Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Four Chaplains

As I continue to post a few saint stories in honor of All Saints’ Day on November 1, today I post a saint story to honor American veterans on this Veterans Day, 2010.

For years, Daniel Poling was editor of The Christian Herald magazine. He had raised his children to be faithful to Christ and to the call of Christ in their lives. One December day in 1941, not many days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Daniel's son, Clark Poling, went to Boston to see his father. Clark told his dad that he was going to enlist in the army as a chaplain. Clark was a young man. He and his wife Betty had a son named Corky and one on the way. Clark was a minister of the gospel and had every reason not to go to war. But he felt the tug of God at his heart to go and serve in the chaplaincy. As he visited with his dad about that decision, Clark said, "Dad, I believe in the power of prayers so pray for me. Pray not that I come back but that I shall not be a coward, that I shall do my duty, and even more, pray that I will understand men and be patient. And pray that I shall be adequate for whatever comes." His father began to pray that prayer for his son Clark.

About fourteen months later, on February 3, 1943, the U.S.S. Dorchester was heading across the North Atlantic for England. The ship was loaded with over 900 soldiers. There were also four chaplains on that ship: John Washington (Catholic), Alex Goode (Jewish), George Fox (Methodist), and the focus of this story, Clark Poling (Dutch Reformed). The voyage was going smoothly until just off the coast of Greenland a German U-Boat got the Dorchester in his sights and put a torpedo right in the hull of their ship. Chaos broke loose! "Abandon ship! Abandon ship!" came the order over the loud speakers. A mad scramble for life jackets and lifeboats ensued. The four chaplains quickly organized the men and, without panic, opened the boxes of life jackets and dispensed every one of them. Suddenly, the stark reality of the situation become apparent to the many men who were left on board: there were no more life jackets and no more lifeboats to go around. The four chaplains reacted instinctively: they quietly took off their life jackets, gave them to the first four men they found, and told them to jump. Not long afterward, the ship sunk. In all 678 men died, including the four chaplains.

In the Congressional Record of this incident, there is the testimony of one of the survivors, the ship's Chief Engineer. This is how he described the scene: "I looked and I saw the ship wallowing there. And then I saw the bow come up. I saw standing on the deck the four chaplains—arms linked together, standing on the slippery, slanting deck—praying for us. Suddenly, the ship trembled and sank. And they were gone."

In those last moments as the chaplains stood arm in arm on that sinking ship, I wonder if Clark remembered the prayer he had asked his father to pray: "Pray not that I come back, but that I shall not be a coward, that I shall do my duty; and even more pray that I will understand men and be patient. And pray that I will be adequate for whatever comes."

God answered that prayer. Clark and the other three chaplains were not cowards. They did their duty. They were adequate for what came. There’s something saintly in that spirit, don’t you think—courage, devotion to duty, love of others, and dependence on God to meet the challenge before them? In John 15:13 Jesus said, “Greater love has no man than this: that he lay his life down for his friends.” Jesus did that for us. These four chaplains did that for the men on their ship.

So on this Veterans Day 2010, let’s remember that a lot of other veterans have given their lives for us. Others have sacrificed lengthy tours duty away from family and physical and emotional wounds that never go away. I don't want to take such sacrifices for granted, do you? So join me in giving thanks for all our veterans in general and for these four chaplains in particular, because they model the best of what it means to serve one's country and the best of what it means to serve their God. Happy All Saints Day, Four Chaplains!

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