When my dad returned from Korea after the conflict, he became a teacher at the U.S. Army Information School, located at Fort Slocum, on Davids Island in Long Island Sound, just off New Rochelle, New York.
Fort Slocum was an official U.S. Army post from 1867 to 1965, although its first military use came in 1861, at the start of the Civil War, when Camp Carrigan was established on the island. It later was named for Union corps commander Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum. At the time by dad was stationed there, the Army Information School shared the post with the U.S. Army Chaplains’ School.
Since the post was located on an island, visitors and those stationed at Fort Slocum had to take a short ferry ride from New Rochelle. It wasn’t a typical ferry, though. It was a regular ship that could handle passengers and a few cars, which had to drive onto the ship and make a hard right to find a place to stop. It was always exciting to watch the loading and unloading process, but because Davids Island is small — only 78 acres — not many people bothered bringing their vehicles along.
A couple times a year, Dad would bring me to work with him. I was between 5 and 8 while he was stationed at Fort Slocum, and I would sit in his office coloring or reading while he taught classes. The highlight of every visit was lunch at the mess hall. On the way, Dad always took me into the lobby of the Chaplains’ School to see a giant painting of the Four Chaplains. As I stared at what I thought was a magnificent piece of art — the subject, of course, was heroic, but the execution, perhaps not — Dad would read the story of the four men and one of the greatest sacrifices one human can make for another.
I was mesmerized.
The four men were Lt. Alexander D. Goode, a Jewish chaplain from New York; Lt. Clark V. Poling, a Dutch Reformed chaplain from Ohio; Lt. George L. Fox, a Methodist chaplain from Pennsylvania; and Lt. John P. Washington, a Roman Catholic chaplain from New Jersey, I felt special pride in Lt. Poling, a representative of the church my grandparents and my favorite aunt and uncle attended. We may not remember their names today, but we should remember their actions on Feb. 3, 1943.
The young chaplains were among some 900 men on the U.S. Army Transport ship Dorchester on their way from New York to Greenland, and, from there, to the fighting in Europe. In the 14 months since Pearl Harbor, the Allied forces were making great strides in defeating Nazi Germany and its partners, but the end of the war still was a long way off.
Before the war, the Dorchester carried passengers up and down the coast of Canada and the United States. When war was forced on America, the Dorchester was pressed into service as a troop ship. Already a week at sea, the Dorchester made its way across the Labrador Sea, off the coast of Canada, it was torpedoed by the German submarine U-233. It quickly was obvious the ship would not survive and the order to abandon ship was given. Many of the men on board — including the four chaplains — donned life jackets as they prepared to jump into the icy waters.
But not every man could located a life jacket, so, as they helped men overboard, the chaplains removed their own life jackets and gave them to soldiers without a flotation device. They might not have lived with the life jackets, but without them, the chaplains were doomed to a watery death. As the Dorchester began to slip beneath the waves, the chaplains linked arms and said prayers for those in the water.
In taking off their life jackets to give to others, the chaplains lived out the greatest tenets of their faith and they showed a courage and a love for their fellow humans that probably not many of us would display. And their’s was not the only profile in courage that day.
Charles Walter David Jr. of New York, a Black Coast Guardsman of a nearby rescue chip, jumped into the freezing waters to save two drowning survivors of the Dorchester. David continued to help rescue a total of 93 survivors. In doing so, David contracted pneumonia and died 54 days later.
We all are honored by these acts of bravery and love for their fellow soldiers. AS a 7 year old, I was awed by the story my father read. I don’t remember much about my early childhood years, but I cannot forget that huge painting and the even bigger story of those brave men.
We are told in the Gospel of John, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” What an amazing love was shown that day 78 years ago.
Fort Slocum closed down seven years after me dad transferred to the Army Reserve Center in New York City — his final post before retirement. Over the years, efforts were made to turn the old post into a community college, a public park and other uses, but so far nothing has happened. The old buildings are mere ruins now, overgrown and choked with weeds.
Today, at 11 a.m. our time, Wreaths Across America — that marvelous organization that works all year to ensure our magnificent veterans are honored at the Christmas holidays with wreaths placed on their grave — will pay tribute to the Four Chaplains with a live Facebook stream from the Balsam Valley Chapel in Columbia Falls, Maine — in the midst of the trees that provide the materials for the wreaths the organization places each December.
Today, as America remains divided half and half and emotions are frayed and tempers at a flash point, it is good to look back at a time when we were united in a common cause, when sacrifice was more common than not, when the world needed us as never before.
Whether you join the Facebook ceremony, please take the time today to remember the Four Chaplains — Fox, Goode Poling and Washington — and the example they set for all of us.
I know I can never forget.
Robert C. Borden is Opinions editor of The Eagle. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.