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Aberdeen / Havre De Grace
News Maryland Harford County Aberdeen / Havre De Grace

'Four Chaplains' remembered during Aberdeen service

As a distant relative of Army Chaplain Rev. Clark V. Poling, Jamey Struve of Bel Air is well versed in the events of the early hours of Feb. 3, 1943, when her mother's cousin and three of his fellow chaplains on the U.S. troop transport Dorchester sacrificed their lives for those of their fellow troops as the ship sank after being torpedoed by a German submarine.

On Saturday morning, she and her husband John had the opportunity to attend a memorial service honoring Rev. Poling and the three other chaplains, who are known collectively as the "Four Chaplains." The service was held at the Bernard L. Tobin American Legion Post 128 in Aberdeen.

"It was lovely," Struve said of the service, which she said she learned about through an article in The Aegis. "It was lovely."

The service was called the North Central District Four Chaplains Memorial Service and was the first held at the Legion's district level. The district encompasses American Legion posts in Harford, Baltimore and Howard counties.

Rev. Poling, who was 32, was Struve's mother Bernice Poling's first cousin. He died along with Rabbi Alexander D. Goode, 31; Rev. George L. Fox, 42, and Father Johnny P. Washington, 3. U.S.A.T. Dorchester.

The U.S.A.T. Dorchester was being escorted by three Coast Guard cutters in a convoy on a route between Newfoundland and an Army base in Greenland. She carried 902 troops, civilian workers and crew members. In all, 672 people died from either the torpedo attack, drowning or hypothermia, and 230 were rescued.

The ship sunk in less than 20 minutes, and witnesses reported that the chaplains were giving out life jackets when they realized there were not enough for everyone on board.

They took their life jackets off and gave them to the next four people in line. The chaplains also worked to keep the people on the ship calm and could be seen singing and praying with their arms linked as the vessel went down.

Selfless sacrifice

The story of the Four Chaplains is held up as an example of selfless sacrifice and interfaith cooperation among members of the Catholic, Jewish and Protestant faiths.

"They sacrificed their lives so that four young soldiers had a chance to live, and when I think about that it really touches my heart," the Rev. W. Lewis Geigan, chaplain for Post 128, said in his opening remarks Saturday.

Members of each chaplain's faith read a short biography of each man and rang a bell in his honor.

Mary McCann, commander of the American Legion in Harford County and chaplain for the American Legion Riders Post 17 of Edgewood, who is Jewish, read for Goode.

Rev. John McElwee of Grace Assembly of God in Bel Air, who is the founding pastor for the church's El Camino Spanish-language ministry, read for Fox.

Army Chaplain Father Jonathan Morse, of the Perry Point VA Medical Center in Perryville, read for Washington.

Rev. Jeffrey Ellwood, pastor for the Evangel Assembly of God in Aberdeen and a member of the Sons of the American Legion Post 128, read for Poling.

No 'special favors'

Ellwood said Poling told his father, Daniel Poling, who was a military chaplain during World War I, that he did not want his father to pray for his "safe return."

"Many will not return and to ask God for special favors would be unfair. . . . Just pray that I will do my duty and something more," Ellwood quoted Poling as saying. "Pray that I shall never be a coward; pray that I shall have the strength and courage and understanding of men, and especially pray that I shall be adequate."

Two members of the Legion post then lit a candle by the chaplain's picture and draped a black ribbon over crosses set up for Fox, Poling and Washington and a Star of David for Goode.

Chaplain Lt. Col. Jerry Owens, command chaplain at Aberdeen Proving Ground, was the keynote speaker.

"On that day of destiny, having served beside soldiers and seen their sacrifices, when it was their responsibility, or their opportunity, to step forward and to show the full measure of their love, for again greater love has no man than to lay down his life for his friend or his brother, they stepped forward because they were surrounded by that great cloud of witnesses," Owens said.

Owens noted that "if they were to step back from that responsibility they would not be worthy of the men and the women that they serve."

"I will tell you, to serve as a military chaplain you have the unique opportunity and the unique responsibility to step into the middle of that suffering," he explained. "You go onto the battlefield with the soldier; you sleep on the ground next to the soldier; you get up in the morning and you do PT (physical training) with the soldier, and I've always been awed by their level of commitment."

Part of family history

Struve said after the service that the story of the Four Chaplains is "part of our family history; that was a story we were told quite often."

She said members of her family have a number of materials related to the sinking, including an article from the time of the tragedy.

Struve, 73, grew up in Michigan and has lived in Maryland since 1959. She and her husband moved to Bel Air in 1976 to "become a little more rural."

"We live out on Edwards Lane when it was just a little tiny dirt road," she said.

She said she "experienced the same feeling" during Saturday's service as she experienced visiting Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, seeing the memorial to the sailors who were killed during the Dec. 7, 1941, surprise Japanese air attack and thinking of all the sailors who remain entombed in their sunken ships.

Struve also recalled experiencing World War II as a child in Flint, Mich., with blackout curtains covering the windows of her family home, air wardens walking the streets and flattening tin cans for recycling by the military.

"There are a lot of us out there that remember those things," she said.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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