Submitted photo

A painting showing the sinking of the U.S.A.T. Dorchester in 1943.

Congress created the Four Chaplains’ Medal which was presented in 1961 posthumously to members of the chaplains’ families.

COLUMBIA FALLS — On Friday, Feb. 3, Wreaths Across America will honor the American heroes known as “The Four Chaplains” on the 80th anniversary of the sinking of the U.S.A.T. Dorchester with a special live event at 1 p.m. EST, from the nondenominational Balsam Valley Chapel and balsam tip lands located in the Downeast Region of Maine. This event is open to the local public and will be streamed on the organization’s Official Facebook Page and on Wreaths Across America Radio.

The story of these four chaplains, a Catholic, a Jew, and two Protestants, stands out among the countless stories of commitment and bravery that make up the pantheon of the U.S. Army, as one of the finest examples of courage to God, man, and country.  Each, John P. Washington, Alexander D. Goode, George L. Fox, and Clarke V. Poling, was drawn by the tragedy at Pearl Harbor to the armed forces.  Each wanted more than anything else to serve God by ministering to men on the battlefield.  Each felt great disappointment at being relegated to service in a rear area, in this case the airfields and installations of Greenland.  Yet, each, when the moment came, did not hesitate to put others before self, courageously offering a tenuous chance of survival with the full knowledge of the consequences.

On January 23, 1943, the U.S.A.T. Dorchester left New York harbor bound for Greenland carrying over 900 officers, servicemen and civilian workers. The ship was a coastal passenger steamship requisitioned and operated by the War Shipping Administration (WSA) for wartime use as a troop ship. The ship was transiting the Labrador Sea when a German U-boat (U-233) torpedo slammed into the engine room on February 3, 1943. The ship sank and 675 people on board lost their lives. Amidst the chaos to save 230 lives four chaplains guided soldiers trapped below deck to escape hatches and gave away their life jackets to save others on that fateful day. When the chaplains had done all they could, they linked arms to pray and sing hymns as the Dorchester slipped beneath the waves.

In the early morning hours of 3 February 1943, First Sergeant Michael Warish nearly gave up hope as he floated helplessly in the freezing waters of the North Atlantic. He and the almost 900 others aboard the USAT Dorchester were near safe waters.

While on his rounds, First Sergeant Michael Warish observed the chaplains in a “football huddle” engaged in an animated discussion.  Seeing Warish, they asked for his help in getting the message out about religious services and plans for an amateur talent contest, which they hoped would serve as a useful diversion for the troops who had nothing to do except worry while transiting through “Torpedo Junction,” as the stretch of dangerous waters was known.

First Sergeant Warish was rescued.  He recovered from his injuries enough to continue serving the Army, although he suffered chronic pain for the rest of his life.  He rose to the rank of sergeant major before retiring in 1963.  In 2002, he was injured in a car accident and for the remaining year of his life he could only move with the help of a walker. He died in September 2003.

The impact of the chaplains’ story was deep, with many memorials and extensive coverage in the media. Each of the four chaplains was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Purple Heart.[6] The chaplains were nominated for the Medal of Honor but were ineligible as they had not engaged in combat with the enemy. Instead, Congress created a medal for them, with the same weight and importance as the Medal of Honor.

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