Who were the Four Chaplains? Norwich remembers one of the deadliest events of World War II

We think of big personalities and events when we speak of history. Washington crossing the Delaware, Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address, Eisenhower and D-Day, but the root word of history, story, is perhaps better served when we celebrate ordinary people doing extraordinary things. And traditions are important in remembering people and events, both large and small.

On February 3, 1943, eighty years ago, at the height of World War II, the SS Dorchester, a converted cargo vessel refitted as a troop transport ship was torpedoed in the early morning hours as the convoy of which it was a part was sailing from Newfoundland, Canada, to a port in Southern Greenland.

Bill Kenny
Bill Kenny

The ship with 904 troops and civilian crew aboard sank bow first in about twenty minutes. The severe list as it sank prevented the launch of some of her lifeboats and the subsequent overcrowding of the remaining lifeboats forced some of those that had been launched to capsize, spilling their unfortunate passengers into cold North Atlantic waters barely above freezing.

Because of the ship’s sudden sinking, no distress signals were sent, delaying the start of any rescue attempts. When help arrived the following day, many who had survived the sinking were floating in their life jackets, dead from hypothermia. In all only 230 men were rescued. The Dorchester sinking was the largest loss of life of any American convoy during World War II.

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Among those who died aboard the Dorchester were four US Army chaplains, who helped frightened soldiers to board lifeboats, and gave up their own life jackets when the supply ran out.

The four, Methodist minister, Reverend George Fox, Reform Rabbi Alexander Goode, Roman Catholic priest, Reverend John Washington, and Reformed Church in America minister, Reverend Clark Poling, then joined arms, offered prayers for both the living and the dead, and sang hymns as the ship sank.

Their deaths serve as a courageous example for us today, especially now as our nation so often struggles and fails to find unity and harmony as we face challenges and uncertainties. The Four Chaplains are a reminder of the best of what we can be.

The Peter Gallan American Legion Post 104, at 22 Merchants Avenue in Taftville will conduct a Four Chaplains ceremony this Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m. that both honors their selfless sacrifice and celebrates their lives.

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Reverend Scott Schuett, Pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Lebanon, Reverend Charles Tyree, Pastor of Norwich Alliance Church in Norwich, Rabbi Julius Rabinowitz, Rabbi of Beth Jacob Synagogue in Norwich and Reverend Phil Salois, Retired Army Catholic Chaplain, and now Chaplain with the American Legion, each representing the faith of one of the original chaplains, will deliver a benediction, representing the final moments aboard Dorchester.

The ceremony is both thoughtful and thought-provoking and, having been fortunate enough to attend in previous years, I promise you’ll come away with your own lessons learned of lives truly lived with grace under pressure in a spirit of caring and generosity for others that I fear is too often lost in the crush and noise of our everyday lives.

Please join us if you can this Sunday afternoon, if not in Taftville then wherever you are to honor their heroic sacrifice. All history is the sum of our collective remembrances and memories remain our best hope for the future.

Bill Kenny, of Norwich, writes a weekly column about Norwich issues. His blog, Tilting at Windmills, can be accessed at https://tiltingatwindmills-dweeb.blogspot.com/.

This article originally appeared on The Bulletin: WWII's Four Chaplains, of the SS Dorchester, remembered in Norwich