In the course of writing the feature in this issue about the Four Chaplains, I stopped several times, walked away from the work and wondered, sometimes aloud, what gives such men the resolve to make the decision to die so that others might live—and, more astonishingly, what allows them to make that decision in the space of a few fleeting minutes while under enormous pressure?
In the seconds before the torpedo from a German U-boat slammed into the hull of their ship in the early morning darkness of Feb. 3, 1943, the Reverends George Fox and Clark Poling, Rabbi Alexander Goode and Father John Washington were below decks trying to get some sleep in the stifling quarters. With the exception of Fox, who was 42, the chaplains were in their 30s, not much older than many of the men to whom they ministered. They were engaging, approachable, friendly and dedicated, and the four got along as well with each other as they did with the soldiers in their care. All were thoroughly committed to their work.
In the first impossibly chaotic moments after the explosion, when the ship was plunged into absolute darkness, toxic gases filled the compartments and men began screaming and fighting each other in an attempt to escape topside, the chaplains were not carried along in the wave of panic, but rather calmed the men near them, kept their heads and found ways out of the blackness and up to the air above. They surely felt terrible fear, but they did not show it. Many survivors said later that they took courage and reassurance from the chaplains’ presence and their evenhanded demeanor as they guided wounded men to safety.
Once topside on the rapidly listing deck, the chaplains busied themselves with locating and distributing life jackets to the petrified men and helping others into lifeboats. And when all the life jackets had been passed out and the lockers were empty, the four men removed their own life jackets and gave them to men who had none. There was no hesitation.
Short minutes before, each of the four men likely were asleep. Now all of them had made a conscious, unspoken decision to die so that others whose names they likely did not know might have a chance to live. Again and again I wondered where such deep and immediate resolve comes from. It is not uncommon for soldiers to give up their lives for their close comrades in battle—men with whom they have trained, lived, suffered and bled—but to choose to drown in the frigid North Atlantic so that a handful of virtual strangers might have a chance at survival is beyond extraordinary.
It is a grace, surely, that can only come from the God to whom all four chaplains were passionately dedicated, and whom they served so well and so gallantly. We owe it to them, and to the faith that animated their collective decision of bravery, to remember.