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Why are flags at half staff? Because of 4 Army chaplains

74 years ago today, four faith leaders went down with their ship

When Gov. Dayton said that Minnesota's flags would fly at half staff Friday because of "Immortal Four Chaplains Day" we had no idea what he was talking about.

But by reading his proclamation and poking around a little bit, we learned a story of World War II heroism. There are lots of interesting details at the Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation website, but we'll give you the basics.

The ship

On Feb. 3, 1943, an Army transport ship called the Dorchester was 150 miles off the coast of Greenland when it was torpedoed by a German submarine.

The direct hit meant the Dorchester – a former luxury liner repurposed for Army use – was going down fast. In 18 minutes it would be under the Arctic Ocean's waters.

It was about 1 a.m. and when the captain gave the order to abandon ship, the scene became chaotic. Because of U-boats, the 902 soldiers on board had been advised to sleep in life jackets but most did not because the jackets were uncomfortable.

The chaplains

The four chaplains on board represented different faiths. Lt. George Fox was a Methodist minister, Lt. John Washington was a Catholic priest, Lt. Alexander Goode was a Jewish rabbi, and Lt. Clark Poling was a minister of the Dutch Reformed church.

The chaplains gathered at a storage locker that contained life jackets. They dispensed not only the jackets but also reassuring words and prayers to the terrified young men on the sinking ship.

When there were no life jackets left in storage, each of the chaplains took off the one he was wearing and gave it to a soldier.

The sinking

Many of the 230 soldiers who survived the sinking of the Dorchester were helped by the four chaplains and would go on to tell others about them.

Witnesses said when the men were last seen they had locked arms and each was saying a prayer of his own faith as the Dorchester sank.

Some of the witness accounts were included in the Congressional Record when Congress posthumously bestowed a Purple Heart and Distinguished Service Cross on each of the chaplains.

According to the Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation, Pvt. William Bednar described floating in icy, oily water surrounded by debris and dead bodies and said:

“I could hear men crying, pleading, praying. I could also hear the chaplains preaching courage. Their voices were the only thing that kept me going.”

Tributes

The country has kept the legacy of the four chaplains alive in various ways. In 1960 Congress created a Four Chaplains Medal that was bestowed on the chaplains' next of kin.

Gov. Dayton's proclamation notes that in 1998 Congress declared Feb. 3 to be "Four Chaplains Day" in a resolution that was co-authored by Minnesota Sen. Rod Grams.

On the Sunday closest to Feb. 3 a special service in memory of the Four Chaplains is held at Fort Snelling Chapel, where the chaplains are also commemorated in stained glass windows.

Dayton's proclamation also encourages Minnesotans to use Four Chaplains Day to "show compassion to those of different races or faiths."

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