We’re just days away from an observance that usually slides by with only modest notice, so you know I’m not referring to the ballyhooed Feb. 2 appearance of a weather-predicting groundhog.
A more solemn aura surrounds the memory of what happened 80 years ago Feb. 3, when a German torpedo slammed into the U. S. Army’s transport ship Dorchester off Newfoundland. That day in 1943, four chaplains gave their own lives while aiding and comforting soldiers on board as the stricken ship went down.
The attack, considered one of the worst maritime disasters of World War ll, killed 674 of the 904 men aboard, and actions of the chaplains have stood ever since as examples of courage, commitment, and faith.
That’s why Feb. 3 each year is designated “Four Chaplains Day.”
It commemorates a Methodist minister, George L. Fox; a rabbi, Alexander D. Goode; a Catholic priest, John P. Washington; and a minister in the Reformed Church in America, Clark V. Poling. On their terrible last morning so long ago, the four, all first lieutenants, ranged in age from 30 to 42.
Conditions were unspeakable; in a wild ocean, the converted liner lurched and swayed. Its men were terrified and seasick when the torpedo from submarine U-223 struck just before 1 a.m.
It hit deep below the water line near the engine room, instantly killing 100 men and knocking out the ship’s electric power and radios.
The website “The History Place” recalls how amid the disorder, the chaplains “quietly spread out among the soldiers, preaching courage to the frightened, offering prayers to the wounded, and guiding the disoriented.
“They prayed, each in the tradition of his own faith, as the water reached their knees. A wave swept over the ship, then another, and another.”
The chaplains, knowing they would die, nonetheless helped others into lifeboats, and when the supply of life jackets ran out, gave away their own.
According to armyhistory.org, “Many survivors reported that the four chaplains locked arms and prayed in unison as the ship sank.”
Others reported that as the Dorchester foundered, they could hear the chaplains praying in different languages, including Hebrew from Rabbi Goode and Latin from Father Washington.
That day resonates especially in our family: A nephew, Rabbi and Army Reserve Maj. Aaron Stucker-Rozovsky, is a military chaplain.
We’re proud that the major, a Providence College graduate who now leads a synagogue in Virginia and has served at Guantanamo Bay and in Afghanistan, was once a member of the Rhode Island Army National Guard and, in fact, was the first Jewish chaplain in its more than 380-year history.
Around our place, his service adds meaning to Four Chaplains Day, a time for remembering that valor isn’t always forged through the barrel of a gun.
The enduring vision of what happened that day 80 years ago was captured in the memory of one of the Dorchester survivors, who later recounted:
“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.”
Gerry Goldstein (firstname.lastname@example.org), a frequent contributor, is a retired Providence Journal editor and columnist.