The diligent efforts of people from Shelton and the rest of the Naugatuck Valley have kept alive – for more than three quarters of a century — the story of four U.S. armed services chaplains who perished during World War II.
The four chaplains were the Rev. George Fox, a Methodist minister from Waits River, Vt.; Rabbi Alexander Goode, a Jewish chaplain from Washington, D.C.; the Rev. Clark Poling, a Reformed Church minister from Schenectady, N.Y; and Father John Washington, a Catholic priest from Newark, N.J. They all perished — along with 672 of their shipmates — when the USAT Dorchester was sunk by a German torpedo off the coast of Greenland on Feb. 3, 1943.
Their stories came to life on Sunday, Feb. 3, — the 76th "anniversary of their sacrifice at sea — in a dramatic program that took place at Shelton’s First Baptist Church. The program was presented by Emil Senger American Legion Post 10, from Seymour, with participation by local American Legion auxiliaries; multiple Knights of Columbus 4th Degree Assemblies; and St. Michael Post 1562 of Catholic War Veterans in Derby.
This was the first time that First Baptist Church was invited to host the program which moves from church to church each year throughout the Valley, marking the yearly anniversary of the chaplains’ deaths at sea. In addition to Post 10, American Legion posts from throughout Fairfield and New Haven counties were well represented at the program.
American Legion Post Commander Michael Kearney described the four chaplains as men who were committed to God “and to the men they served.” He pointed out that they first met at a Harvard University school for armed services chaplains.
“They had nothing in common, but they bonded together quickly,” Kearney said. “The four chaplains found a special kind of unity. They were brothers because they shared the same father.”
When it made its transatlantic voyage, the Dorchester was filled to capacity and for many of its passengers, it was bone-chilling cold even below deck. The North Atlantic was both stormy and riddled with dangerous icebergs: This was the same part of the sea where the Titanic sank in 1912. Yet, the greatest danger was from the presence of German submarines, which had superior radar to track the movements of American ships.
“The prayer of Rabbi Goode could warm the heart of a Catholic soldier, as much as the beautiful singing voice of Father Washington could lift the spirits of the many Protestant and Jewish soldiers and sailors on board the Dorchester,” said the Rev. Russell Lesiw, a retired pastor now attending First Baptist Church of Shelton who has participated in the commemoration for 22 years.
When the torpedo hit the Dorchester’s hull, there was a mad rush for the lifeboats. Some of the 230 people who survived the tragedy recalled the four chaplains assisting people into the lifeboats — and praying and singing with those left behind.
Four members of the American Legion took turns playing fictional remembrances of the four chaplains. They were George Bashura, Jr., as the Rev. Fox; Don Reidy, Sr., as Rabbi Goode; Elwin Jimmo as the Rev. Poling; and James Benanto as Fr. Washington. All four had interesting life stories.
Fox was the eldest of the four and had an 18-year-old son also serving in the military. Goode’s father was a rabbi as well, while Poling was a seventh generation minister. Washington was a former street tough whose family was amazed when he became a priest, and later studied at Harvard.
Kearney noted that the unity and camaraderie among the four chaplains carry an important lesson in contemporary America, where political and religious differences have led to significant discord.
“On that morning in 1943, they gave their all and became an enduring example of faith, courage, and selflessness,” he said. “They paid the highest price so our principles of justice, freedom and democracy could survive.”
The Rev. Kenneth Smith, pastor of First Baptist Church, said the chaplains’ lives — and their deaths — can serve as an inspiration to all Americans.
“Today, we pray that their spirit of cooperation and friendship … will bring us together for the common good,” Smith said. “We thank you, God, for their dedication to the men who served their country and for their willingness to go down with those men they served.”