Veterans Day 2017

This blog always salutes our veterans of today in a more international manner, by recalling those who gave their all in service at one time or another, representative of the bravery those who are still with us showed.  This year, while considering what I would be writing about, I happened back across this story from World War II, not much remembered today by those of us obsessed with the fight against terrorism, or who champion veterans for more political purposes.  These four men show that there are many forms which bravery can take, and it can be exhibited even by those who swear never to take another’s life.

The date was February 3, 1943, off Newfoundland in the North Atlantic, and the troop ship Dorchester was steaming toward Britain with a load of troops on their way to their posting and training in England.  She carried 904 souls, among whom were four first lieutenants in the Army Chaplain Corps.  Their backgrounds, traditions and even creeds were quite dissimilar —

  • George Lansing Fox was born in Pennsylvania, and was ordained a Methodist minister in 1934; he had previously served in the Army in World War I.
  • Alexander David Goode was born in Brooklyn, New York and raised in Washington, D. C., and studied to become a Reform rabbi, receiving his Ph. D. in 1940.
  • Clark Vandersall Poling, a minister in the evangelical Reformed Church in America, was born in Ohio.  He followed in his father’s footsteps into the Chaplain Corps.
  • John Patrick Washington hailed from Newark, New Jersey, and was ordained a Catholic priest in 1935.

German U-boats were extremely active in the shipping lanes of the North Atlantic, with many sinkings racked up, and so all on board were ordered to remain dressed and to wear their life jackets.  Unfortunately, due to discomfort (especially for those bunked in the hold near the engine room), this was much ignored.  Near 1:00 a.m., the Dorchester was torpedoed by the German U-223.  Panic began setting in, but the chaplains worked to calm the men down and organize an evacuation of the hold, handing out life jackets until the supply ran out.  And then each one took off his own vest and gave it to another soldier, and continued the evacuation.

Many men survived that night, or received at least a chance for survival, due in part to the sacrifice and service of the chaplains, instead of going down in a darkened hold and panic.  Evacuees in the lifeboats reported afterward that the four men could be seen on the deck as the ship went down, linked together arm in arm, praying together and singing hymns in a blend of English, Latin and Hebrew.

Many locations around the country recall the sacrifice and brotherhood of these men of the Divine; of the photos I’ve found, one of the better memorials is this one in Arbor Crest Cemetery in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  Other places, particularly chapels, contain stained glass memorials; and in an unusual move, Congress authorized a commemorative stamp in 1948, five years before the normal “10-year-deceased” policy.

I salute these men who died, the men they saved, and the men and women who continue to serve today.

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