Humanities Commentaries on VPR

Peter A. Gilbert's Look at Life through the Humanities

Four chaplains

This article first aired as a commentary on Vermont Public Radio on October 13, 2003.

On a visit to our former home town, Thetford, Vermont, I noticed something new—and I learned something new about a town I thought I knew pretty well.

In front of the handsome brick Methodist church in town, right beside the Village Store, is a new granite marker. It wasn’t there when I was in town last. I parked, walked over, and read the monument.

It honors four heroes of World War II who became known as the Four Chaplains—two Protestant, a Roman Catholic, and a Jewish chaplain. They became fast friends in chaplain school; several months later, on February 3, 1943, they died when their U.S. Army transport ship, the Dorchester, was torpedoed in the North Atlantic. The ship went down in less than 30 minutes. Of the 902 aboard, 672 were lost. After the chaplains had distributed all the life vests available, they gave their vests to others on board, and were last seen on deck, linked arm in arm in prayer. One eyewitness recalled, “It was the finest thing I have ever seen or hope to see this side of heaven.”

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Three years later, a postage stamp was issued honoring the Four Chaplains and “interfaith action”; in 1960 Congress authorized a Special Medal for Heroism, which is never to be given again; and in Philadelphia, the Chapel of the Four Chaplains encourages “cooperation and selfless service” and “unity without uniformity.” In dedicating the chapel in 1951, President Truman said “that as men can die heroically as brothers so should they live together in mutual faith and good will.”

The oldest of the four—Methodist minister George L. Fox—was from Thetford. When America had entered World War I, he had enlisted in the Marines at 17. Trained as an ambulance driver, he won a Silver Star on the Western Front for rescuing a wounded soldier from a battlefield full of poisonous gas—despite the fact that he had no gas mask. He stood just five feet seven; after Pearl Harbor, Reverend Fox enlisted in the Army the same day his 18-year-old son Wyatt, who survived the war, joined the Marines.

The story is a powerful one, an inspiring one. What an awakening it was for me to learn that from the gentle town of Thetford came this noble man. I wonder, were those four men exceptional, or were they, as it were, ordinary men who exhibited the exceptional potential that we all possess? Which would be a greater tribute to them: for them to be remembered as so heroic as to be made of different stuff than we; or exemplars—inspirations—for us all, not of how to die, but how we might live? Perhaps that is what another clergyman, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. meant when he said, “Everybody can be great, because anybody can serve.”