Colorado chaplains remember the 'immortal 4'

By ERIN PRATER | The (Colorado Springs, Colo.) Gazette | Published: February 4, 2013

At 12:55 a.m. Feb. 3, 1943 -- 70 years ago -- a German torpedo detonated against the hull of the USS Dorchester.

The ship was steaming through the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, headed to an American military base in Greenland, then on to Europe.

Aboard the ship were 902 troops and civilians.

As the Dorchester foundered, four Army chaplains distributed life jackets and assisted passengers in boarding lifeboats.

When the life jackets ran out, they gave theirs away.

When undamaged lifeboats were full, they prayed with those who would die in the icy waters.

Minutes later, the ship slipped into the depths of the icy sea.

Two-thirds of those aboard died, including the four chaplains -- Army Lt. George L. Fox, Methodist; Army Lt. Alexander D. Goode, Jewish; Lt. John P. Washington, Roman Catholic; and Lt. Clark V. Poling, Dutch Reformed.

As the Dorchester sank, the chaplains were seen praying together, their arms linked.

Later recounting the incident, a survivor said, "It was the finest thing I have ever seen this side of heaven."

The chaplains were posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross.

Though politicians attempted to secure the Medal of Honor for each, the men were denied because their actions were performed not "under fire" but after the torpedo attack.

In 1960, Congress created a special medal intended to have the same significance: the Four Chaplains' Medal. It was awarded to the men and given to their families in 1961.

Below are the stories of three military chaplains in Colorado Springs who aspire to follow in the footsteps of the immortal four chaplains. Each has been inspired by their story, which is often told at military chaplain schools.

Tech Sgt. Scott Devine
Peterson Air Force Base

When Tech Sgt. Scott Devine joined the Air Force 12 years ago, he was an aircraft mechanic.

But he felt like he was made for more.

"I went from maintaining aircraft to maintaining people," said Devine, a chaplain's assistant.

Devine first heard the tale of the four chaplains six months into his new job.

"I got to meet a guy who was on the ship," he said. "It was neat to hear his story and testimony about who the chaplains were. They were known as symbols of peace, support and joy.

"It sounded like they were amazing guys -- easy going, easy to communicate with, positive role models."

Hearing the chaplain's stories inspired Devine to persevere in his field, even when he doesn't immediately see the fruits of the proverbial seeds he sows.

"As chaplains, you don't always see the final product," he said. "I worked in maintenance, and I was able to see that when I fixed an aircraft, it flew.

"Here, you never see it, but you never stop trying to get that final product. You keep a positive outlook and hopefully are able to influence others to keep a positive outlook as well."

That positive outlook helped to earn Devine the Spirit of the Four Chaplains Award in 2011.

His superior, Chaplain Capt. Eric Harp, nominated Devine for his work during a 2010 deployment to Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan.

According to a recommendation letter from Harp, Devine had devised a plan to visit units in dangerous, geographically dispersed areas within two days of arriving in theater.

Within a week, Devine and Harp were providing pastoral care to often-overlooked units. He also arranged an airlift to visit a pararescue unit that frequently recovered wounded troops and engaged in firefights, Harp wrote.

Lt. Col. Howard Fields
Fort Carson

Near the end of Chaplain Lt. Col. Howard Fields' time in rabbinical school, he surveyed his options.

"I'd already served in the Israeli Defense Forces," Fields said. "I was familiar with armies. And so I decided to go into the U.S. Army. I felt I could do more teaching and being a rabbi to American Jews than in Israel."

Fields first learned of the four chaplains during Army chaplain school in New Jersey in the 1970s.

He was particularly inspired by the maturity of Goode.

"Rabbi Goode was 32," Fields said. "It's overwhelming that such a young man could make such an awesome decision to go down with the ship. We like to think a decision like that is comprised of all the small decisions and brings out the best in you."

Fields said he has used the story while teaching others, especially on the anniversary of the incident.

"It's such a good multifaith story where you have a priest, two Protestant chaplains and a rabbi," he said. "We work in a very multifaith environment and work very closely with chaplains of all religions."

Fields said he's equally inspired by the story of Chaplain Maj. Charles Watters, who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery exhibited during the Vietnam War, particularly for rescuing wounded men during the Battle of Dak To.

"He said, 'Use morphine on other people; don't use it on me,' " Fields said. "He was extraordinarily selfless and brave."

But all military chaplains are selfless, said Fields, who has deployed numerous times to Iraq and Afghanistan.

"All of us, when we get in a helicopter and fly over hostile territory and get shot at, put ourselves in harm's way," he said.

Capt. Jeremie Vore
Fort Carson

Capt. Jeremie Vore knew he wanted to be an Army chaplain since high school.

"There was no epiphany moment," Vore said. "Nobody knocked at my door. There were no voices from heaven. No light bulb moment. No voices.

"That goal became my calling."

In 2011, Vore graduated seminary and entered Army chaplain school, where he first heard the story of the four chaplains.

"I remember appreciating the heritage and the legacy of a strong witness," he said.

Vore, a Lutheran, found an instant similarity between the martyrs of the Protestant Reformation and the four chaplains, who willingly gave up their lives.

For Vore, the chaplains' tale has reinforced how important it is for chaplains to be out among their parishioners.

"Those guys were on a boat with their soldiers in a difficult and dangerous place," he said. "They were not taking the easy way out. They were where bad things were happening, and that's why they were able to be of service in a bad time."

During a recent deployment to Afghanistan, Vore spent much of his time with his soldiers in difficult and dangerous places.

"By being present, I made myself more accessible and available to soldiers rather than staying in my office and waiting for people who have big crises to come to me," he said.

During the deployment, some of his fellow chaplains were stationed in an area of Afghanistan more dangerous than the area he was stationed in.

"It would have been easy or natural to hunker down or stay on the base that they lived on and barely leave," he said. "That was not the way they operated, not the way they responded to their call.

"They very selflessly circulated the battlefield every week, going to dangerous places to bring their ministry and counseling experience to soldiers at the very edge of the battlefield."

He finds the work of those chaplains, as well as the four chaplains, inspiring.

"They provide me with a vision for what 'right' looks like," he said.

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