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When 4 Chaplains from Different Faiths Gave Their Lives for Others

In 1943, a World War II American transport ship, the SS Dorchester, was struck midship by a torpedo fired from a German submarine. Over 900 people — many young soldiers far from home for the first time in their lives — were on board. In the dead of night chaos ensued as the ship quickly began to sink and individuals rushed to find life jackets and lifeboats. Over 600 died that night while some 230 were rescued.

There were four chaplains on board: Catholic Father John Washington, Methodist Rev. George Fox, Jewish Rabbi Alexander Goode, and Reformed Church Rev. Clark Poling. Each one consciously chose to preach courage and calm, to soothe, direct and assist panicked passengers, and to give up his life vest to a frightened soldier when the supply of life jackets ran out.

Those four chaplains linked arms on the ship’s deck and joined in prayer to God as the ship went down. They willingly gave their lives that others might live.

One survivor, Navy officer John J. Mahoney, described, in the War College official record, that his initial response, while others fled toward the lifeboats, was to return to his quarters to get his gloves — fearing he might need added warmth if he jumped into the frigid, frothing seas 100 miles off the coast of Greenland. He was met by one of the chaplains, Rabbi Goode, who stopped him and asked where he was going. When Mahoney described his determination to retrieve his gloves, the rabbi told him he could have his. When Mahoney stated he didn’t wish to deprive the rabbi of his gloves, Goode calmly explained he had two pairs, gave his to Mahoney and re-directed him to the deck. Dazed amidst the confusion, Mahoney explained that only later did he realize Rabbi Goode did not have an extra pair.

Many others shared accounts of the selfless sacrifice of these four chaplains, who were later immortalized on a 1948 first-class 3-cent postage stamp (see "Real heroes: Four died so others might live," by Bob Greene, published on cnn.com, Feb. 3, 2013). 

One can only begin to imagine the gratitude felt by Mahoney toward Rabbi Goode. I cannot speak personally for Mahoney, but if it were me I imagine feelings of love and gratitude would fill my heart whenever I thought of him accompanied by a desire to somehow pay forward his selfless, supreme act.

And while there are few people on earth who lay claim to the fact that someone died so they could live, yet the compelling reality is that every single person who has, does or ever will live on earth can make that claim — and should feel and demonstrate corresponding gratitude.

The words of the Charles H. Gabriel hymn, “I Stand All Amazed,” ("Hymns," No. 193)remind us:

1. I stand all amazed at the love Jesus offers me,/Confused at the grace that so fully he proffers me./I tremble to know that for me he was crucified,/That for me, a sinner, he suffered, he bled and died.

2. I marvel that he would descend from his throne divine/To rescue a soul so rebellious and proud as mine,/That he should extend his great love unto such as I,/Sufficient to own, to redeem, and to justify.

3. I think of his hands pierced and bleeding to pay the debt!/Such mercy, such love and devotion can I forget?/No, no, I will praise and adore at the mercy seat, Until at the glorified throne I kneel at his feet.

Refrain: Oh, it is wonderful that he should care for me/Enough to die for me!/Oh, it is wonderful, wonderful to me!

Our debt to the Savior Jesus Christ can never be repaid. Throughout his entire perfect life his goal was to do his Father’s will, and out of his love for us “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” through his great atoning sacrifice (Moses 1:39). That understanding alone — ever in our heart — would do wonders in encouraging personal humility, love, care and gratitude for the Savior and for our brothers and sisters on earth.

Lead image a painting of the rescue of USAT Dorchester survivors by U.S. Coast Guard cutter Escanaba on Feb. 3 1943 in the North Atlantic Ocean, Wikimedia Commons

Kristine Frederickson writes on topics that affect members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She teaches part-time at BYU. Her views are her own. Email: kfrederickson.desnews@gmail.com

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