Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Real heroes: four died so others might live

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
updated 6:39 PM EST, Sun February 3, 2013
Four military chaplains were on board the World War II military transport ship S.S. Dorchester when it was sunk by a German torpedo on February 3, 1943. As the ship was going down, the men gave their life jackets to young soldiers who had none. Four military chaplains were on board the World War II military transport ship S.S. Dorchester when it was sunk by a German torpedo on February 3, 1943. As the ship was going down, the men gave their life jackets to young soldiers who had none.
HIDE CAPTION
The four chaplains
The four chaplains
The four chaplains
The four chaplains
The four chaplains
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene: On Super Bowl Sunday, football players will be called gutsy, heroic
  • He says for real heroism, look to four WWII chaplains who sacrificed lives on this day in 1943
  • He says the helped young soldiers to safety, giving up life vests, when their ship hit
  • Greene: They went down with ship. Think of them while you're cheering football "heroes"

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story"; "Duty: A Father, His Son, and the Man Who Won the War"; and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen."

(CNN) -- By the end of the Super Bowl on Sunday night, one or more professional football players will be hailed for their valor, for their guts, for their devotion to their teammates.

They will be called heroes.

And more than 100 million people will be watching.

But because, predictably, those laudatory words will be thrown around so casually on Sunday, perhaps we can take a few minutes here to address an act of genuine valor that happened exactly 70 years ago today.

It wasn't televised. There were no sponsors.

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

On February 3, 1943, an Army transport ship called the Dorchester, carrying American soldiers through the icy North Atlantic on their way to serve in World War II, was about 100 miles off the coast of Greenland in rough sea. More than 900 people were on board.

Many of them were little more than boys -- young soldiers and sailors who had never been so far from home. The journey had been arduous already, with the men crammed into claustrophobic, all-but-airless sleeping quarters below deck, constantly ill from the violent lurching of the ship.

In the blackness of night, a German submarine fired torpedoes at the Dorchester.

One of the torpedoes hit the middle of the ship. There was pandemonium on board. The Dorchester swiftly began to sink.

The soldiers and sailors, many of them wakened from sleep by the attack, searched desperately in the dark for life jackets and lifeboats and a route to safety.

With them on the ship were four military chaplains, from four disparate religions.

They were Father John Washington, born in Newark, New Jersey, who was Catholic; the Rev. Clark Poling, born in Columbus, Ohio, who was ordained in the Reformed Church in America; Rabbi Alexander Goode, born in Brooklyn, New York, who was Jewish; and the Rev. George Fox, born in Lewistown, Pennsylvania, who was Methodist.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



In the chaos onboard, according to multiple accounts by survivors of the attack, the four men tried to calm the soldiers and sailors and lead them to evacuation points. The chaplains were doing what chaplains do: providing comfort and guidance and hope.

"I could hear men crying, pleading, praying," a soldier named William B. Bednar would later recall. "I could also hear the chaplains preaching courage. Their voices were the only thing that kept me going."

With the Dorchester rapidly taking on water, there were not enough life jackets readily available for every man on the ship.

So, when the life jackets ran out, the four chaplains removed their own, and handed them to soldiers who didn't have them.

More than 600 men died that night in the frigid seas, but some 230 were rescued. And some of the survivors, in official accounts given to the Army, and in interviews after the war, reported what they saw as the ship went down:

Those four chaplains, men of different faiths but believing in the same God, their arms linked, standing on the deck together in prayer.

WWII love letters: 'Hard to see you go'
Secret WWII code found on dead bird
World War II vet realizes a dream

They had willingly given up their futures, their lives, to try to help the men who had been placed by the Army in their care.

The U.S. Army War College has in its records a narrative of what happened that night. One of the men who survived the sinking of the Dorchester, a Navy officer named John J. Mahoney, is quoted as recalling that before heading for the lifeboats, he hurried in the direction of his quarters.

Rabbi Goode, seeing him, asked where he was going. Mahoney said he had forgotten his gloves, and wanted to retrieve them before being dropped into the cold sea.

Rabbi Goode said that Mahoney should not waste fleeting time, and offered Mahoney his own gloves.

When Mahoney said he couldn't deprive Rabbi Goode of his gloves, the rabbi said it was all right, he had two pairs.

Only later, according to military historians, did Mahoney realize that of course, Rabbi Goode was not carrying an extra pair of gloves. He had already decided that he was going down with the ship.

According to the Army War College account, another survivor of the Dorchester, John Ladd, said of the four chaplains' selfless act:

"It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven."

The story of the four chaplains was quite well known in America for a while; in 1948 a first-class 3-cent postage stamp was issued bearing their likenesses. There are still stained glass windows in some chapels across the U.S. that pay tribute to the four men, including at the Pentagon. But the national memory is short, and they are no longer much discussed. February 3 was, years ago, designated by Congress to be set aside annually as Four Chaplains Day, but it is not widely commemorated.

This Super Bowl Sunday, with its football heroes whose televised exploits are bracketed by commercials for beer and corn chips, will be no exception. The nation's attention, this February 3, will be focused on the game.

But perhaps, at some point in the day, we can pause for a moment to reflect upon what valor and courage and sacrifice really mean. How rare they truly are.

And to recall the four men who remain, in the words with which their grateful and humbled country honored them on the front of that long-ago postage stamp, "these immortal chaplains."

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:37 AM EDT, Tue October 28, 2014
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
updated 7:45 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
updated 3:04 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
updated 8:32 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
updated 7:19 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
updated 8:12 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The Swedes will find sitting on the fence to be increasingly uncomfortable with Putin as next door neighbor, writes Gary Schmitt
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The Ottawa shooting pre-empted Malala's appearances in Canada, but her message to young people needs to be spread, writes Frida Ghitis
updated 9:48 PM EDT, Sat October 25, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT