Remembering the Four Chaplains 80 years later
Norwich ― Eighty years ago, on Feb. 3, 1943, four chaplains aboard the U.S.A.T. Dorchester sacrificed their lives in an effort to save others after the ship was torpedoed and sank.
Six-hundred and seventy-two died in the attack -- including Lt. George Fox, a Methodist minister; Lt. Alexander D. Goode, a rabbi; Lt. John P. Washington, a Catholic priest; and Lt. Clark V. Poling, a Dutch Reformed Church minister. Survivors described the collective efforts of the four chaplains, coordinating life boats, dispensing life jackets (including their own), and offering prayer and encouragement, as exceedingly brave and selfless.
As the ship went down, men in rafts saw the four chaplains, arms linked and braced against the slanting deck, singing hymns and praying, according to American Legion records.
Taftville's Peter Gallan American Legion Post 104 remembered and honored the four men with its Four Chaplains Ceremony, its first such ceremony since 2020, on Sunday.
Dennis Lisee, a past commander of the post and currenty 5th-District commander, volunteered to be chair of the ceremony to make sure it took place. Lisee offered benediction for the men and women currently serving.
“Just to recognize these four chaplains that gave their lives,” Lisee said on the ceremony’s importance. “They had life jackets, they could’ve gone onto the boats and everything, but instead they gave up their life jackets, helped people. They went down with the ship.”
“It’s just a special day for the American Legion,” he added.
Junior vice commander John Duca emceed the event and told the story of the four men. The ceremony, which lasted about an hour, began with Tracy Medling’s rendition of the national anthem followed by the Presentation of the Colors by Boy Scout Troop 80 of Norwich. There was also a short ceremony to remember prisoners of war who never returned.
Rabbi Julius Rabinowicz of the Beth Jacob Synagogue in Norwich, Chaplain Charles Tyree of the Norwich Alliance Church, the Rev. Phil Salonis, a chaplain with the American Legion and National Chaplain for Vietnam veterans, and Medling, postmaster of Baltic standing in for Rev. Scott Schuett of the Redeemer Lutheran Church in Lebanon, represented the four chaplains from the Dorchester on Sunday.
Four young Marines read the backstories of the Dorchester chaplains, before their contemporary representatives addressed the crowded post hall.
Salonis recounted his time serving in Vietnam, prior to becoming a priest, as well as the role of chaplains. He served as a chaplain for U.S. Army Reserves in Providence.
They are unarmed, offer guidance to soldiers, and will even run into combat to help bandage wounded soldiers and get them to safety. He likened it to the buddy system in the military and covering each other’s “six.”
Lisee said chaplains have served and died in every U.S. war.
Tyree, who comes from a military background, spoke from “an army brat’s” point of view on the role of chaplains. “Pastor,” he said, is the same as “shepherd” in Greek, and in the gospel of John in the Bible, the “good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
“The role of the chaplain, like the role of anyone in military service, is to stand with their brothers and sisters,” Tyree said. “Especially when things get desperate and difficult.”
Rabinowicz spoke on the importance of helping veterans re-enter a civilian role in society upon returning home and offering guidance as needed. He explained that both the Christian and Jewish faiths have methods of “cleansing” the soul.
He said that, no matter how honorable the reasoning behind enlisting may be ― whether it’s for the love of God, country or a family history ― that it can break down once faced with real war situations.
“As much as we try to avoid it, it is very difficult to fully prepare our heroic warriors for the true horrors of war,” Rabinowicz said.
Medling, who come from a military family, said she was honored to be a participant and is proud of the family members who serve. She recognized the sacrifices made by all who serve, and acknowledged the courage of the four men that was “based on something far deeper and far greater than the human heart. It came from the one who created the human heart.”
“These men lived and died with full assurance of the truth that their faith and their God was real,” she said. “Their faith was tangible.”
State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, herself an Army veteran, was in attendance and said she attends every year.
“This is a perfect place to recognize what veterans willfully do, and what the four chaplains did that day was just an amazing testament to the human spirit and how they worked together,” she said prior to the ceremony. “It’s something that we need to replicate more and more.”
State Reps. Derell Wilson, D-Norwich and Kevin Ryan, D-Montville, were also in attendance.
Ryan recounted the tale of the chaplains and offered for all to remember, not just those who perished, but the 230 survivors and the men and women serving today. He called the ceremony “powerful and moving.”
“We still see that same type of resolve in the military folks serving today,” Ryan said.
Wilson recognized not only the importance of the sacrifices those who serve make, including the chaplains, but that remembering those sacrifices brings everyone closer together.
“It’s important that we recognize the sacrifice they make day-in and day-out to keep us safe,” he said.
The four chaplains re-enacted the benediction before the ceremony concluded with taps.
Lisee said that the ceremony for the chaplains is recognized by American Legion posts across the state and nation.
“We try and honor the people that do things like that, and I think there should be more honoring of people like that,” Lisee said.