Jesus told us in John’s gospel, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:12-13)
Jesus not only said the words, but he also showed the extent of his love by dying on the cross for us.
In preparing a talk on military chaplains, I came across the true story of heroic clergymen who followed Jesus’ teaching on love. They were known as “The Four Chaplains.” These four U.S. Army Chaplains were all new recruits. When World War II broke out, they volunteered to serve their country as military chaplains. They included a Methodist minister, the Rev. George L. Fox, Rabbi Alexander D. Goode, a Roman Catholic priest, Father John P. Washington, and a Dutch Reformed Church in America minister, the Rev. Clark V. Poling.
Their backgrounds, personalities, and faiths were completely different. They met at the Army Chaplains School at Harvard University, where they prepared for their assignments in the European theater. They sailed aboard the U.S. transport ship the Dorchester to report to their new assignments.
They boarded the Dorchester, a 5,649 ton converted civilian cruise ship, that left New York on Jan. 23, 1943, en route to Greenland, carrying the four chaplains and approximately 900 others. The four chaplains spent their time calming nervous young soldiers even putting on evening variety shows to help pass the time.
The ship’s captain, Hans J. Daniels, had been alerted that Coast Guard sonar had detected a submarine in the area. German U-boats were monitoring the sea lanes and had attacked and sunk ships earlier during the war. Captain Danielsen had the ship’s crew on a state of high alert even before he received that information, ordering the men to sleep in their clothing and keep their life jackets on. Many soldiers sleeping deep in the ship’s hold disregarded the order because of the engine’s heat. Others ignored it because the life jackets were uncomfortable.
On Feb. 3, 1943, at 12:55 a.m., the German submarine U-223 torpedoed the vessel off Newfoundland in the North Atlantic. The torpedo knocked out the Dorchester’s electrical system, leaving the ship in the dark. Panic set in among the men and many of them were trapped below the decks. The chaplains sought to calm the men and organize an orderly evacuation of the ship, and helped guide wounded men to safety.
As they passed out life jackets to the men, the supply ran out before each man had one. The chaplains removed their own life jackets and gave them to others. One witness said, “It was the finest thing I have ever seen this side of heaven.” They helped as many men as they could get into lifeboats. Then they linked arms and, saying prayers and singing hymns, went down with the ship.
In all, 230 of the 904 men aboard the ship were rescued. Life jackets offered little protection from hypothermia, which killed most men in the water. The water temperature was 34 degrees and the air temperature 36 degrees. By the time additional rescue ships arrived, hundreds of dead bodies were seen floating on the water, kept up by their life jackets.
Civitan International, a worldwide volunteer association of service clubs, holds an interfaith Clergy Appreciation Week every year. The event honors the sacrifice of the Four Chaplains by encouraging citizens to thank the clergy that serve their communities.
We become loving persons by choosing to become one. We do not allow other people to decide how we are going to live. This takes constant work to become an actor instead of a reactor. Always choose love.