A tale of four war heroes Chapel to honor chaplains who died

February 03, 1993|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Staff Writer

Fifty years ago this morning, a crowded troop ship -- a once elegant Chesapeake Bay steamer that had become a "rust bucket" in the words of some who knew it -- was torpedoed and sank in the North Atlantic, taking the lives of 672 of the 902 men aboard.

They are not forgotten.

Four who were lost in icy waters between Newfoundland and Greenland were Army chaplains -- a Jew, a Roman Catholic and two Protestants -- who gave their life jackets to survivors. The religious faith and self-sacrifice of these four clergymen have become legendary, and because of them the drama of the sinking of the Dorchester lives on in annual commemorations here and across the country.

Monday, the site was dedicated for a $2.2 million interfaith chapel to be built in the chaplains' memory near Valley Forge, Pa.

Last night, the 38 living survivors of the Dorchester tragedy were feted at a banquet in Philadelphia.

And on Sunday, Baltimore area posts of the American Legion will remember the heroism of Feb. 3, 1943, at a special Mass at 11:30 a.m. at St. Alphonsus Roman Catholic Church, Saratoga St. and Park Ave.

The four chaplains, survivors recalled, joined hands in prayer as they went down with the ship. They were Rabbi Alexander Goode of Washington; the Rev. George L. Fox, a Methodist minister from Cambridge, Vt.; the Rev. Clark V. Poling of the First Reformed Church of Schenectady, N.Y.; and the Rev. John P. Washington of St. Stephen's Roman Catholic Church in Arlington, N.J.

In the archives of a national foundation that hopes to start construction of the Valley Forge chapel toward the end of this year are the names of six Baltimoreans who were aboard the Dorchester. Three were Merchant Marine crewmen among the lost: William J. MacGill, Constanty Kaminski and Charles G. Lang.

The others were survivors: Merchant Seaman Samuel W. Dix and two soldiers, PFC Theodore J. Saunders and PFC John F. Garey. All three have since died, said Archie Roberts, a retired chaplain on the staff of the Friends of the Chapel of the Four Chaplains in Valley Forge.

To anyone who was ever aboard a troop ship, and especially to men and women who have served in the armed forces as chaplains, the record of the events of that windy night and morning 150 miles off the coast of Greenland is unforgettable history.

One of the perpetuators of the record is Jack C. Randles of Fallston, a retired Army colonel who served in the Infantry in World War II and as a chaplain in Korea and Vietnam. Although he entered the service two months after the sinking of the Dorchester, the facts are etched in his memory.

"In less than 27 minutes from the time the torpedo found its mark, the Dorchester surrendered to its watery grave," he said. "Yet in those brief minutes, a most extraordinary example of human altruism, self-sacrifice, courage and love was to be witnessed and verified by scores of surviving eye witnesses."

Added Colonel Randles, "No writer of drama could have possibly written it better."

President Harry S Truman apparently agreed. At the dedication Feb. 4, 1951, of a memorial chapel in the basement of the old Baptist Temple on the campus of Temple University, Mr. Truman said, "This chapel commemorates something more than an act of bravery or courage. It commemorates a great act of faith in God."

The four chaplains "gave their lives without being asked," President Truman said, and in so doing "carried out the moral code which we are all supposed to live by."

The president also said, "We must never forget that this country was founded by men who came to these shores to worship God as they pleased. Catholics, Jews and Protestants all came here for this great purpose."

The chapel he dedicated is now closed, partly because Temple University became a state institution, Mr. Roberts said. The new building near the Valley Forge battlefield will be a replacement.

But the words of the record need no replacement. Colonel Randles said the four chaplains "helped men to get on deck, ministered to the wounded, prayed with the dying and prayed over the dead, and encouraged in every way possible.

"Rabbi Goode blocked a door when a sailor tried to go back below to get his gloves. Chaplain Goode told the man to take his gloves since he had two pairs. Only in reflection did the sailor realize that the rabbi had given him his gloves because he had already committed himself to not leaving the ship."

John M. Stefura, adjutant of the Lithuanian Post No. 154 of the American Legion, has helped organize a memorial Mass at St. Alphonsus' for many years. He is a survivor of action in Europe with both the infantry and the field artillery in World War II.

Of the interfaith attendance he expects again at the commemoration on Sunday, he said simply, "Quite a few do come."

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