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Sacrifice of chaplains remembered
Four died during 1943 U-boat attack
Steve Drenkard, right, and son Peyton join in a hymn Saturday during the American Legion Four Chaplains Memorial Service at Parkway Presbyterian Church. - photo by Autumn Vetter

Seventy years ago, four men of God gave their lives to save those of others.

The USAT Dorchester was filled to capacity with servicemen, including four chaplains, as well as merchant seamen and civilian workers, when it was struck by a torpedo from a German U-boat in February 1943 near Greenland.

The chaplains — Rabbi Alexander D. Goode and the Revs. George L. Fox, Clark V. Poling and John P. Washington — attempted to calm the men as the ship was sinking into the Atlantic Ocean, even giving up their own gloves and life jackets.

During a service Saturday honoring the chaplains at Parkway Presbyterian Church, retired U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Charles D. Burnfield noted that they had displayed “selfless acts of courage, compassion and faith.”

“They demonstrated … in their last moments, the interfaith compassion with their relationship with the men and with each other,” Burnfield said.

The memory of the chaplains, who were among the 672 who died in the attack, lives on through events such as the one organized by the American Legion Post 307 and the Legion Auxiliary Unit.

Geoffrey Toman, the junior vice commander for the 9th District American Legion, said the service “commemorates the tragedy that took place 70 years ago.”

“We want to be able to keep it in the minds of the people that these men did die for their country and they died to save their fellow troops,” Toman said. “It’s to keep their memory alive and educate the children about what happened.

“Some of those World War II events sometimes get pushed back, but by doing it this way, we keep it in the mind of the public and we continue to honor the veterans who died for their country.”

In addition to legion and auxiliary members, Boy Scouts, military personnel and spouses attended the ceremony Saturday.

For Barbara McDaniel, whose husband Don is a retired U.S. Army chaplain, it was an emotional event.

“I get emotional, I cry at the flag,” she said. “It’s hard to put into words … but we want to see the heritage of our country carry on, the love of God, country and patriotism.”

The ceremony retraced the lives of the four chaplains, each of whom has been posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and Distinguished Service Cross.

After a short biography of each man was read, a candle was lit in their honor.

Poling was a Baptist minister who, like the other three chaplains, attended the Chaplains School at Harvard. The Ohio native was the son of an evangelical minister who had served as a chaplain in World War I.

Ordained in 1936, Poling was first assigned to a church in Connecticut before becoming a pastor in Schenectady, N.Y.

Goode followed the footsteps of his rabbi father in Brooklyn, N.Y., and was ordained at a synagogue in Indiana after marrying his childhood sweetheart. He was turned away from the U.S. Navy in 1941, but was accepted into the Army a year later.

Pennsylvania native Fox falsified his age to join the military at 17. He was later discharged after earning a Silver Star, Purple Heart and French Croix de Guerre.

After returning home to finish high school, he studied to become a pastor.  In 1942, he joined the Army chaplain service, going into active duty the same day his son, Wyatt, enlisted in the Marine Corps.

One of seven children, Washington grew up as the child of a poor immigrant family in New Jersey, taking on a newspaper route to help earn extra money.

Washington was ordained a priest in 1935, serving at several parishes in his home state before beginning active duty in 1942 as an Army chaplain. He was assigned as chief of the chaplains’ reserve pool.

Phyllis Singleton, president of the Legion Auxiliary Unit 307, said she was touched by the men’s stories.

“They gave their lives,” she said. “They gave their life vests to all the people and kept their spirits up as the ship went down. I did all I could do to not cry during the service.

“We need to keep their memory alive. We don’t want people to forget. We don’t want America to forget.”