Chaplains have been a part of the United States Army since July 29, 1775, when the Continental Congress adopted a resolution that provided for their pay in service to the troops. But it was not until sixty years later, in 1835, that the Corps was given its branch color of black; the uniform regulations released that year specified that color for Chaplains’ coats.
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The motto of the United States Army Chaplain Corps is “Pro Deo et Patria,” the Latin rendering of “For God and Country.” Choosing a single example of how Army Chaplains have lived out this creed even in the face of imminent danger is a daunting task: Time and again they have sacrificed their lives to serve their fellow Soldiers and countrymen. But perhaps no story is as compelling as that of the “Four Chaplains”—four Corps members, from four different faiths and denominations, who displayed both courage and leadership in the midst of chaos, confusion, and fear.

On January 23, 1943, the SS Dorchester, a civilian liner that had been converted into a troop transport, set sail from New York destined for Greenland. On board were around 900 passengers and crew, including four members of the Army Chaplain Corps: George Fox, Alexander Goode, Clark Poling, and John Washington. Fox was a Methodist minister, Goode a Jewish rabbi, Poling a Reformed Protestant, and Washington a Roman Catholic priest.

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In the early morning hours of February 3, the Dorchester was torpedoed by German submarine U-223 off Newfoundland. Despite warnings from the ship’s captain that all crew and passengers should wear life vests at all times because of warnings of German sub activity, many of them had opted not to do so because they were uncomfortable—but then could not find their floatation devices when the torpedo’s explosion caused the ship’s lights to go out.

The damage caused by the torpedo was extensive. Boiler power was lost and with it the ability to sound the standard signal indicating all hands should abandon ship. The lack of electricity meant that no radio distress signal was sent, and in fact the ship went down so fast—in around 20 minutes—that no rockets or flares were fire to make the transport’s escort vessels aware of the emergency.

Aware that the only hope of survival was an orderly evacuation, the four chaplains helped organize the passengers so that the maximum number possible could be placed in lifeboats, paying special attention to the wounded and making sure each evacuee had a life jacket. When the supply of these was exhausted, all four Chaplains took of their own life jackets and gave them to others.

As the ship went down stern first, survivors turned back to survey the scene—and saw the four Chaplains, arms linked in unity, singing hymns and saying prayers for the safety of the men they had helped escape from the sinking ship.

Although the men who received the Chaplains’ life jackets likely did not survive unless they were quickly pulled from the freezing water into a lifeboat or aboard one of the recue ships that came upon the scene, the selfless sacrifice of the four Army Chaplains set an example of devotion to service and caring for others that will forever be enshrined in the annals of the Army Chaplain Corps.

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