By Joanne Bailey-Boorsma
The story of four chaplains who went down with their ship has served as an inspiration for Wyoming resident Harriet Sturim, so much so that for the past several years she has been part of the Grand Rapids’ American Legion Post 459’s annual memorial of the World War II heroes.
“We do it because we want to keep the story of these four chaplains alive, because each time you here their story, you learn something from it,” Sturim said.
It is the story of Father John P. Washington, Reformed Church Rev. Clark V. Poling, Rabbi Alexander D Goode and Methodist Rev. George L. Fox and their actions on a on cold Feb. 3 day in 1943. These actions have been so revered that a 3-cent postage stamp in their likenesses was issued, Congress set aside Feb. 3 as Four Chaplains Day, and honored the four posthumous with a Special Medal for Heroism, The Four Chaplains’ Medal, which has never been given since.
The story, according to survivors and those who knew the four men, is that Washington, Poling, Goode, and Fox were all drafted as chaplains to serve during World War II. The four met and became friends at Harvard Divinity School where they were sent for training before entering the war.
The friendship was unusual, according to Struim, because in the 1940s people tended to stay within their own social group. “If you were Catholic you stood within your enclave of Catholics and if you were Jewish, it was the same,” Sturim said. “There was very little crossover.”
They were assigned to the U.S. Army transport Dorchester and on Feb. 3, it was in transit to an American base in Greenland when a German U2 submarine fired on the ship, causing it sink.
“The four calmed those on board and personally handed out the life preservers, giving out every one, including their own,” Strum said. “Those who survived remember seeing them on the ship, arm-in-arm, singing as the ship went down.”
For many years, the National American Legion has encouraged posts across the nation to host a Four Chaplains Day event, something that Grand Rapids’ American Legion Post 459 has been doing for the past 14 years.
This year’s event, set for Saturday, Jan. 28, from noon – 2 p.m., will focus on the story of the four chaplains, their friendship and sacrifice. Taking place at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, 303 Pearl St. NW, the event includes the Grand Rapids & District Pipe Band, the Freedom Voices, and guest speaker retired Capt. Paul Ryan, who is the state chair emeritus/military outreach director for the Michigan Committee for Employer Support of the Guard & Reserve.
Refreshments will be served following the service. Struim also noted the Ford Museum will be free to program attendees.