When George Washington took command of the Continental Army on July 29, 1775, there were already 15 chaplains working within the 23 regiments as unpaid volunteers. The Continental Congress immediately saw the need for their service and authorized a chaplain for each regiment, and for each to be paid at the rate of a captain. On Nov. 28, 1775, the Continental Navy followed suit and also added the position of navy chaplain to its ranks. Officially, the chaplains were recognized as either Protestant or Jewish during this first transition into the military.
It wasn’t until the war with Mexico that any changes were made to add another faith, and at that time chaplains of the Catholic faith were added to the existing Protestant and Jewish faiths recognized by the Chaplain Corps.
The first chaplain to give his life in the service of our country was Navy Chaplain John Lenhard. On March 8, 1862, Chaplain Lenhard was onboard the USS Cumberland when it was rammed and sunk at Newport News. Since his death, many brave men, serving as chaplains have also fallen in or because of combat. Chaplains are officially listed as non-combatants, but the bullets, bombs and explosions do not honor rules written on paper by politicians. Unfortunately, when the greatest need for a chaplain exists, so does the greatest threat to life.
Many chaplains have made the supreme sacrifice in these times in order to save others. During WWII, one of the greatest examples of this act was by a group of four chaplains aboard a ship The U.S.A.T. Dorchester. This was a former luxury liner that had been converted to a troop carrier and was near Greenland in a convoy of three ships on Feb. 2, 1943. Onboard were 902 passengers and crew. Unknown to them, a German U-boat was patrolling in the area, and spotted them through the periscope at 12:55 a.m. The captain of the U-boat ordered the torpedoes readied in the tubes and fired three in a fan pattern. One of these hit the Dorchester amidships, deep under the water line.
The ship immediately began to take on water, and there was no doubt it was sinking. Even though the ship had been only 150 miles from its destination, the captain of the Dorchester had previously given orders for all aboard to continue wearing their life jackets. As is usual, there were some who chose to disobey his orders and did not do so.
Men were injured, dying and panicking when the four chaplains went into action. Even though this was their first action, these men did not hesitate to begin helping those who needed it. Lt. George L. Fox, Lt. Alexander D. Goode, Lt. George P. Washington and Lt. Clark V. Poling were all of different faiths, but were all chaplains doing their jobs.
They were assigned to hand out life jackets to those who did not have one from the lockers on deck. When the supply ran out, these men did not skip a beat and gave their own to the men standing on deck, knowing what the consequences would be, and they did this willingly.
One of the survivors who was watching from the water and saw their actions called it “the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven.” Other survivors watching from the life rafts in the water reported seeing the four chaplains standing on the deck, arms locked together and offering their prayers as the ship went down.
There was a great loss of life, but it would have been greater except for the efforts of the four men who gave their own lives so that others could live. Of the 902 aboard, only 230 survived.
The chaplains became known as the Four Chaplains, and although not eligible for the Medal of Honor, were given a special medal, known as the Four Chaplains Medal by act of Congress after the War. In 1988, on February 3 was established by a unanimous act of Congress as an annual “Four Chaplains Day.”
Kind of gives a new meaning to the phrase, “Take it to the chaplain,” doesn’t it.
American Legion Post 145 in Douglasville hosts a re-enactment of this event annually on the Saturday preceding Four Chaplains Day. The public is invited to attend.
Robinson, a Vietnam veteran and member of American Legion Post 143 in Carrollton, writes weekly column on veterans issues for the Times-Georgian.