Faith, Courage and Selflessness: The Story of the Four Chaplains
Lt. George L. Fox’s tenure as pastor of the Downs Methodist Episcopal Church was rather uneventful but his legacy as an Army chaplain just 14 years later lives on.
Fox was one of four chaplains that perished on the U.S.A.T. Dorchester when it was hit by a torpedo from a German U-boat off the coast of Newfoundland Feb. 3, 1943.
Fox, who graduated with a A.B. degree from Illinois Wesleyan University in 1931 was pastor at Downs from 1929 to 1931. He had served as a veteran of World War I, having lied about his age in order to enlist with the ambulance corps in 1917.
On Dec. 3, 1917, Fox embarked from Camp Merritt, N.J. and board the U.S. Huron en route to France, where as a medical corps assistant, he was highly decorated for bravery and was awarded the Silver Star, Purple Heat and the French Croix de Guerre.
A native of Pennsylvania, Fox returned home after his discharge and when to work for the Guarantee Trust Co. In 1923, Fox entered Moody Institute in Chicago and later withdrew to become an itinerant Methodist preacher.
Following graduation from Illinois Wesleyan University and his pastorate at Downs, he entered Boston School of Theology and was ordained in 1934. He served several pastorates in Vermont and joined the American Legion where he was appointed state chaplain and historian.
In mid-1942, Fox joined the Army Chaplain Service and went on active duty Aug. 8, 1942, the same day his son Wyatt enlisted in the Marine Corps. He was assigned to the Chaplains school at Harvard, where he became friends with Jewish Rabbi Lt. Alexander D. Goode, Roman Catholic priest Lt. John P. Washington and Lt. Clark V. Poling of the Dutch Reformed Church. After a brief deployment to the 411th Coast Artillery Batallion at Camp Davis, Fox reunited with the other three at Camp Myles Standish in Tauton, Mass., where the four made their fateful trip aboard the Dorchester.
It was the evening of Feb. 2, 1943, and the U.S.A.T. Dorchester was crowded to capacity, carrying 902 service men, merchant seamen and civilian workers.
Once a luxury coastal liner, the 5,649-ton vessel had been converted into an Army transport ship, carrying 902 service men, merchant seaman and civilian workers. The Dorchester, one of three ships in the SG-19 convoy, was moving steadily across the icy waters from Newfoundland toward an American base in Greenland. SG-19 was escorted by Coast Guard Cutters Tampa, Escanaba and Comanche. Sonar had detected submarines in the area.
Just 150 miles from their destination, Captain Hans J. Danielsen ordered the men to sleep in their clothing and keep life jackets on. Many soldiers sleeping deep in the ship's hold disregarded the order because of the engine's heat. Others ignored it because the life jackets were uncomfortable.
At 12:55 a.m. Feb. 3, the German submarine U-223 approached the convoy on the surface, and after identifying and targeting the ship, gave orders to fire the torpedoes, a fan of three were fired. The one that hit was decisive--and deadly--striking the starboard side, amid ship, far below the water line.
Tragically, the hit had knocked out power and radio contact with the three escort ships. The CGC Comanche, however, saw the flash of the explosion. It responded and then rescued 97 survivors. The CGC Escanaba circled the Dorchester, rescuing an additional 132 survivors. The third cutter, CGC Tampa, continued on, escorting the remaining two ships
Aboard the Dorchester, panic and chaos had set in. The blast had killed scores of men, and many more were seriously wounded. Others, stunned by the explosion were groping in the darkness. Those sleeping without clothing rushed topside where they were confronted first by a blast of icy Arctic air and then by the knowledge that death awaited.
Men jumped from the ship into lifeboats, over-crowding them to the point of capsizing, according to eyewitnesses. Other rafts, tossed into the Atlantic, drifted away before soldiers could get in them.
Through the pandemonium, according to those present, the four Army chaplains brought hope in despair and light in darkness. Quickly and quietly, the four chaplains spread out among the soldiers. There they tried to calm the frightened, tend the wounded and guide the disoriented toward safety.
"Witnesses of that terrible night remember hearing the four men offer prayers for the dying and encouragement for those who would live," says Wyatt R. Fox, son of Reverend Fox.
One witness, Private William B. Bednar, found himself floating in oil-smeared water surrounded by dead bodies and debris. "I could hear men crying, pleading, praying," Bednar recalls. "I could also hear the chaplains preaching courage. Their voices were the only thing that kept me going."
Another sailor, Petty Officer John J. Mahoney, tried to reenter his cabin but Rabbi Goode stopped him. Mahoney, concerned about the cold Arctic air, explained he had forgotten his gloves.
"Never mind," Goode responded. "I have two pairs." The rabbi then gave the petty officer his own gloves. In retrospect, Mahoney realized that Rabbi Goode was not conveniently carrying two pairs of gloves, and that the rabbi had decided not to leave the Dorchester.
By this time, most of the men were topside, and the chaplains opened a storage locker and began distributing life jackets. It was then that Engineer Grady Clark witnessed an astonishing sight.
When there were no more lifejackets in the storage room, the chaplains removed theirs and gave them to four frightened young men.
"It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven," said John Ladd, another survivor who saw the chaplains' selfless act.
As the ship went down, survivors in nearby rafts could see the four chaplains--arms linked and braced against the slanting deck. Their voices could also be heard offering prayers.
Of the 902 men aboard the U.S.A.T. Dorchester, 672 died, leaving 230 survivors. When the news reached American shores, the nation was stunned by the magnitude of the tragedy and heroic conduct of the four chaplains.
"Valor is a gift," Carl Sandburg once said. "Those having it never know for sure whether they have it until the test comes."
The Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart were awarded posthumously Dec. 19, 1944, to the next of kin by Lt. Gen. Brehon B. Somervell, Commanding General of the Army Service Forces, in a ceremony at the post chapel at Fort Myer, Va.
A one-time only posthumous Special Medal for Heroism was authorized by Congress and awarded by the President Eisenhower Jan. 18, 1961. Congress attempted to confer the Medal of Honor but was blocked by the stringent requirements that required heroism performed under fire. The special medal was intended to have the same weight and importance as the Medal of Honor.