The Four Immortal Chaplains and the Sinking of the Dorchester in World War II
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A moving, memorable episode in WWII naval history.

Kurzman (Soldier of Peace, 1998, etc.), a former newspaper reporter with an apparent penchant for tragedy-at-sea stories, revisits the sinking of the USS Dorchester, a luxury liner turned troopship. On February 3, 1943, while carrying soldiers and military construction workers to Greenland, the Dorchester came into the sights of a German submarine and was sunk. Most of the 900 men aboard died, but many of the survivors reported that they had been helped to safety by four army chaplains—one Jewish, one Catholic, two Protestant—who met on board and formed fast friendships. One soldier later recalled seeing the four arguing some point of theology in a football-like huddle. “It seemed a strange sight,” Kurzman writes. “They were all of different faiths or denominations, yet they were conferring together as intimately as brothers. It was as if they were all of the same religion.” Moreover, the chaplains forged so close a bond that, by Kurzman’s account, they were disappointed at the chance that they might be assigned to different bases in Greenland. A fine model of ecumenicalism under any circumstance, the four chaplains drowned together after having given up their life jackets to their shipmates. Kurzman chronicles the lives of the four chaplains—Rabbi Alexander Goode, Father John P. Washington, Rev. George L. Fox, and Rev. Clark V. Poling—and those of several survivors; he even draws on the testimony of crew members of the German submarine. He also discusses the changing fortunes of their story: the four were honored with medals and commemorative postage stamps in the 1940s, then quietly forgotten until Senator Robert Dole revived their memory 55 years after their deaths and “helped push through the Senate a unanimous resolution, concurred in the House, to designate February 3 as Four Chaplains Day.”

Carefully detailed and very well narrated: a fine tonic for those weary of sectarian division.

Pub Date: May 18th, 2004
ISBN: 0-375-50877-5
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Random House
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 2004


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