The Four Chaplains’ Day interfaith service at St. Mary’s Catholic Church on Feb. 9 marked the 76th anniversary of when four heroic chaplains died after giving up their life jackets so others might live.
It was the 54th anniversary of what has become an annual tribute by the American Legion to one of the most touching stories of the Second World War and the legacy of the “Four Chaplains.”
Early on the morning of Feb. 3, 1943, the U.S. Dorchester, once a passenger ship that had been converted to a troop transport, was steaming through icy seas off Greenland. Most of those aboard were asleep when a torpedo from the German submarine U-223 smashed into the ship’s flank.
The four Army chaplains aboard – all first lieutenants – Clark V. Poling, George L. Fox (both Protestant ministers), Alexander D. Goode (a rabbi) and John P. Washington (a Catholic priest) – began passing out life jackets and organizing an evacuation of the 902 soldiers, merchant seamen and civilians on board.
When the life jacket supply ran out, the chaplains removed their own and gave them to others. They then linked arms, sang hymns and prayed until they went down with the ship.
The four were awarded the Purple Heart and Distinguished Service Cross posthumously.
In 1988, a unanimous act of Congress established Feb. 3 of each year as “Four Chaplains Day.”
“Most American Legion Four Chaplains’ services are held on Feb. 3, which marks the actual anniversary of the sinking of the Dorchester. We draw so many statewide officers we decided to hold ours on Feb. 9 so we don’t interfere with any of the other services,” said Cheryl Ing of the state headquarters of the American Legion Department of California in Sanger.
Mayor Frank Gonzalez welcomed the diverse audience from all parts of the state to Sanger. Many in the audience wore hats with military designations and insignia and lapel pins from various veterans’ organizations. Several were in wheelchairs or used walkers or canes. Some wore vests with their veteran organization’s name and post number on the back.
Music for the event was provided by the Sanger High School Concert Choir trio of Roberto Zamora, Marcos Espinoza and Natalie Zamudio-Pita and by Efren Rubio, organist and soloist.
Sanger High NJROTC cadets Mandeep Singh, Jose Guzman, Roman Ortega and Jacob Xiong represented the crew members of the U.S. Dorchester who received life jackets from Lionel Moreno, Robert Heinisch, Rev. Lambert Sikkema and Lt. Keith Ritter who represented the original Four Chaplains during the ceremony.
American Legion representatives involved in the ceremony were: District 12 Sons of the American Legion (SAL) Color Guard composed of David Smith Sr., John Saenz, Roy Santiago and Walt Butler; Department Sgt. at Arms Erick Kurtz; American Legion Auxiliary District 14 President Geni Lefler and Chaplain Barbara Novak; Department Chaplain John Aldredge; Department Commander Larry Leonardo; and Chaplain of District 14 Mike Brogden.
A reception following the ceremony was hosted by the American Legion Department of California and the American Legion Auxiliary, District 14.