To care for Airmen more than anyone thinks possible: Four Chaplains Day

  • Published
  • By Chaplain Brett Barner, 58th Special Operations Wing, Kirtland Air Force Base and Chaplain Mark Schutzius, 336th Training Group, Fairchild Air Force Base

Four Chaplains Day Remembrance 2021

As chaplains, we want you to know that we care. No matter what it is you are facing, we are here as a resource and offer you 100% confidentiality. A chaplain’s ear is the safest space in the Defense Department for privileged communication, no matter your faith, background or beliefs.

Dedication to the service of others has been the foundation of the Chaplain Corps from the start, and each year in February, this legacy is commemorated. On Feb. 3, 1943, the SS Dorchester (SC-290583), a coastal passenger steamship headed toward an American military base in Greenland, was struck by a German submarine torpedo. There were 902 servicemen, merchant seamen and civilian workers aboard the ship that sank only 150 miles from its destination. Hundreds lost their lives, but the story of the selfless acts and bravery of four chaplains who went down with Dorchester was carried in the memories of those who survived.

Four Chaplains – U.S. Army chaplains, Lt. George Fox, a Methodist minister; Lt. Alexander Goode, a Jewish rabbi; Lt. John Washington, a Roman Catholic priest; and Lt. Clark Poling, a Dutch Reformed minister – gave their lives as their final act reinforcing today’s vision of the Air Force Chaplains Corps: “To care for Airmen more than anyone thinks possible.”

Amidst the terror and confusion, the four chaplains began to guide and direct everyone on board. It was dark, cold and the ship was sinking quickly. Naturally, people began to panic and feared for their lives. These chaplains brought a sense of calm and peace in a time of incredible uncertainty. One account says that petty officer John Mahoney headed back towards his cabin when Rabbi Goode noticed he was going the wrong way and asked where he was going. “To get my gloves,” Mahoney responded. Rabbi Goode told him to take his gloves, but Mahoney resisted. He contended that he couldn’t take the chaplain’s own gloves. “Never mind, I have two pairs,” Rabbi Goode replied. It’s said that Mahoney later realized the chaplain never planned to leave the vessel.

Each chaplain eventually made it to the top of the ship and helped distribute life jackets and get survivors into lifeboats. As you can imagine, things were stressful. People began to wonder if they would receive a life jacket or if there would be enough room in the life boats. Again, these chaplains helped calm those fears. When life jackets ran out, one account says that the chaplains immediately offered their four life jackets to four service members who hadn’t received them. One survivor said, “It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven.”

Their bravery and selflessness didn’t end there. Eyewitnesses say that as the ship finally began to sink below the water, the four chaplains stood against the deck with their arms linked together. They prayed together. They sang together. They died together.

Only 230 men survived the attack but the number would have been even less had these chaplains not been aboard. They demonstrated selfless acts of kindness and love to people who were hurting. These chaplains didn’t prioritize people for their worldview. They helped everyone that they could, and in the chaos, they helped give those who survived the will to live as they awaited rescue drifting in life boats through chilling water.

The chaplains were posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart. The four chaplains’ extraordinary acts were so impactful, Congress authorized the Four Chaplains’ Medal, a unique medal awarded by the president, Jan. 18, 1961. It was only awarded once and intended to carry the same weight as the Medal of Honor, which is awarded for acts performed under fire. In 1988, Congress honored their selfless sacrifice by establishing Feb. 3 as Four Chaplains Day.

Why share this? Why retell this story? If we’re honest with ourselves, life may have felt like a sinking ship over the past year. We’ve all had numerous plans torpedoed by a pandemic. You have undoubtedly been concerned about how to navigate the waters ahead. Maybe you’ve had relationships that suffered. Perhaps you’ve dealt with isolation, loneliness, or self-worth challenges. You may have even asked if it was worth continuing the fight. In the midst of this chaos, we want you to know that your chaplains are still here to help.

Now, 78 years later, the spirit of the four chaplains is the heartbeat of your religious support team. It’s said that before Chaplain Poling left to board Dorchester, he asked his father to pray for him. He said, "Not for my safe return, that wouldn't be fair. Just pray that I shall do my duty … never be a coward … and have the strength, courage and understanding of men. Just pray that I shall be adequate."

Our duty is to help you in any way that we can. Believe it or not, by sitting down to talk, we may be able to give you a figurative life jacket that keeps your head above water.

Just like these four chaplains prioritized getting life jackets on people regardless of faith, chaplains still prioritize help over anything else. If you need help, please reach out. We want you right and we want you safe. We want to care for you even more than you thought possible.

No matter what you may be dealing with today, understand that it’s okay to not be okay. You don’t have to have it all together. If we’re honest with ourselves, none of us have it all together. If you need help then reach out. Your chaplains and religious affairs Airmen are here to support you.

Don’t wait until you feel like your ship is sinking. If you or someone you know could benefit from the support of a chaplain, reach out to your chaplain office today!

A Facebook Live event will be hosted by Wreaths Across America honoring Four Chaplains Day at 11 a.m. CST, Feb. 3, at