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IMMORTAL CHAPLAINS Nov-11-2002 (880 words) xxxn

'Immortal chaplains' focus of session at veterans' conference

The story of the four "immortal Chaplains" was also told in a 2004 book by Dan Kurzman. (CNS photo)

By Willy Thorn
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Having passed their lifejackets on to sailors, the four military chaplains stood on deck praying as the Dorchester -- torpedoed by a German submarine -- sank into water so cold falling snow piled on the surface.

That was the last sighting of the "Immortal Chaplains," who were held up Nov. 8 as models of selflessness, heroism and ecumenism by a panel of speakers during the fifth annual conference of the World War II Veterans Committee.

The panel included an author, a crew member of the Coast Guard cutter that rescued the ship's survivors, and relatives of the chaplains.

In addition to the panel, a wreath-laying ceremony at the national Navy Memorial and an evensong service were held the previous day to commemorate the four: a Catholic, Father John Washington, a priest of the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J.; a Dutch Reformed minister, the Rev. Clark Poling; a Jew, Rabbi Alexander Goode; and a Methodist, the Rev. George Fox.

On Feb. 3 1942, a German U-boat, the U-233, fired a fan of three torpedoes at the Dorchester, a troop transport ship, according to panelist David Fox, nephew of Rev. Fox. He is also executive vice president and CEO of the Immortal Chaplains Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving their memory.

One of the torpedoes struck the Dorchester's boiler room, sinking the ship in 18 minutes 100 to 150 miles off the coast of Greenland. The location, according to Fox, was "a big staging area for aircraft coming over from the United States ... and a staging point for weather stations (then-Gen. Dwight D.) Eisenhower needed for the invasion of Normandy."

After the torpedo hit, "the chaplains were the first on board to calm the men," Fox said. "(They) found the lockers with lifejackets in them, handed them out and when they ran out, witnesses said that ... the chaplains simply removed their own and placed them on the men. They never asked, 'What religion are you? What race are you?' It didn't matter to them. It was simply an action of compassion and love they extended to their fellow human being."

He said the four men "were last seen, as the ship rolled onto its side, standing on the hull of the ship. All joined hands together --with heads bowed -- praying together, each in their own way, as the ship went down with 672 men." It was the third largest loss of life at sea for the United States during World War II.

Richard J. Swanson, who was a crew member of the Coast Guard Cutter Comanche, which rescued 94 survivors, recalled that at 12:55 a.m., he "heard the explosion (on sonar) and reported it."

"We found out later the German ship heard the pinging of our sonar, so they went down to the bottom and laid there for hours and hours," he said.

"But we weren't able to use depth charges because of the men in the water," he added. "We went through acres of men (floating in the water) ... the only ones we could save really were the ones in the rafts and lifeboats" because of the severity of the cold.

Joanne Brunetti said her uncle, Father Washington, "knew from the time he got out of grammar school that his calling was to be a priest."

She remembered him as a "friendly, outgoing, fun-loving" man with a great sense of humor and a love of music who enjoyed working with youths.

"He ran the CYO and ran the youth groups in the parish," she said. "He took young teen-agers who had never been to a Broadway show to matinees just to open up their minds. He was just always trying to do something to make things better for someone else ... and bridge the gap of the generations."

As part of his work with the foundation, Fox interviewed many of the ship's survivors, who said the chaplains overlooked divisiveness.

"In 1943," he said, "Catholics didn't talk to Protestants, let alone either of them talking to a Jew. So these men were many, many years ahead of their time."

Panelist Dan Kurzman said he had trouble sparking publishers' interest in a book he is writing on the chaplains until after Sept. 11, 2001, when "the whole national theme was brotherhood," he said. "Everybody's got to be united, no matter who you are. No matter what religion you are, no matter what color you are. We're all Americans, we're all brothers."

He said he told publishers "a Jew, a Catholic and two Protestants who all love each other and their men and all go down in the supreme sacrifice ... that's a perfect example of brotherhood!

"If you didn't know it happened, you'd think it was out of some incredible novel," he said. "But it's not just another fairy story. This is a real story of human beings being true brothers."

Kurzman said he hopes the book showcases this sense of love and fraternity, "particularly at this time, when everyone ... feels we have to be together to do something about this terrible terrorism and threat to humanity and America. What better time is there to know the story of the four chaplains?"


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This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or otherwise distributed.
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