Memorial Day: The Four Chaplains

The following appeared on a personal, non-sports blog that I only rarely update. I wrote it back in February on the anniversary of the heroic act described here, and thought Memorial Day was a good time to share it here . . .

I’ve always been partial to the little guy in sports, probably because I was one. So today, I want to tell you about a little guy.

Clark Poling only weighed 135 pounds, but he loved football, and insisted on going out for the team at Oakwood Prep in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. And he did pretty well. He didn’t do it without some doubt. He’d survived an auto accident as a child, and still had the lingering effects of a broken hip from that.

But as a freshman his team went undefeated and he was a starting defensive back. He made a little bit of a name for himself as a halfback until he suffered a broken wrist and his football days were over.

It’s what he did after football, though, that needs to be remembered today. Clark, like his father, went into the ministry, though not without some doubts. The day he was ordained, they asked him if he believed in the virgin birth. He paused, then said, “I do not disbelieve, but I am not convinced.” Then he quoted a passage of Paul’s about being ministers not of the letter, but of the spirit.

He graduated from Rutgers, and Yale Divinity School. He became a pastor in the Dutch Reformed Church, married, and settled with his wife Betty and son Corky in Schenectady, N.Y.

He was 30 years old at the outbreak of World War II, and he decided to enlist. In the same way he threw himself into football, he wanted to throw himself into the middle of the action. His father had been a military chaplain in World War I, but Clark told him he didn’t want to “hide behind the church.” He wanted to fight.

When his father told him that chaplains suffered the highest mortality rate of any servicemen in World War I, Clark Poling reconsidered. At Chaplain’s School at Harvard University, he completed his military training and met three other chaplains, with whom he became close friends.

There was George Fox, a 42-year-old Methodist minister whose 18-year-old son was in the Marines. Fox had run away as a 17-year-old to serve as a medic in World War I, winning the Silver Cross and Purple Heart.

There was Alexander Goode, who had become a rabbi after graduating from the University of Cincinnati and Hebrew Union College, and had earned a doctorate from John’s Hopkins.

And there was John P. Washington, a Catholic priest from New Jersey who signed up as soon as Pearl Harbor was bombed.

The four became inseparable, and could be found having animated discussions often at Chaplain’s school, and later on the ship USAT Dorchester, an Army transport.

One soldier described watching them as, “Just like a football huddle.”

On Feb. 3, 1943, the Dorchester was sailing in the North Atlantic when it was hit by a torpedo from the German submarine U-223.

In the chaos that followed, the four chaplains helped to calm the men. They talked frantic and frightened soldiers onto lifeboats. They handed out life jackets.

And when the life preservers ran out, each of the four took off his own, and handed it to a soldier.

And they prayed. Each his own prayers, some Latin, some Hebrew, some English.

I don’t know what goes through a man’s mind when he makes the decision to remove that life vest, to literally remove his life like a piece of clothing and lay it over another man’s shoulders.

It certainly was a day that Clark Poling, one of the little guys who was born in Canton, Ohio, where now resides the Football Hall of Fame, earned an honor as high as any man can earn. (His daughter, Susan, was born three months after his death.)

Grady Clark, a survivor of that day, described the scene.

“As I swam away from the ship, I looked back. The flares had lighted everything. The bow came up 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. I did not see them again. They themselves did not have a chance without their life jackets.”

Others described the Four Chaplains as praying arm in arm as the ship went down.

All four were posthumously honored with the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross. The Four Chaplains Medal was was established by an act of Congress in 1960 and presented to their families in 1961. They appeared on a postage stamp, and Feb. 3 was declared “Four Chaplains Day” in 1948.

A chapel in their honor was dedicated by President Harry Truman in Philadelphia in 1951.

You can read more about them at fourchaplains.org. Thanks to Don Roth of Louisville for his hard work in keeping their memory alive. He was faithful in contacting my dad every year about this time to remind him of the Four Chaplains, and got in touch with me this year.

The background information for this entry came from Dan Kurzman’s No Greater Glory: The Four Immortal Chaplains and the Sinking of the Dorchester in World War II. Buy the book here.

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