Four Chaplains Day is celebrated on February 3 every year in recognition of four Army chaplains who acted in the spirit of heroic sacrifice and humanitarianism onboard a sinking ship.
It was 1943 and the U.S.A.T. Dorchester was sailing across the Atlantic ocean, packed to capacity. Tragedy struck when a German submarine fired a torpedo at the ship, sinking it and killing the hundreds who were onboard.
History of Four Chaplains Day
The Four Chaplains on board the ship were Reverend George L. Fox of the Methodist faith, Jewish Rabbi Alexander D. Goode, Father John P. Washington of the Catholic faith, and Reverend Clark V. Poling from the Dutch Reformed Church. Many witnesses remember their courage, support, and prayers for the many distressed people onboard. They offered their life jackets to four people in need and as a consequence had to remain on the sinking ship, comforted only by the thought of their actions and the fact that they were going to meet their Maker soon.
In recognition of their valor and guided by non-discrimination against anyone based on their religion, the Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation was set up as a way of promoting interfaith unity and a spirit of service among individuals. The U.S. government awarded them the Purple Heart and Distinguished Service Cross medals in 1944. They were also nominated for the highest military honor, the Medal of Honor, but because they had not engaged in active combat with the enemy, they did not qualify for it. Congress, therefore, created a ‘Special Medal for Heroism’ as an honorable substitute.
Since the bombing took place on February 3, 1943, many military organizations and clubs across the country observe Four Chaplains Day, and in 1998, a senate resolution was passed to recognize the 55th anniversary of the incident making Four Chaplains Day official.
Four Chaplains Day timeline
The U.S.A.T Dorchester is torpedoed and sinks, killing hundreds of soldiers on board, including the Four Chaplains.
They receive the Purple Heart medal for their sacrifice and the second-highest military honor, the Distinguished Service Cross medal.
To make up for their ineligibility for the Medal of Honor, Congress awards them the Special Medal for Heroism.
February 3 is named in honor of the Four Chaplains.
Four Chaplains Day FAQs
Where are the Four Chaplains buried?
While there are many memorials for the Four Chaplains across the country, they have not been buried anywhere because their bodies could not be recovered from the Atlantic.
How many died aboard the Dorchester?
Of the 904 individuals aboard the ship, 674 lost their lives as it sank into the Atlantic.
How many chaplains died in World War II?
One hundred chaplains lost their lives in the U.S. Army and Marines — most were killed behind infantry and air forces.
How to Observe Four Chaplains Day
Learn about the incident
Although the events of February 3, 1943, were tragic, they were also inspiring because of the actions of the Four Chaplains, whom many recall to have spread hope and relief among the unfortunate troops who feared the loss of their lives. Their courageous act of handing over their life jackets to those in need has distinguished them as part of the country’s history.
Get involved with the foundation
The Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation was set up to spread the word about the need for interfaith understanding and selfless service. Their motto is “Unity without uniformity.” They host many events and have an up-to-date website where they publicize their activities which you can participate in by doing voluntary work.
Spread awareness of humanitarian service
There are many humanitarian organizations across the country, with a large number that operate around the world, helping people in need because of prejudice. It’s a meaningful exercise to inform those that will listen about the injustice that exists and open up conversations that may lead to what we can do in our capacity to address such issues.
5 Facts About Four Chaplains Day
The U.S.A.T. Dorchester was a luxury liner
The ship was first built in 1926 as a cruise ship that would travel from Baltimore to Florida with about 230 passengers.
Three of the four were boy scouts
Rabbi Goode, Reverend Poling, and Father Washington all served with the Boy Scouts of America.
There is a commemorative stamp
The U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp in honor of the four chaplains in 1948, just five years after their death, which is very rare.
An interfaith chapel was established
President Truman instituted The Chapel of the Four Chaplains in the basement of Grace Baptist Church, Philadelphia, in 1951.
They have many memorials
There are a considerable number of memorial plaques, parks, statues, and even stained glass windows all over the U.S. in honor of The Four Chaplains.
Why Four Chaplains Day is Important
It’s a moving story
The eyewitness accounts of survivors paint a vivid picture of the service rendered by the Four Chaplains, who were seen offering prayers even as the ship was sinking. It is clear that their actions were deeply etched in the minds of the troops on the ship and the story still retains its emotional power to this day.
It recognizes selfless service
The day honors the fact that the Four Chaplains laid down their lives to save four others. This gesture of selfless service is worth recalling whenever we have the urge to act selfishly.
It carries the message of one humanity
The Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation states the need to work for all humanity in its mission. The act of the chaplains did not favor any denominations over another even as they offered prayers in their faith. This reminds us of the importance of secular, humanitarian values regardless of how strong our identity may be.
Four Chaplains Day dates