The directive from the Captain of the USAT Dorchester was clear: “Sleep in your clothes and wear your life jackets at all times.”
Unfortunately, his men, hot and tired in cramped quarters below, didn’t listen. And when a torpedo from a German U–Boat struck the ship shortly after midnight on February 3, 1943, panic ensued.
At that moment, four chaplains emerged from the chaos: the Methodist preacher George Fox, the Jewish rabbi Alexander Goode, the Presbyterian minister Clarke Poling, and the Catholic priest John Washington.
The son of Irish immigrants, Father Washington enlisted in the days immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Throughout most of 1942, the 33-year-old New Jersey native remained stateside, stationed first in Indiana and Maryland, then in Massachusetts, where he began Chaplain School at Harvard University. Among his classmates were Fox, Goode, and Poling.
The four became friends and together boarded the Dorchester in late January 1943. They had been at sea for less than 10 days when the torpedo struck. In the aftermath of the attack, the four chaplains calmed the men, organized an evacuation, and distributed life jackets. When the life jackets ran out, they gave up their own.
Life jackets, however, weren’t the only thing in short supply: the Dorchester had only enough lifeboat space to accommodate one-quarter of its men. The officers offered spots to Washington and his fellow chaplains, but they refused to go.
As the survivors rowed away from the ship, they could see the four chaplains—-linked arm in arm, praying for the souls and safety of their men.
Before the sun rose, the Dorchester was gone. So were her four chaplains and nearly 700 others. Only 230 men survived.
Posthumously, Washington and his fellow chaplains received the Distinguished Service Cross and the Purple Heart. In 1988, Congress declared February 3 “Four Chaplains Day,” and Episcopalians honor all four men on that day with a liturgical feast.