A 1948 print honoring the four chaplains who perished in the 1943 sinking of the USAT Dorchester is shown with an illustration of the tragic day. Father John P. Washington, along with Rabbi Alexander D. Goode, the Rev. George L. Fox, a Methodist minister , and the Rev. Clark V. Poling, a Dutch Reformed minister, all Army lieutenants, gave their life jackets to panicked soldiers scurrying to abandon the transport ship after it had been torpedoed by a German U-boat during World War II. CNS/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Four Chaplains' love of others recalled 70 years after their sacrifice

By  Michael C. Gabriele, Catholic News Service
  • February 4, 2013

KEARNY, N.J. - An act of valor by four men of faith 70 years ago at the height of World War II can serve as an inspiration for people today, the head of the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services.

Celebrating Mass honoring the men -- known as the Four Chaplains -- who gave up their lives for others as their military transport sank in the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean, Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio said the men's love of God and for others led them to make the ultimate sacrifice in service to others.

Archbishop Broglio was the main celebrant of a Mass at St. Stephen Parish in Kearny that recalled the sacrifice of Father John P. Washington, a native of Newark, on Feb. 3, 1943, and three other Army chaplains.

"Father John P. Washington and his companions did not wake up on Feb. 3, 1943, and decide that they were going to be heroes," the archbishop said. "They were men for others with the courage of their convictions long before that day dawned."

Father Washington, along with Rabbi Alexander D. Goode, the Rev. George L. Fox, a Methodist minister, and the Rev. Clark V. Poling, a Dutch Reformed minister, all Army lieutenants, gave their life jackets to other panicked soldiers scurrying to abandon the Dorchester after it had been torpedoed at night by a German U-boat. The Dorchester was part of a convoy of ships heading to a U.S. base in Greenland.

Survivors reported seeing the four men gathered in prayer on the deck of the listing ship, their arms around each other, as it slipped into the water, according to historical records. The four men stayed calm amid the mayhem and it became apparent that there were not enough life jackets for all of the 902 troops on board, survivors said. In all, 230 troops survived.

For seven decades, the courage of the Four Chaplains has resonated not just as an inspirational act of valor in war, but as a supreme demonstration of interfaith unity and compassion. It was a moment when four men from different religious backgrounds joined together as a single, brave quartet and answered the ultimate call of faith, sacrificing their own lives to save others.

St. Stephen Parish was the last parish where Father Washington served.

"In my mind, the most important thing about the Four Chaplains is they're an example of faith in action," Archbishop Broglio told The Catholic Advocate, newspaper of the Newark Archdiocese. "Their actions that day represented the logical consequence of who they were and what they decided to do with God's grace. They are an example for all of us. We're called to make use of the talents God has given us in the concrete situations of our lives."

The parish also dedicated a bronze monument to the Four Chaplains in a ceremony on its front lawn after the Mass.

Father Joseph A. Mancini, St. Stephen's pastor, said that it is the parish's responsibility to share the story of the Four Chaplains. He said the parish "couldn't keep Father Washington" for itself.

John Washington was born in the Roseville section of Newark July 18, 1908, the son of Frank and Mary Washington. Young John was enrolled at St. Rose of Lima School in 1914, according to a biography posted on the website of the Philadelphia-based Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation. A memorial to Father Washington stands on the lawn of St. Rose of Lima Parish.

When he entered seventh grade, Father Washington felt strongly about becoming a priest. He entered Seton Hall in South Orange, N.J., to complete his high school and college courses in preparation for the priesthood. He graduated in 1931 and then entered Immaculate Conception Seminary at Seton Hall. He was ordained to the priesthood June 15, 1935.

His assignments included St. Genevieve Parish in Elizabeth, St. Venantius Parish in Orange, and then St. Stephen Parish in what was the town of Arlington (today a section of Kearny). Soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he received an appointment as a chaplain in the Army and went on active duty May 9, 1942.

Six months later, he reported to Camp Myles Standish in Taunton, Mass., a departure point for soldiers heading into battle. He met the other men at Harvard Divinity School.

In an interview, Mark S. Auerbach, city historian in Passaic, N.J., said the action of the Four Chaplains "personifies ecumenism at its best."

Auerbach, a cousin of Rabbi Goode, maintains an extensive collection of books, photos and memorabilia on the Four Chaplains. "Over the years my father would tell me stories about the Four Chaplains and our cousin. I'm fulfilling my father's wish to do all I can to tell the story so that it's never forgotten," he said.

Auerbach said he feels a sense of urgency to celebrate the 1943 disaster.

"We're rapidly losing members of the 'Greatest Generation,'" he explained. "It may be hard for some people to comprehend what they did for us. They went from living through the Great Depression to fighting for our survival during World War II. We wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for them."

The Four Chaplains posthumously received the Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart and were honored when Congress approved the Chaplains' Medal of Honor in 1960.

 

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