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The Four Chaplains

11 September 2009 No Comment

Self-sacrifice tale: one for the ages

Just after midnight on Feb. 3, 1943, an act of extraordinary unselfishness by a group of men became a legend of martyrdom and sacrifice.

When the Army ship Dorchester was torpedoed by the Germans just south of Greenland that night, its passengers and crew had 25 minutes to get off the boat. As 902 people went for the life jackets, it quickly was discovered there weren’t near enough. Of the 13 lifeboats, only two functioned.

In the ship’s final minutes, Methodist senior chaplain George Lansing Fox, Rabbi Alexander Goode, Dutch Reformed minister Clark V. Poling and John P. Washington, a Roman Catholic priest, were helping passengers leave the vessel. Then four men appeared, all of them without life jackets.

The chaplains quickly gave up their own vests and went down with the ship, perishing in the freezing water. Survivors saw them, locked arm in arm, praying and singing the Navy hymn, “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” just before the ship dove beneath the waves.

It was a night as dramatic as the sinking of the Titanic but without a blockbuster movie to record the drama.

“The Four Immortal Chaplains,” as they are now known, have been honoured many times, including on a stamp issued in their honor by the U.S. Postal Service. The first Sunday in February is known as “Four Chaplains Sunday.”

In 1954, Warner Bros. planned a movie about the chaplains, with Kirk Douglas, Henry Fonda, Charlton Heston and Glenn Ford slotted for the main roles. How the West Was Won screenwriter James Webb already had a script.

The film was shelved because the studio feared there were too many World War II movies.

Ken Wales, a film producer who co-wrote a 2001 book Sea of Glory about the sinking with David Poling, a cousin to Clark Poling, still thinks the event deserves a movie. Mr. Wales’ father was a classmate of Clark Poling’s at Yale Divinity School, so he feels a connection to the deceased chaplain, who left behind a pregnant wife.

“It is considered by the military as the most fascinating and deeply moving stories of self-sacrifice,” Mr Wales said. “They chose to give up their jackets to those four men. They didn’t have to. No one would have criticised them for not doing so.”

Will such a movie go over in a time when the American public is sick of war?

Yes, if sacrifice is made a major theme, said Mr. Wales, who has a script and is looking for a production company and financing in the neighborhood of $25 million.

“That’s a common element among the faiths “Protestant, Catholic and Jewish,” he said, quoting John 15:13: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

Mr Wales also is writing a script for a sequel to Chariots of Fire, the 1981 film portraying two runners, one Jewish and the other Christian, who compete in the 1924 Olympics. The movie, with a working title of “Wings as Eagles”, will tell how the Christian racer, Eric Liddell, becomes a missionary to China and ends up dying there in a Japanese concentration camp.

“Anybody in the military,” he said, “has a resolve to do their duty and sacrifice their lives if that will achieve the goal of their mission. The most significant example of that is Christ, who gave his life that others might live.”

(This article appeared in the Washington Times earlier this year. It was written by Julia Duin in her column Stairway to Heaven. Duin is the Washington Times’ religion editor. She has a master’s degree in religion from Trinity School for Ministry, an Episcopal seminary.)

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