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Remembering four chaplains' selfless heroism

For a long time, the story of the four chaplains was everywhere.

In classrooms, posters showed the men of different faiths, arms linked in prayer, braced against the waves engulfing the deck of their torpedoed troop ship on Feb. 3, 1943. They had given their life preservers to frantic soldiers and urged troops paralyzed with fear to jump into the icy North Atlantic before they were sucked down by the sinking ship's whirlpool.

A postage stamp in 1948 honored the two Protestant ministers, the Catholic priest and the rabbi. Streets and schools soon were named after them, a chapel in Philadelphia dedicated to them, books written about them. Testimonials to their self-sacrifice were lavish; President Truman said, "I don't think in the history of the world that there has been anything in heroism equal to this. It was the greatest sermon ever preached."

But 70 years after one of World War II's most celebrated episodes, the story has faded, kept alive these days mainly by veterans groups, history buffs and family members of the 672 men who died in the sinking of the ill-fated Dorchester. Only 230 survived. The last among them died Jan. 12 at age 91.

Aboard the Queen Mary in Long Beach, the tiny Immortal Chaplains Memorial Sanctuary is a reminder that the old luxury liner ferried Allied troops in World War II. A few artifacts sit in display cases: a map, a signal light from a life jacket, a harmonica that belonged to a German submarine officer. The Queen Mary also ferried prisoners of war from the battlefields of Europe to camps in North America.

On a continuous loop, the deep, plummy voice of actor David Fox-Brenton tells the Dorchester's story: "It was to be the third-largest loss of life at sea for the United States in World War II. On board were almost 1,000 men — and four immortal chaplains...."

Fox-Brenton, who lives in Mission Viejo, is a nephew of one of the heroic quartet, Methodist chaplain George Fox. In 2000, Fox-Brenton introduced Dorchester survivors to former crew members of U-223, the Nazi submarine that attacked their ship. One of them, Gerhard Buske, played "Amazing Grace" on his harmonica — an instrument that he had played aboard the sub and later donated to the museum.

"It was a very emotional time," Fox-Brenton said. He started the Queen Mary tribute in 2005 after realizing about a decade before that his uncle and the three others were fast becoming unknowns.

"I was working with veterans at a hospice in Minneapolis and they had never heard of them," he said in a recent interview. "I was astonished. I thought: This story will disappear unless someone does something about it."

That's also what motivates Barry Sax, 73, a retired Department of Defense administrative law judge who lives in Oak Park. He has journeyed to Greenland twice, located a field where some of the disaster's victims were temporarily buried, and befriended men who helped rescue survivors.

"I love the story," he said. "We can't afford to lose it."

The Dorchester, a cruise ship for 300 that was converted into a troop transport for 900, plied a route between Staten Island, N.Y., and Greenland. Most of the soldiers on its final trip were young and inexperienced. Few had any idea they had been assigned to guard desolate mines and airstrips.

It was a rough ride in churning waters. Many of the men became seasick. The chaplains tried to keep their spirits up, conducting services, concocting a talent show and constantly joking.

Coming across some men playing poker, Catholic priest John Washington was asked by one player to bless his hand.

"What?" the father asked in mock outrage. "You want me to waste a blessing on a lousy pair of treys?"

Washington, 34, had cheated on an eye test to join up. Rabbi Alexander Goode, 31, son of a rabbi and a relative of the entertainer Al Jolson, left behind his young family. So did Dutch Reformed minister Clark Poling, 32, a seventh-generation clergyman and son of a fiery evangelist. Fox, 42, the Methodist minister, had lied about his age to enlist in World War I; he was 17 when he received the French Croix de Guerre after giving his gas mask to a wounded soldier.

Eleven nights after the Dorchester's voyage began, a German torpedo ripped open its hull. Men choked on ammonia pouring out of a refrigeration system and drowned as oily seawater poured into their cramped quarters below deck. Many who scrambled out after the 1 a.m. blast were clad only in their underwear, having ignored orders to sleep fully clothed, with life jackets at the ready, while crossing submarine-infested waters.

On deck, the chaplains led dozens of frightened soldiers to a cache of life vests before giving away their own. It took only 20 minutes for the Dorchester to sink. Rescuers on nearby ships saw hundreds of blinking red lights — life jacket signals bobbing beside the corpses of men who had frozen to death in the 34-degree waters 80 miles off Greenland.

The four recipients are unknown, and probably were among the dead.

When word of the clergymen's unity arrived home, it struck a nation where prejudice against Catholics and Jews had been pervasive. Just 10 years before, the National Conference of Christians and Jews sent out the first of its many "tolerance trios" — a rabbi, a priest and a minister preaching interfaith harmony. The first trio had to cancel in Chicago and Cincinnati because local Catholic bishops objected to a shared platform.

The chaplains "came to symbolize an open, tolerant America," said Kevin M. Schultz, who teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago and wrote "Tri-Faith America," a book about the emergence of interfaith efforts in the 20th century. "I think it was a key starting point for what we now call multiculturalism."

Even with the chaplains' example, it was a bumpy road. In 1960, then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy had to defend declining an invitation to a fundraiser 13 years earlier for the Four Chaplains chapel in Philadelphia. The project was led by Daniel Poling, the Dutch Reformed chaplain's father and a nationally known evangelist.

Daniel Poling apparently didn't forget.

"I believe my grandfather was against John Kennedy because Kennedy was a Catholic," said Clark V. Poling, the chaplain's son and a retired art history professor living in Oakland. "There was the notion he'd take orders from the Vatican. It seems like a silly concern now, but we've forgotten what a big deal it was that Kennedy was elected."

Ben Epstein, a retired accountant who lived in Long Beach, N.Y., wasn't talking much about the chaplains in those days.

A vocal opponent of the Vietnam War, Epstein outlived all the other Dorchester survivors. It was only in his 60s that he started to reminisce publicly at elementary schools, a nuclear submarine, veterans halls, practically everywhere he could.

"I ask myself, 'Could I do it? Take off my life preserver and give it to someone else?' Absolutely not!" he told one group. "And I ask you in the audience: How many of you could do it?... That's why I say their heroism, their bravery is beyond belief. That's why we must tell the world what these people did."

steve.chawkins@latimes.com

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