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Norwich - Seventy years ago, at an unmarked spot somewhere in the frigid North Atlantic, four Army chaplains executed an act of selfless courage that continues to teach and challenge.
On Sunday, about 60 people came together at the Peter Gallan American Legion Post 104 to mark the anniversary of the Feb. 3, 1943, event with a retelling of the story of the sinking of the USAT Dorchester by a German U-boat, and reflections on the rabbi, Catholic priest and two Protestant ministers who helped others onto lifeboats and gave away their life jackets, then huddled together in prayer to meet their deaths. The attack killed 674 of the 904 soldiers and civilians aboard.
"One of the most moving moments was when they gathered to link arms and pray, each in his own style and his own tradition ... but their profound love of their fellow human beings was the same," said the Rev. Cathy Zall, pastor of the First Congregational Church in New London, where one of the four chaplains, the Rev. Clark V. Poling, once served. "They each chose to offer care to others in the midst of panic. By living a life ordered by love, we can bring even deeper meaning to their sacrifice and honor to their memory."
Zall and three other clergy - Rabbi Julius Rabinowitz of Beth Jacob Synagogue in Norwich, the Rev. Scott Schuett of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Lebanon, and the Rev. Brian Converse, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Roman Catholic Church in Gales Ferry and Connecticut National Guard chaplain - each offered insights into what the story means for listeners today, before ending the service to pray aloud in a huddle like the four chaplains aboard the Dorchester.
"In the midst of this tragedy, God had placed these four men to minister to the hurt and the dying. But it doesn't have to be a war to be a tragedy," said Schuett, recalling the killing of 20 schoolchildren in Newtown in December and the six teachers and administrators who died trying to protect them. "Yet God is there. With us, that's the one constant."
Master of Ceremonies Dennis Baptiste, a member of the post and retired Navy reservist, said the ceremony has been "a staple for years" at many American Legion posts across the country, but the Taftville group hadn't done it for many years until it decided to revive it last year. For him, the four chaplains, all lieutenants, embody both incredible sacrifice and commitment to their faiths, as well as respect for the faiths of others.
When they decided to hand their life jackets to other soldiers, he said, Rabbi Alexander D. Goode, "didn't call out for a Jew," the Rev. John Washington, a priest, "didn't call out for a Catholic," and neither the Rev. George Fox, a Methodist, nor Poling, a Reformed Church in America minister, sought out Protestants.
"They simply gave their life jackets to the next man in line," Baptiste said.
Converse, wearing his National Guard uniform, asked the audience, among them Boy Scouts, active military, city officials and state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, to consider how the story could inspire their own actions toward today's soldiers and veterans. The unemployment rate for those who have returned from duty in Afghanistan and Iraq, he said, is nearly 50 percent, and his own battalion has seen four suicides since 2010.
"We have the opportunity to also save those men and women who are returning back," he said. "I ask you to give them a chance. Be understanding. We need support."