An artist's depiction of the last moments of the Four Chaplains before the ship sank.

A very unique Memorial Day service was held at American Legion Post 49 in Orange this year. Students from the Orange Campus of the Tekoa Academy told the story of the Four Chaplains.

The Tekoa Academy is composed of students from Pre-K to sixth grade.

They are students at a charter school that promotes academic excellence through accelerated studies. It was evident from their conduct and presentation of the story of the Four Chaplains that they put much effort in everything they prepared for Memorial Day.

Orange Campus principal Harriet DeRoune is a member of American Legion Post 49. In the past she had been a member of another Post that had done the Four Chaplains Memorial Day presentation. That Post no longer conducted the service and DeRoune had joined Post 49 so she approached Marv Howland, a retired U.S. Army chaplain and asked about the possibility of her students beginning the tradition in Orange. Howland agreed that it would be a worthwhile project so Deroune then asked the leadership of Post 49 about hosting the project. John Ochs, Post Commander and Gary Alford, Post Adjutant were excited to be the host for the group.

In a short period of time an impressive ceremony was put together. The story of the Four Chaplains has been told many times at many ceremonies on Memorial Day and on February 3, the day designated as Four Chaplains Day. This ceremony presented by students in grades one through six was impressive for both its simplicity and reverence.

World War II to an elementary school student has to be as ancient as the Roman Empire to an adult. The Tekoa students had done a yeoman’s job of study about their subjects. The story of the four chaplains is one of the most heroic of the war years and perhaps not one of the best known.
There were four Army chaplains aboard the troop transport U.S.A.T. Dorchester when she was torpedoed at 12:55 a.m. on February 3, 1943.

The Dorchester was originally a passenger liner, built in 1926, to carry 326 civilian passengers and 90 crew. She had been converted to serve as a troop transport that would carry 902 crew, service men, merchant seamen, and civilian workers. The Dorchester was sailing as part of a convoy to an American port in Greenland. The torpedo hit the ship on the starboard side below the waterline amidship. Electricity was immediately lost, the ship went dark. Below deck men were trapped in darkness trying to find their way above decks. Some had life jackets, some did not.

Lt. George L. Fox was a Methodist minister, Lt. Clark V. Poling was a minister in the Reformed Church of America, Lt. Father John P. Washington was a Catholic priest, and Rabbi Lt. Alexander D. Goode was of the Jewish faith. The four chaplains had met each other in Army Chaplain School and were on board the Dorchester going to their assignments in Europe as were the troops aboard. The four chaplains began to do anything they could to try to encourage and comfort the frightened men. They passed out life jackets to those that had none and when the jacket supply was exhausted, they removed their own life jackets and passed them out to men who had none.

One witness, Private William B. Bednair was floating in oily water surrounded by dead bodies and debris. “I could hear men crying, pleading, and praying,” Bednair recalls. “I could also hear the chaplains preaching courage. Their voices were the only things that kept me going.”

Petty Officer John J. Mahoney tried to reenter his cabin but was stopped by Rabbi Goode. Mahoney told Goode he had forgotten his gloves and his hands were very cold. “Never mind, I have two pairs,” Goode told him. He then took off his gloves and gave them to Mahoney. Later Mahoney realized that Goode was not carrying two pairs of gloves; he had already decided that he would not be leaving the Dorchester.

Survivor John Ladd saw the four chaplains taking their life jackets off and handing them to four frightened young soldiers. “It was the finest thing I have seen this side of Heaven, “said Ladd.
As the ship sank survivors in nearby life rafts could see the four chaplains, standing with their arms linked and braced against the slanting deck. Their voices could be heard offering prayers, some in Latin by Washington, and some in Hebrew from Rabbi Goode, along with those in English by Fox and Poling.

It only took 27 minutes for the ship to sink after it was torpedoed. The three accompanying Coast Guard Cutters moved in and began rescue efforts.

Of the 902 aboard the Dorchester only 230 survived. When the news reached America, the nation was stunned by the magnitude of the loss and by the heroic conduct of the four chaplains.

On Dec. 19, 1944 the Distinguished Service Cross and the Purple Heart were awarded posthumously to the next of kin of the chaplains. In 1948 a special stamp was issued by the US Postal Service.

Though deserving of the Medal of Honor, the sacrifice of the four chaplains could not be considered for awarding the medal because the sacrifice was not made “under fire.” Their heroics were after the torpedo had hit the ship.

A Special Medal for Heroism was authorized by Congress and awarded by President Eisenhower on January 18, 1961. The medal was intended to have the same honor attached as the Medal of Honor. To date this has been the only time the medal has been awarded.

The story of the Four Chaplains was read by Jordan Johnson, a fifth grade student at the Tekoa Academy. Jordan read with maturity equal to anyone older who has ever read the story. The other students present were respectfully listening. DeRoune seems to have made strides in educating her students about the sacrifices of veterans of past and present wars.

After Petty Officer Arlene Howland played “Taps” for the Four Chaplains, the students of Tekoa showed another talent. The Tekoa Signing Choir performed two songs; “God Bless the USA” and “Till We Meet Again” by signing along with the sound track.

The Orange Campus of the Tekoa Academy is affiliated with the Port Arthur Campus, which enroll students through the 12th grade. The Tekoa Academy-Orange Campus is located at 1104 N. 14th Street. For information you may call DeRoune at her office: 409-886-0853