In winter 1943, the USS Dorchester, a U.S. Army troopship, fell behind its escort off the coast of Greenland. Heavy with more than 900 men, the retired luxury liner was poorly maintained for this icy trip.
Gale-force winds made for a nauseating, if not monotonous, voyage. Fortunately, among those doing their best to alleviate the discomfort were four chaplains: the Rev. John Washington, the Rev. Clark Poling, Rabbi Alexander Goode and the Rev. George Fox.
During the voyage, they organized sing-alongs and talent shows, but mostly they took confessions and held worship services that were attended by everyone, no matter what their faith.
"They were always together, they carried their faith together," the ship's first sergeant said.
On the evening of Feb. 2, 1943, the ship's captain, concerned over the sightings of three enemy submarines, instructed passengers to wear life jackets to bed. Most found it uncomfortable and were unprepared at 1 a.m. when torpedoes from the German submarine U-223 slammed into the ship's midsection below the waterline.
Scores were killed in an instant, but many survivors, still dressed in underwear, clambered up on deck without life jackets. Amid the confusion, what most survivors remember was the peaceful workings of the four chaplains: two Protestant pastors, a Catholic priest and a Jewish rabbi.
Among the first officers on deck, they calmed the men and organized them into lifeboats. When the chaplains saw many were without life jackets, they found extra jackets and distributed them.
Told to pray as they abandoned ship, soldiers found courage from the chaplains, who remained steadfast in their purpose. Then, in an action that inspired a Medal of Honor nomination, the chaplains removed their own life jackets and gave them to the last four soldiers.
What we know next is from the vantage point of the men who made it into the lifeboats. It is said that, in the light of the fiery oil, the chaplains were seen standing arm in arm on the ship's keel, leading an interfaith service. Eighteen minutes after the torpedo hit, the Dorchester rolled into the sea on its starboard side.
In the most published quote of the tragedy, survivor John Ladd called it: "The finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven."
A Memorial Day eulogy 60 years later would describe the moment as: "Despair caught in hope's grasp. Four chaplains. Two faiths. One God."
It became the third largest U.S. maritime loss during World War II: Almost 700 died. Only 230 men saw sunrise. Naval investigation found that many lifeboats were hopelessly frozen to the ship; others had drifted out of reach. And even with beacon-equipped life jackets, the dead were described by rescuers as "lifeless lights bobbing up and down" in the 34-degree water.
Because the Medal of Honor can only be awarded for actions under direct fire, Congress created a special Medal for Heroism in 1960, praising the chaplains for "selfless acts of courage, compassion and faith." The award can never be repeated.
In 2008, Archbishop Desmond Tutu eulogized their sacrifice with the words of Jesus. " 'Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains barren. If it dies, it brings forth abundantly.' These men," he said, "should have disappeared in history, but extraordinarily, the opposite has happened."
Today, the Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation refuses to let the chaplains disappear under the waves of history and annually recognizes compassionate public service, provides college scholarships and assists in disaster relief. See more at www.fourchaplains.org.
Norris Burkes is an Air National Guard chaplain and a former civilian hospital chaplain. Write firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.thechaplain.net. You can also follow him on Twitter — user name is "chaplain" — or on Facebook at facebook.com/norrisburkes.