The VFW Post at Vinton was the setting of the latest memorial service to the “Four Chaplains,” who, after giving their life jackets to others, perished in the sinking of the troop ship Dorchester in 1943.

“As I swam away from the ship, I looked back. The flares had lighted everything. The bow came up high and she slid under. The last thing I saw, the Four Chaplains were up there praying for the safety of the men. They had done everything they could. I did not see them again. They themselves did not have a chance without their life jackets.” — Grady Clark. 

These are the words of a survivor of the sinking of the USAT Dorchester. The transport ship was enroute to Greenland from Newfoundland. At the time it was torpedoed by a German submarine it was only 15 miles from the coast of Greenland and the protection of Allied air cover. The sinking of the Dorchester cost the lives of 672 of the 904 men aboard the ship. It was the third largest loss of life in a single event in World War II. It was also the setting of one of the most selfless acts of heroism of the entire war.
The service was a joint effort with American Legion Post 208, also of Vinton. Members of Post 205 of Bridge City Chaplain Marv and Arlene Howland have been involved in the memorial services for 20 years and formerly conducted the services at Post 205’s former location in Orangefield. This year’s service was attended by Legion members from as far away as Gladewater, Texas and VFW members on the state and national levels. American Legion National Vice Commander, D.T. “Shorty” Simmons, of Vidor, was in attendance, as were many notable members of the VFW and Louisianastate legislators. Boy Scout Troop 23 of Orange assisted with parking duties and posted and retired colors for the service. Master of ceremonies for the service was Arthur E. Broussard, retired Air Force colonel. 

Keynote speaker was American Legion mational chaplain the Rev. Larry Vollink, a native of Grand Rapids, Mich., who served in the Chaplains Corps from 1980-92 and in the reserves until his retirement in 2000. He holds the Meritorious Service Medal, Army Commendation Medal, Army Achievement Medal and the Air Assault Badge. He has attended all National Chaplains Conferences since 1991, except for one year due to military maneuvers. He has conducted chaplains’ conferences and written articles for “The How-To Chaplains Manual.” 

In closing the ceremony, the VFW Honors Team fired a 21 gun salute and “Taps” was played by Arlene Howland. The latest honor to the four chaplains is the approval of a U.S. coin to be minted in their honor. The coin will be issued in 2014. 

Aboard the Dorchester were Army chaplains Lt. George L. Fox, methodist; Lt. Alexander D. Goode, rabbi; Lt. Clark V. Poling, Dutch Reformed Church; and Lt. John P. Washington, Catholic priest. They were men of different faiths but all had the common goal of service to God and their fellow man. As the ship began to sink they did what they could do to calm and comfort the soldiers and sailors they had become shipmates with. As the men hurried up from below deck, many were not fully clothed and some did not have life jackets. The chaplains stood beside the locker passing out life jackets and when the locker was empty they removed their own life jackets and gave them to the men needing them.

Arlene Howland read the narration and introduced the representatives of the four chaplains who then lit candles in memory of each chaplain and spoke of the chaplains lives and their devotion to their faiths and fellow men. All four of the chaplains had expressed a strong desire to do their military duty to the best of their abilities. Rev. Dale Tatum represented Fox, Joel Steirman represented Goode, Rev. Lee Perkins represented Poling and Marv Howland represented Washington. The empty chairs with crossed dress white gloves and the orange life rings with “Dorchester” stenciled on them were stark reminders of the loss of the four chaplains. 

The official story has it that in 1943, Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer John Mahoney realized he had forgotten his gloves and started back to his cabin to get them. Goode stopped him and said “Take mine, I have two pair.” 

Later, Mahoney realized that a man preparing to abandon ship does not take two pair of gloves. Goode had already decided he was not going to leave the ship. The last view the survivors had of the chaplains as the ship sank was of them standing with linked arms, leading the men grouped around them in prayer and singing. Those who lived have never forgotten the chaplains’ heroism. “It was the finest thing I have ever seen or hope to see, this side of heaven,” said survivor John Ladd. On Dec. 19, 1944, the Distinguished Service Cross and the Purple Heart medals were awarded posthumously to the chaplains’ next of kin. Feb. 3 became Four Chaplains Observance Day, in memorial of the sinking of the Dorchester. By vote of Congress Jan 18. 1961 a Special Medal of Heroism – the only one ever given-was posthumously awarded to the four chaplains. There are numerous chapels and shrines to the four chaplains nationwide. Locally for 20 years there have been memorial services to honor the heroes.