their own vests to save lives. They were last seen on the rolling and sinking ship, praying in their individual traditions—and then linking arms. (Wikipedia has the whole story.) Today, the Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation continues to further the cause of “unity without uniformity” by encouraging goodwill among all people. (If you’d like to learn more about chaplains, visit the US Government’s Armed Forces Chaplains Board.)
If you’re generally unfamiliar with the Four Chaplains—as many Americans are today—we heartily recommend checking out Dan Kurzman’s book, “No Greater Glory: The Four Immortal Chaplains and the Sinking of the Dorchester in World War II,” published in 2005. (Here’s a link to order a copy of Kurzman’s book from Amazon.) What makes Kurzman’s book a page turner is that he injects life back into the men on this tragic ship, including the chaplains themselves. Kurzman’s account draws on survivors’ vivid memories.
Often, the faith orientation of the individual chaplain didn’t matter much during the war—soldiers simply were reassured by their presence, as the veteran Michael Warish recalls in Kurzman’s book. “Guys would line up to talk to them. We had a lot of young guys, and a lot of them had never been away from home before. The chaplains were like mother and father to them.”
The interfaith sacrifice of the Four Chaplains has continues to inspire people: In 1948, a U.S. Postal stamp commemorating the Four Chaplains was the first time a Jewish person appeared on a U.S. stamp; in 1960, Congress created a medal and presented it to the chaplains’ descendants; and in 1997, the Immortal Chaplains Foundation was established. The Legion of Honor Award, given in honor of the Four Chaplains, has been presented to everyone from presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Carter to Bob Hope, John Glenn, James Michener and lesser-known military personnel, veterans and civilians. (One man in California has spent the last 10 years researching the tale of the Four Chaplains; read his story, recently published in the Ventura County Star newspaper.)