Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
Seventy-five years ago this Saturday, four Army chaplains – two Protestant ministers, a Jewish rabbi and a Roman Catholic priest – gave their life jackets to others and, praying side by side, went to their deaths as the U.S. troop transport ship Dorchester, torpedoed by a German submarine, sank beneath the frigid waters of the North Atlantic.
It is one of the most heroic episodes of World War II and the history of our country and among the most inspiring, because it demonstrates how men of different beliefs and experiences found common ground as people of faith and as Americans and stood together to sacrifice themselves for others.
It is a story well worth remembering today when common ground is rare real estate in this country. When we stand today – or don’t – it’s against something. There’s not much standing to reason.
“Our life is just arm-deep in conflict and the conflict is not adding good things to our land,” said the Rev. Dr. David Poling, former pastor of Albuquerque’s First Presbyterian Church. “What the chaplains did was truly dramatic and life-changing, and we don’t see that anymore. I think people will gain from their story. The truth is never an old story.” He said the example of the chaplains encourages us to find out more about people who are not like us.
Poling, 89, is the first cousin of 1st Lt. Clark V. Poling, a minister in the Reformed Church in America and one of the chaplains who died on the Dorchester. The other chaplains lost on the ship, all first lieutenants, were George L. Fox, a Methodist minister; Alexander D. Goode, the rabbi; and John P. Washington, the Catholic priest.
The four men met and became friends at the Army Chaplain School at Harvard University. They were among the more than 900 people – mostly military but some civilians as well – aboard the Dorchester when the ship left New York in January 1943 on the way to Greenland. The German sub’s torpedo tore into the ship off the coast of Newfoundland at about 1 a.m. on Feb. 3.
Witnesses said the chaplains remained calm in the midst of panic and chaos, distributing life jackets and helping others find their way to lifeboats. When the supply of life jackets ran out, the chaplains took off their own and gave those away.
The ship sank in 20 minutes. Only about 230 of the 904 passengers and crew survived. Many of those wearing life jackets – but unable to find room in lifeboats – died in the cold, dark water as a result of hypothermia.
David Poling said he likes to believe the four chaplains went directly to heaven.
“I believe in the miraculous,” he said. “I believe in providence.”
David Poling was pastor of the First Presbyterian Church here from 1975 to 1989. He is part of a family of ministers, 16 at last count, including his grandfather and grandmother Poling, his father, both his brothers, his uncle and his cousin Clark.
A writer of note, Poling once wrote a syndicated religion column distributed by the Newspaper Enterprise Association and is the author or co-author of 14 books, including 2001’s “Sea of Glory,” a novelization of the Four Chaplains story, written with Ken Wales.
Clark Poling’s story is, of course, a very personal one for his cousin David.
“Clark was contagious in his warmth and in his conversation,” David said during a recent interview at the Rio Rancho retirement community, where he lives with his wife, Ann Reid Poling. “He was very positive in his ministry. (His loss) was just an emotional wallop all through our family because he lived among us and we followed his career.”
Among David Poling’s fondest memories of his cousin are those two years in the early 1930s when Clark lived with David’s family in Bound Brook, N.J., while attending Rutgers University.
David was 3 to 4 years old during that time and his brother Charles a couple of years older. Clark pushed his young cousins to exciting heights in a swing suspended from a cherry tree in the family’s backyard and took them on long walks on Sunday afternoons.
“He was a life-changing person,” David said. “He paid attention to these two little cousins as if they were his own brothers. He touched our lives.”
The Four Chaplains touched many lives. In 1988, a unanimous act of Congress established Feb. 3 as “Four Chaplains Day.”
Perhaps the most vital message we can take from the chaplains’ gallantry is that it’s the trying that is heroic because that’s the part that takes the guts and nothing gets done without it. Seventy-five years after they died, David Poling believes that their story has the power to influence Americans of today to work together for the good of the country.
“Courage and heroism become contagious,” he said.
Often these days it seems that only a miracle will bridge the rifts in our divided nation. But David Poling believes in miracles.
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